How Novel Coronavirus Affected Our Manufacturing

First, the FI-16 circuit boards’ bases were manufactured in – you guessed it! – Wuhan China, the region where the novel virus originated. The circuit board bases made it as far as an airport cargo shelf in Hong Kong, where they sat for a couple more weeks waiting for a flight to USA because they were non-essential and non-medical. Essential medical supplies had first priority for aircraft cargo space at the time.

The board bases finally reached the factory in California where the chips get added on, and then they get installed inside the Scouts for final assembly and quality control. Around that time, the factory was also dealing with safety protocols for their staff working from home, disinfection protocols, social distancing, masks and all the rest. I wanted to go to the factory to be hands-on, but domestic USA flights were restricted to essential travelers.

Eventually I got to go to the factory and put hands on. The factory gave me a huge table to myself so I could spread out our circuit drawings and our parts and check everything for labeling, part numbers, wire harness lengths, connectors, etc. Some parts are custom machined in the factory so I needed to see and touch them all.

Ansync is a wonderful factory, very smart people work there, and it’s well-equipped with sophisticated computer-aided machines and diagnostic tools. But we are not the only company having their devices manufactured in that factory, and so their other customers, just like us, decided to have the factory make any components that might have been made in China faster. So the factory got slammed with additional work orders, and all their projects got bigger and needed more people on them.

Everything seems to take longer in a pandemic crisis. USA also had some social unrest (Black lives matter!), and FedEx trucks were delayed on some of their routes, affecting our shipments of parts from our lab inventory in Baton Rouge to California.

Stay safe, and talk to your loved ones whenever you can 📞.

To AMIA and Beyond

Maybe you heard about our new film inspection tools at AMIA this year or last. Maybe you heard about them afterwards. Maybe you discovered them on our website first. Anyway, here’s the story of our AMIA exhibition and beyond.

In October we delivered our 16mm film inspection system to Northeast Historic Film in Maine. Cataloger Emma let us observe and she talked to us about the experience. We call Northeast Historic Film our beta site. The whole point of the exercise was to learn from its use in real life. Get out of the lab.

We brought the FI-16 to AMIA and rented a conference room where we invited moving image archivists to bring their own films and try it out. That was fascinating! In addition to all the wise and experienced commentary, we got to see a remarkably varied range of films in all kinds of conditions. Sorry we couldn’t do that on the AMIA exhibition floor where we had a booth, but we figured that the people who brought their films to us deserved their privacy. Hey, when it comes to film inspection you don’t always know in advance what’s going to be on that film!

We learned from our friends at Northeast Historic Film and at AMIA that there were two areas of improvement that we could implement immediately. First of all, the films we inspected were larger than we thought people would be storing and carrying. Second, people have a lot more ideas about how to do film inspection than you would think. Some like to go really slow, some like to start slow and speed up, some like to just set and forget. Some like to look at the edges while the film is running, some prefer to look at the video workprint later when they can scrub and pause and so on. 

And perhaps most interesting, we built our system for photography and video to support the film inspection workflow for humans and for computer vision analyzed condition reporting. But you know what? Sometimes film inspection just means winding. Winding loose, winding medium, winding tight for shipment, or just winding so the other end of the film is outside.

So we brought the FI-16 device back to our lab in Baton Rouge and implemented those improvements. Will be sending it back to Northeast Historic Film soon, because they’re renting it for a year. Yippee 🎉!

While programming those motor control improvements we also discovered that with a little tweaking around the rollers, we no longer needed top platters resting on the films. At least most films. We’ll still ship top platters but hey, if you can remove that step from the film inspection process every little bit helps. It’s all about workflow and efficiency.

We also programmed in those new controls I mentioned. All the winding functions, film speed cruise control, manual and automatic controls, and a menu system right by your fingers so that you don’t have to look up at the computer screen because the film is right there by your fingers too.

Thanks to Northeast Historic Film, AMIA and beyond, today we’re building a production run of film inspectors. Our dreams are coming true. We hope for you too.

Storage Wars

I wonder why there’s no storage device or cloud storage named Pandora’s box? Moving image archivists study storage of all types. They need more of it than most people. They need more kinds of it than most people. Film in cans in cool vaults. Digital storage of every conceivable type and price point. And they’re not just thinking about storage for convenient retrieval, some of them are thinking about storage for centuries and beyond.

There’s no single right answer and even if there was, it would change by the time this blog post reaches your eyes. But I can tell you a few things about what we are throwing into the mix.

