What’s in your Vault?

What’s in your vault?

Obviously that’s a play on the funny television commercials from a bank that asks “What’s in your wallet?”

If you’re joining us on our mission to make better and faster film inspections and condition reports, then we know what’s in your vault. Films. Lots and lots of films.

You have a cataloging system so you know a lot about those films. But what do you really know? Do you know what condition they’re in? Every foot and frame of them? Do you know what they might look like on that computer in your pocket?

When those films were put into cans and stored in your vaults, there was paper money in your wallet. Times have changed. Now there’s an electronic credit card in your wallet, and maybe not even that. Maybe you’re like me and you use the computer in your pocket.

What’s in your vault? Let’s find out together. With all the powers the computers offer us today.

Object and Facial Recognition for Film and Images

No, we don’t do that. But we know that someone will.

We’re living in a time when computer vision tools are exploding in power, popularity, and use. Sometimes we know it, sometimes it’s in the background and invisible to us. That computer in your pocket already does it.

We made a list of computer vision object recognition facial recognition softwares, just the highlights that we think are most relevant to film archives. Just ask and we’ll give you a copy. We made it for our own education and we’re happy to share what we learn.

Our film inspection products, FI-16 and Waypoint, take photographs of your films so our computer vision tools can analyze their condition and produce condition reports for you. Our products also make video workprints.  This means that if you choose to send to recognition software or online services, you have video and still images to choose from. Or send them both, or send them to different softwares and services. Fun, eh?

There isn’t one best software or service and they’re probably never will be. It’s a Pandora’s box and that’s a good thing. Try them and see how you like them. Keep using the ones you like best.

We can tell you this about some of the key differences that you’ll encounter.

Some of them are optimized for video. Knowing that the source is video let’s the recognition software infer important things about the images in sequence. If a face is recognized in one frame and repeated for many more frames and then begins to turn around showing the back of that person’s face, video optimized software can figure out that it’s still the same person. If you feed thousands of still images to a recognition software and it finds a face, it won’t know that the back of that person’s head is the same person.

Video optimized recognition software can also use the soundtrack. Take the interview format for example. The camera may be on the interviewer when they ask the question but when the shot cuts or pans to the interviewee, the interviewer is still there. Humans know that intuitively. Video optimized recognition software is figuring that out too.

There can also be benefits to recognition software analyzing each frame separately. For example they could take a quick first pass through a long sequence of images and take note of which frames it can analyze the best. This will depend on computer vision factors like edges, exposure, and remember that some edges are contours of colors, not black or white, not contours of contrast.

After identifying the faces or objects in those key frames, the image optimized recognition software can then use those as a base for getting better results from all the other individual photographs.

So if all of that makes sense to you, there’s a third approach. A hybrid approach. Start by analyzing the video, but first break it out into thousands of individual still images. Then use all of the first two approaches, and compare the results to learn even more.

If it sounds repetitive, complicated, or even mind numbingly boring, please remember that that’s what computers are good at. That’s why we invented them. To do that work for us. Preferably while we are doing something else more interesting to us, things that computers simply cannot do. For example, computers don’t have social skills or empathy. That’s what humans are good at.

And that’s why we employ video everywhere in our products. Humans are incredibly sensitive to body language, motion, anything that moves or relates to human behaviors. During a film inspection the machine presents the photographs on the user’s computer screen and it looks just like video. It’s really still images going by so quickly that your brain will interpret it as video. Then your FI-16 can make a video work print, compressed so you can watch it on your computer in your pocket or any computer as far away as you’d like to send it. Waypoint overlays computer vision measured analysis in graphic form on copies of the still photographs and in video workprints that it makes from them. Again with the computer in your pocket and the computers as far away as you’d like to send them.

Object and facial recognition are wonderful tools and humans will always discover things they don’t. Work together on this. The important thing is to inspect your films, know what condition they’re in, use your judgment to apply your resources to preserve them and make them accessible. Let the computers do the boring parts.

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.

