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.

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.

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.