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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Real Doesn’t Always Equal Pretty

When we run a film inspection on FI-16 we’re not looking for pretty. We’re looking for real.

The photographs are meant to capture the reality of what that film looks like if you held it in your hands. In really good light. So the photography software has an automatic exposure and an automatic white balance. It’s not as pretty as what you expect to see from an iPhone.

Video editors know that you can turn blacks into grays but you have a lot of trouble turning grays into black. You can dim the brightest whites but you have a lot of trouble making the brightest white out of gray. Why? Because the video editing computer doesn’t know which parts of the image are meant to be gray so they get turned to black and white also. The same is true for colors. Instead of contrast we call it saturation. But the limitations are similar.

When you’re inspecting a film on the FI-16 you see video on the computer screen. That is the actual photography shown to you. Moving at whatever speed you set the film to run. It’s not meant to be pretty, it’s meant to be accurate. So you can see what the film really looks like, what it really is.

Here’s a fun experiment. Next time you’re sitting around a table with some friends ask everyone to pull out their phones 📱. Laptops and tablets too if they have them. Then everybody play the same video on all the screens at the same time. See how different they all look!

We live in the digital age and it’s not going to unwind itself, so to speak. Manufacturers of smartphones, tablets and laptops aren’t trying to make all the videos look the same on all the screens. They’re trying to please you. They’re trying to make their screens prettier than everyone else’s. That’s not reality in video, that’s the reality of commerce.

When you’re inspecting your film, photograph its reality. Pretty comes later.

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.

Treasure Hunting

Film inspection means different things to different people. Generally they fall into two categories. What and who are in the images? What condition is the film in?And then there’s treasure hunting. What might be on the plastic that we didn’t expect? Here are a few of my favorites.

  • A filmmaker signed the film in a little bit of clear leader. That makes it another kind of artifact.
  • A film started out normal, and then it got weird. Segments of other films were spliced into it, apparently in random places. I wonder what’s the story behind that?
  • A film with an optical soundtrack had some splices in the middle, that’s pretty normal. But some of the segments were upside down, so the optical soundtrack was suddenly on the other edge. I’m guessing that film wasn’t heard from again, so to speak.
  • A film was clearly a compilation, that’s pretty normal. But each segment of this film was separated with a different color leader. What a clever way to find different sections of the film, assuming you had a table of contents listing the color of leader for each segment. We don’t have that table of contents but now that we have a color workprint video we can easily make one. Or just scrub the video and look for bright colors filling the screen.
  • Another film seems to be all of a piece except some segments seemed to go by too fast. Watching the video workprint we could see that they were multiple cameras used in this expedition but they weren’t all shot at the same speed. It’s not difficult to edit that video and make them all appear at the same speed in a video player. That’s much more difficult to do with a projector.

Treasure hunting is fun!

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!