Perfect is the Enemy of Good

You can Google that title and you’ll find plenty of experts telling you all about it. I’d like to comment on it in particular for the preservation mindset and film inspection.

Cinequal’s FI-16 and Waypoint system isn’t perfect. We’re not trying to make it perfect before we ship it. We’re going to perfect it, speaking as a verb, for as long as our fans and customers need us to.

One thing needs to be as good as we can afford to make it at the outset. The photography is paramount because these photographs can persist forever. Even if the film is photographed again later, it will be older. So we spent most of our research and development on the camera, illumination, rollers, and motors.

There is software on the FI-16, and Waypoint is all software. We can perfect those and update them endlessly. And we will! We can add features and functions and tweaks and bells and whistles and with your help, really useful stuff.

It’s no secret that it’s human nature to judge the quality of our system based on the video workprints. Please don’t judge them too harshly yet because that’s misleading. They’re just video made from the photography. On board the FI-16 they’re made as quickly as possible because the machine operator has work to do, lots and lots more films to inspect. Their time is of the essence.

The photography is high-resolution, brightly lit, exposed and white balanced to suit the best that the camera sensor can make. You can make many more videos from that photography, ad infinitum. Craft editors can enhance video to be as pretty and perfect as you like. That photography isn’t meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be accurate and feed the best possible photographs that we can afford to make for video editors.

But that’s not all that film inspection is about. It’s about knowledge, and how you can interpret what you know about the films. Here again, perfect is the enemy of good.

Inspect the films now, as soon as you can. Waypoint will make a condition report the best that it can right now. It’s pretty darn good. Next time you run a condition report on that same film, using the photography and not running the film again, the condition report may be more perfect. That’s the magic of software.

Some years down the road you may inspect that film again, taking new photography of it, feeding that new photography to Waypoint for a new condition report. The difference between old and new condition reports is good information too. What changed in the intervening time? That’s a kind of film condition speedometer.

Software, software, software. It’s called soft because it’s malleable, improvable, perfectible. Join us and tell us what you think perfect looks like.

No-prep Workflow

Traditional archival film handling is a workflow. There’s a lot of preparation involved. What if there wasn’t?

  1. First you set up a space with winders and splicers and synchronizers and a light table and a magnifying glass and gloves.
  2. Then you open a film can and load it onto a reel, and another real onto the other winder.
  3. Then you wind the film slowly and take a lot of notes. Footage, frame numbers, visible damage, measures of shrinkage perhaps, edge codes, soundtrack type or none, credits, etc.
  4. Then you wind the film to a specific heads out orientation and put the film back in the can.
  5. Then you carry it to the scanner to make a video of it. Take the film out of the can again, thread it again except this time the rollers and film path are complex and finicky.
  6. Then you turn on the scanner and set the controls (expertise required).
  7. Then you put the film back in the can and take it back to the inspection station and wind it for archival storage again.

What if…

  1. You open the film can and set the film on a platter. Thread it around a couple of big and airy rollers to the other platter.
  2. Type or barcode scan a reel ID and click your mouse to start the photography. Punch a button to start the film rolling.
  3. Watch the video on a computer screen and your mind is free to think about what you see. Maybe take a note or two if you see something remarkable but otherwise just let it run. It doesn’t matter if it was heads out or tail out because the video can be edited later.
  4. When the film is wound to the other platter, simply lift it back into its can, still on an archival hub. Close the can and put it away.

Done. No prep. Open the film can one time, spool it one time, put it away.

Let computer vision measure everything about the film and produce an automatic condition report. At your leisure, or someone else’s leisure, watch the video workprint. Watch it in the comfort of your own desk or on your own phone.

Sound like a good idea?

Tiny Desk Concert

When I started in the music recording business  half a century ago, nearly everything we did involved logistics and heavy stuff. The instruments were big and bulky. The recording studios were insanely expensive and had to be purpose built. They even had special doors and ramps.

Musicians today assume they can do their work anywhere. They’ve got computers in their pockets and in their backpacks. Recording studios are still nice, but not required. They just find a desk and go to work 🎶.

