Popular Science

Popular Science looks forward to the talkies in October 1922

Another day, another digitised journal. This time it is Popular Science, the American science and technology journal which has been reporting on scientific developments for a general audience since 1872 (when it was Popular Science Monthly). The journal went online in 1999 and has now gone a step further by putting its entire 138-year archive online as well, and all freely available.

It is a simple resource to use – just a search box (there is no advanced search though advanced features for searching and browsing are promised for the future), and then the list of results. This gives the date of the monthly issue and the page on which the search term can be found (which will be highlighted in yellow on the page itself). Clicking on the link takes you to the specific page, and if you want to browse the issue further you simply have to scroll up or down. The instructions promise a magnifying glass controls to zoom in and out on the page, but this seems only to be available on the Google Books version, where there entire run of the journal can also be found. There is no option for copying text or downloading the documents.

So, using our regular test search term, ‘kinetoscope’ what do we get? There are ten hits, the earliest a passing mention among a list of Edison inventions in January 1895, then a proper description in May 1896, a detailed article and well-illustrated on the new science of motion pictures in general from December 1897, then mentions in March 1905, October 1913, and retrospective mentions in later issues. Other keywords that yield useful results include ‘cinematograph’, ‘kinematograph’, ‘movie’, and ‘motion picture’. There are articles on film production, motion picture technology (cameras, projectors, lighting, sound technology as in the article illustrated above) and experiments using film. There are also several articles on pre-cinema technologies and the work of chronophotographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and E.J. Marey.

The articles are usually illustrated, and in keeping with the journal’s mission the explanations are clear and useful. The older articles (pre-1914) tend to be longer and more scholarly in tone; the later pieces are shorter and more populist in nature. It’s a fine resource, easy to use, and of value both for the intrinsic information offered and for insights into how the new science of motion picture film was viewed and explained to a particular, educated audience. Go explore.

Spinning the Spirograph

A Spirograph with disc in position, from http://www.westlicht-auction.com

We all know about having motion pictures in disc form. DVD and increasingly Blu-Ray are the domestic formats of choice, and we all understand that films need not appear as strips of film. What is not generally known is that there is nothing new about films in disc form, indeed that films could be found in this form from the earliest years of cinema – indeed the disc form precedes the motion picture film. The recent appearance online (40MB) of a catalogue for the most significant of the film disc formats before DVD – the Spirograph – is the spur for this quick history of the format.

Before there were films there were motion pictures in disc or in circular form. A number of the optical toys and motion picture devices of the nineteenth century involved sequences of images arranged around a disc, with some form of intermittency to enable the viewer to experience the illusion of movement. They included the Phenakistoscope (figures on a disc with slotted edges, effect illustrated here from MOMI), the Zoetrope (sequential images aranged around the inside of a drum with slit holes) and Eadweard Muybridge’s Zoöpraxiscope, which projected images in motion arranged around the edge of a glass disc.

When inventors first began combining the principles of such optical devices with photography, again some looked to discs to provide the solution, particularly if they were reproducing brief sequences (i.e. brief enough to fit within one rotation of the disc. In 1884 John Rudge patented a device which exhibited seven sequential lantern slides of posed photographs (so not motion truly captured by photography) arranged in a circle. The 1887 Tachyscope of Ottomar Anschütz exhibited a disk of twenty-four glass 9×12 cm diapositives turned by a crank. In 1892 Georges Demenÿ took sequential photographic images on celluloid film which were transferred to a glass disc and projected by means of his Phonoscope device (also known as a Bioscope, above). The sequences, of which a man mouthing the words ‘Je vous aime’ is the most famous, were fleeting, but they were motion pictures derived from photographs.

The problem with the use of glass discs was the brevity of the motion sequences. However, before he introduced his successful motion picture system utilising 35mm film strips, Thomas Edison had instructed his engineers to produce a viewing system which arranged celluloid images in micro-form around a cylinder. This wasn’t just being circular for circularity’s sake – the idea was to match motion pictures to devices for the playback of sounds (in this case, Edison’s Phonograph), and early motion picture efforts at creating a disc-based system were clearly driven by a belief that emulating the gramophone disc was the route to creating a successful device for home use.