FI-16, our film inspection device, has some storage inside of it. Not a lot, just enough to capture the photographs it takes of your films. That is stored in non-volatile RAM, about a terabyte of it. After a few hours of film inspection you’ll want to move those photographs and the video workprints that FI-16 makes from them onto their next storage.

Waypoint, our film inspection computer vision and condition reporting online tool set, is hosted on Amazon Web Services. Waypoint only needs the photographs long enough to analyze them with computer vision. So that leaves a lot of options to the user.

You could connect your FI-16 to the internet and upload the photographs and video workprints directly to Waypoint. Waypoint makes more video workprints to illustrate the film condition on a frame-by-frame basis. We’ll keep those for you on Waypoint along with the inspection data that Waypoint makes for you.

You can download all of that to your own storage. You can copy it to some other cloud storage if you like. Just do that thing you do.

Or you could connect your FI-16 to your local area network and move the photographs and video workprints there first. We have an uploader program that you can install on your own server to copy the photographs to Waypoint over the internet.

After Waypoint has analyzed the photographs you could pay us or Amazon to store them very cheaply in Amazon Glacier. Or not, that’s up to you.

How many copies do you need? You could take the belts and suspenders approach and keep all the copies ever made. You could take the efficiency and preservation approach and keep the photographs and video workprints where you keep all your other digital files and backups.

Sorry for opening Pandora’s box but moving image activists are used to it by now. All we can do is make it easy, reliable, auditable, efficient, and as fast and cheap as possible without giving up those values.

And we will keep staring into Pandora’s box for as long as you do. Film inspection and moving image preservation and access is a long game. In fact I would say it’s an infinite game, the kind that gets better the longer you play.

Printers Propellers and Platters Oh My!

When we decided to start R&D on a new way to inspect films, we gave ourselves a blank slate. All we knew for certain was that we would take advantage of the latest technology including computer vision, computer controlled motors and transport, and the latest in materials science.

One of our pivotal choices was whether or not to use 3D printing 🖨️. There are pros and cons. Traditional methods for making metal and plastic parts are very precise. Precision is a good thing. 3D printers have a head that moves in four dimensions, melted plastic that comes out of it, and a platter to hold that plastic as it hardens, and that platter slowly moves as the plastic grows. It can’t be as precise as a laser cutter, as you might well imagine.

But speed matters too. Mostly in experimentation and trying out new ideas to make something work just a little bit better. So we chose 3D printing for some of the elements on the outside surface of the FI-16, things that we could continually improve and mail out to our customers.

Surprise!

If a film inspection station holds the film horizontal or nearly horizontal – FI-16 is about 15° off of horizontal and that’s enough to give a small amount of vertical force – then that raises the question of whether or not the film needs a platter on both sides. Gravity holds it down to one platter. So do you need a top platter?

Well the answer turns out to be – sometimes. Archival films do what they want. They don’t obey orders. So, does the top platter need to be the same as the bottom platter? The answer turns out to be – Yes or no. Sometimes.

So we ship an FI-16 with three bottom platters because the third one can be a top platter on the take-up reel if you need it. You rarely do but when you do, it’s just the thing. Then we kept experimenting with different kinds of top platters using our 3D printer.

Some of them are just like the bottom platter but made of plastic and therefore lighter. Easier to handle. Cheap to replace if you break it. Some of them have a gradual curve on the side that faces the film because the take-up reel film may want gentle nudging in the beginning and then not need it anymore after the film gets going. We call that one the UFO!

Then came the propeller.

Sometimes you want to nudge or wind the film by hand. You want to rotate the film on its platter and you want to see it while you do. So we started cutting away more and more of the UFO until it was just two straight bars in either direction. Then one of our film inspection operators said it was finicky to place her fingers on the thin plastic. Rather than make a thick chunk of plastic, we curved one edge of the bar upwards. Then we curved it upwards more. Now she can get a really good grip and she can see all of the film. And it still does its job as a top platter to keep the film winding nicely.

When we took it off the FI-16 and looked at it by itself, I swear it looks like – a propeller. With the spindle hole in the center it looks like you could stick it on your model airplane and send it off in the sky.

Printers, propellers, and platters, oh my! Hey, have a little fun while you work.

Testing that it Works

While researching and developing our film inspector and Waypoint system, we also had to research, design, and develop how we would test that it works.

There’s a scientific part and a psychological part to that. The psychological part may be the most difficult. What does it mean when we say that it works? What do you think it means? What does somebody else think it means?