Some musicians can give an entire concert from a tiny desk. What can you do at your desk?

You can inspect films at any desk, and you can choose the one most convenient to the films. Bring your FI-16, pull up a chair and start the show.

We normally imagine the film inspection to be a solo endeavor and the output will be video workprints and condition reports. To be viewed later, like a music recording. Or…

It could be like a tiny desk concert! Everybody is online these days. You could share your screen with viewers near and far at the same time that you’re inspecting. It could be a community event. Or colleagues could join you from their own desk wherever they may be.

Sounds like fun to me.

Skyping into Support

20 years ago I had bookshelves full of manuals. I used analog equipment in those days. Today my bookshelves are still full of valuable and interesting books but none of them are about equipment or how to use it.

Why? The digital age. But I’m still analog! And so are the people joining us in this journey to see and understand the films preserved in our archives.
Analog films persist in the digital age so we think it’s time to use digital tools to support the analog people we’re seeking to serve.
We have lots of written notes about our products but we don’t expect you to read them.
You probably have a video camera in your pocket right now. We do! That’s how we want to support you. Live and in person, as analog as we can get over digital transmissions to wherever you and your films are.
You can email us and we’ll assume you’d like an answer within a day. You can call us on the phone (347-442-7939) and we’ll answer if our hands are free. We’re a small company so none of us has a telephone headset on all day but we’ll call you back.

You know what we like best? A calendar invitation. That tells us when you’re available to talk and/or show us what you’re interested in. We can show you what we have and how we use it.

At Cinequal we use live online meetings every day. Ain’t the internet cool?

Run the Darn Film

Sony introduced the digital video recorder 📹 in 1986. The USA introduced its Telecommunications Act in 1996. YouTube introduced online video to the world in 2005 and Apple introduced the always-online computer in your pocket in 2007.

It’s 2020 and analog isn’t how we share anymore. Film inspection changed accordingly. We don’t inspect films so that we can ship them out again. We inspect them for health and longevity. We don’t keep lots of film copies for shipping around to projection theaters, we keep the best or the only.
What do we know about a film in a can? It’s safe, cool, and catalogued. But what’s really on it? What does it look like? How is it surviving the test of time?
Film inspection should leave a digital video record. We should let computers measure every inch and centimeter. Our records should be digital; we can print paper backups if we like.
Film inspection is an important part of providing access to what we spend our time and money preserving. Film inspection records need to be accessible by that computer in your pocket, shared the way you share information today – digital.
Access video copies for public viewing are a different matter and that’s a different post. I’m talking about professional and behind-the-scenes access.
So if you open that film can for any reason whatsoever, run the darn film and capture the video, and let a computer look at the images too and do what computers do best.
Run the darn film and make what you saw accessible. Why not?

Is this Blog for You?

Only if you work around archival films. I can think of a few reasons why this might not be for you though.

  • Perhaps you don’t have responsibility for knowing what condition your films are in. Maybe you just take good care of them until someone calls for them.
  • Perhaps you don’t need to see what’s on those films. Maybe you have a cataloging system and that’s all you need.
  • Perhaps you only want video of what’s on your film if that video has been color restored, stabilized, cropped, edited, and professionally prepared for public consumption. Maybe a work print video wouldn’t do you any good.
  • Perhaps you have a very substantial budget. Maybe you can afford to send your films to the best film restoration service providers in the land.

If those four scenarios don’t sound like you, maybe you’d like to come along with us. We think archival films are important. We think they should be seen no matter what condition they’re in. We think the people taking care of them want, in their hearts, to know what condition they’re in.

Some of us have devoted our careers to archival moving images. We care; obviously we’re not in it for wealth and fame. We are technologists. We like to invent things. Things that make life better for the moving image archive community.
Right now we think that technology in general is at a fascinating point in history. Things that were unimaginable when we started our careers are in our pockets today.
When we think of film inspection we think of a system that plays the film on any office table, you can get it by mail order to anywhere you are, and you can see the work print video and the inspection results on that amazing computer in your pocket.
Are you with us?