Kammatograph, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

It is often forgotten that many of the first motion picture producers saw the domestic market as being their route to riches. This made sense. The Eastman Kodak had put still photography in the hands of anyone; surely the same would occur for motion photography. It was a market that would remain elusive until the introduction (by Eastman) of 16mm film in 1923, but among the various attempts to crack the amateur market were disc-based systems, which offered a simpler, safer option to cameras and projectors using inflammable film.

Among the first and most significant of these was the Kammatograph. Invented in 1898 and marketed from 1900 by Leonard Ulrich Kamm, a Bavarian-born, London-based engineer, the Kammatograph utilised a 12-inch circular glass plate with notched edges caught by gearing with provided the necessary intermittency. There were 350 or 550 sequential images on the disc, arranged in a spiral, giving 30 or 45 seconds running time. It was aimed at the amateur market, and with those lengths of ‘film’ the idea must have been to encourage the filming of portrait shots, akin to snapshots. Not that much is known about the actual use of the Kammatograph, but two of the most prominent users of the device were not ordinary members of the public. William Norman Lascelles Davidson used a Kammatograph for his 1901 experiments on colour cinematography, while Rina Scott (Mrs D.H. Scott) was a botanist who used a customed Kammatograph to make time-lapse films of plant growth.

Theodore Brown with his invention, the Spirograph

There were other disc-based systems at this time, often developed as toys for children, among them Cinéphot developed by Clermont-Huet in 1904 and the Animatograph of Alexander Victor in 1909. However the great name is the pre-DVD history of disc-based cinema is the Spirograph. Its history is one of what-might-have-been, and it has of late become an almost cultish subject for those interested in forward-thinking technologies that nevertheless failed to succeed commercially.

The Spirograph was the creation of British inventor Theodore Brown (his wife Bessie was co-patentee) in 1907. It followed the basic idea behind the Kammatograph in presenting motion pictures in the form of miniaturised images arranged on a disc – though Brown’s original idea was to have the images arranged concentrically (he was thinking of very brief sequences and aiming for the toy market), and was tending towards using celluloid rather than glass. However his patent stated that the images could be arranged concentrically or spirally. Brown took the idea to documentary producer Charles Urban, who purchased the patent outright from Brown (supposedly for the hefty sum of $18,000, or £3,600). Urban did not work on the idea immediately, and indeed it was in need of considerable development work before it could be brought to market on the scale that Urban envisaged.

During the First World War, Urban put his engineer Henry Joy onto the task. The images were now arranged in a spiral, the results looking remarkably close to Victor’s earlier Animatograph. The first commercial version was due to appear in the USA in 1917, under the name of the Spiragraph [sic], and then the Homovie. There was no camera planned for sale, only a projector. But a hoped for $1,000,000 flotation of the Urban Spiragraph Corporation was a failure, and further work was held off until after the war.

Spirograph disc and the disc in its sleeve, c.1924, from http://www.spiracollection.com

Urban attempted to re-introduce the re-named Spirograph through his post-war American business Urban Motion Picture Industries, located at Irvington-on-Hudson. The Spirograph in its final form was designed for simplicity of use, being a compact box on a small plinth, operated by a handle, with the exposed disc mounted on the front. The 10½ inch disc was made of safety (i.e. non-flammable) celluloid film, and carried 1,200 frames in a spiral of twelve rows, each frame being 0.22 inches x 0.16 inches. These were miniaturised via a microscopic device from standard 35mm films in the Urban library (using original films between 85 and 100 feet in length, or no more than one-and-a-half minutes long). The Spirograph could project an image four feet wide at a distance of twenty-five feet. It was hand-cranked, with an electrical lamp, and users could halt the disc at any point for illustrative purposes. It was a liberating technology, devised with the teacher in mind – portable, flexible, affordable (the price was to have been $125 per machine and $1.00 per disc), easy to use and useful, except that the films themselves were so short. You can only get so many physical images on a disc. And that probably spelled the Spirograph’s doom

Urban’s intention was to make a huge impact on the burgeoning educational market. While his initial target in 1917 seems to have the home user, now he saw schools, clubs and libraries as his main audience, and he devised imaginative subscription schemes for the hire and return of discs. Urban’s extensive library of non-fiction films stretching back to 1903 would supply the content, thereby finding a new outlet for films that had otherwise ceased to have a commercial value. By the end of 1922 a substantial library of discs was prepared, described in lavish catalogues, with 4,000 Spirographs ready for shipment [update: it is very unlikely that there were actually 4,000 Spirographs made], and a major publicity programme in readiness. But it never happened. Urban’s business overall hit the rocks in 1923 – a simple case of trying to do too much with too little money behind him – and Urban Motion Picture Industries went into receivership in 1924. The Spirograph never made it into the thousands of schools, clubs, halls and homes that Urban dreamt of, and 16mm film (introduced in that fateful year of 1923) gave the target audience a technology that was just as safe and could provide longer films. The Spirograph could be spun no more.