I can’t settle that question in a blog post, and maybe it doesn’t need to be settled at all. Maybe it needs to go on and be debated endlessly. Think of how much more we know about film today than we knew 50 years ago. Think about how much better we have gotten at discussing what we know, sharing what we know, and learning from each other.

The scientific part is a little more straightforward. Film is plastic and it has a shape. It had an intended shape when it was manufactured. There are standards that were written by moving image engineers and scientists. There are ways to measure plastic and numbers to compare it to.

This blog post isn’t the place to explain all of the measurements that our system makes, we’ll get to that elsewhere. But I can explain how we test, and how we decide that it works.

There are two families of measurements and two main criteria of success. Measure damage and shrinkage. The criteria for success are don’t miss statistically significant damage or shrinkage, and don’t invent them where they don’t exist. The latter is called false positives.

FI-16 takes the photographs and Waypoint makes the measurements. Both are important, and Waypoint is counting on the FI-16 to do its part right. FI-16 does its part by taking the best pictures it can of the film in high illumination, consistent exposure, and consistent white balance.

Waypoint then uses computer vision, much like the computer vision that guides autonomous vehicles and thousands of other autonomous devices that need to understand what they can see around them. Except instead of trying to recognize moving vehicles and pedestrians in crosswalks, Waypoint’s computer vision looks for what shouldn’t be there.

So we took a reel of 16mm white leader film and measured it by hand. We counted every sprocket and every frame on a synchronizer. We took a hole punch and punched out a half circle on the edge in between sprockets at every foot, that’s once every 40 frames. Then we counted everything again.

Then we inspected that leader film hundreds of times. Waypoint should find every hole punch, and not invent any false positives. Waypoint exported its results to a database. We gave the database to a PhD in statistics and asked him to give us statistical analyses of that database. It works.

Then we took an old and wavy film of the maximum length that FI-16 can hold, 2,000 ft. We inspected that film by hand with a synchronizer, magnifying glass, bright lights, you know the drill. We noted every damage and we took photographs.

We’re analyzing that film as of this writing. It’ll take a while. It’ll be interesting to see if anything changes after we run it a couple hundred times. FI-16 is very gentle on the film and won’t hurt it, but it will be flexed on and off its reel. Does that do anything? Stay tuned, we’ll let you know.

We’ll keep devising new ways to test that it works. We’ll keep expanding on what it means to say that it works. This never ends.

Measurement, science, statistical analyses of large databases. That’s how we do it.

The Trim Tool

When you first see our trim tool you would probably call it a gate. It looks like a film gate. I guess it is a film gate. Except it’s not meant for that. It’s meant for trims. Some films are stored in an archival can along with one or many short segments of film that have been trimmed out of it. There can be many reasons for that.

  1. Maybe they are highlights.
  2. Maybe they are segments taken out for certain showings.
  3. Maybe they were censored.
  4. Maybe they were just in bad condition and got tangled up in the projector too often.

You could splice them back into the film. Assuming you know where they belong! Assuming you want to wind the film backwards and forwards enough times, spooling it out to make the splices over and over again. Or…

You could just inspect the film and make the video workprint and then run the trims through the trim tool. A foot of leader on each end, a couple of small film tape pieces, and pull them through.

You could append them all to the main films video workprint, or you could make a separate video workprint of just the trims.

Next!

Winding From an Original Metal Reel

Film archives have been inspecting films for so long, you would think it was routine. You would think there’s a right way to do everything. You would think there’s a standard way the set up a film inspection area. Oh no, film life is much more interesting.

We brought our first FI-16 and invited our friends to bring their own 16mm films to try it out. We assumed they would transport them in film cans on archival hubs and all but one of them did. That one film was on its original metal reel and its original metal can.

Why were we surprised? Isn’t that how nearly all films find their way into an archive? Isn’t one of the first things you do with a new film acquisition is inspect it?

FI-16’s motors and hubs are designed for archival hubs. They fit perfectly. We were very careful to make sure of that. And of course this film on its original reel did not fit at all.

We don’t expect to foresee every film inspection scenario and that’s why we expect the unexpected. A film on its original metal reel should not be a surprise, but something else will be!

This story has a happy ending. We designed the FI-16 with 3D printing in mind. So we simply printed a new attachment we call the steeple. Slide it on the motor hub and wind the film from its original metal reel onto an archival hub.

I suppose there are many other ways to do that including manual crank winders but my point is that we would like to see film inspection get everything done on whatever desk is available. Maybe with a little box of attachments in a drawer or under the desk.

With a Little help from our friends.