However, that wasn’t quite the end of the Spirograph. The appearance online at the Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma of a 1928 catalogue of Spirograph discs (40MB) shows that the Spirograph did have some sort of commercial life. After the collapse of Urban Motion Picture Industries in 1924 various parts of the Urban empire were picked up by a number of companies, some created for the purpose, among them the Spiro Film Corporation. Little is known about the New York-based company except the obvious source of its name, but clearly it was catering for a market which already had its Spirograph players, since the catalogue makes no mention of how to obtain these, instead restricting itself to listing and describing the 400 discs in the Spirograph collection under such headings as Science, Literature, Government, Physical Activities and Our Government. Theodore Brown himself picked up on residual rights in the Spirograph to market the device in the UK after 1924, but neither he nor Spiro made any success of a technology whose time had passed before it even had a chance to get going.

So the Spirograph Library of Motion Picture Discs (1928) goes into the Bioscope Library’s Catalogues and databases section as part of Catalogue month (which has now crept inexorably into September). The Spirograph is a fascinating technology, not just for its ingenuity but for its potential based around the needs of those outside the commercial exhibition sector. It put the individual user first. Film history, indeed technological history overall, is filled with blind alleys. Looking back on failed systems and collapsing businesses we can see different ways in which things might have gone, and contemplate an alternative cinema history. Instead it took until the 1980s for films to return to disc form for the domestic market (Laser Discs) and the mid-1990s for DVD to gain widespread acceptance among people at large, not because they wanted to be educated but because they wanted to be entertained. And the films were longer.

Finding out more

  • Stephen Herbert’s Theodore Brown’s Magic Pictures is a beautifully-illustrated biography of the Spirograph’s multi-talented inventor
  • On Charles Urban’s Irvington-on-Hudson venure, including the fateful development of the Spirograph, see my Charles Urban website
  • Close-up images of a Spirograph and disc are available on the Spira Collection site (no connection with Spirograph itself – it is the collection of George Spira)
  • A illustrated list of glass and disc-based motion picture systems is given on the very useful One Hundred Years of Film Sizes site (though the dates given for the Spirograph are incorrect)
  • In 2003 a George Eastman House restoration of a Spirograph disc entitled Man’s Best Friends (i.e. dogs) was presented (on the big screen in 35mm!) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (the catalogue date of c.1913 is incorrect – the disc would be c.1921-22)

The London Project

Next up for Catalogue Month (our survey of online catalogues and databases, selected for inscription in the Bioscope Library) is The London Project. I did write about this in the very early days of the Bioscope, in a very cursory manner, and it is high time that we returned to it. It’s a work I know quite a bit about, since I produced half of it, and it’s something of which I’m quite proud, even if the database has become a little compromised since the time when it was published in 2005, because it has not been possible to update it since. Databases should never be allowed to stand still. It is contrary to their nature.

The London Project database documents the film venues and film businesses to be found in London during the period 1896-1914 – around 1,000 venues and 1,000 businesses all told. It was the major output of a year-long project (2004-05) sponsored by the AHRB Centre for British Film and Television Studies, hosted by Birkbeck, University of London, and managed by Professor Ian Christie. The two researchers were Simon Brown (working on film businesses) and myself (working on cinemas and audiences). As well as the database we produced several essays, conference presentations and a touring exhibition (‘Moving Pictures Come to London’). But the star of the show was the database.

Interior view of Hale’s Tours (a film show set inside a mock train carriage) on London’s Oxford Street, which first opened May 1906

The London Project documents film businesses in London 1896-1914 and film venues (a more inclusive term than cinemas) from the date of the first identifiable cinema in London (The Daily Bioscope, opened May 1906), again to the start of the First World War. The information is taken from a wide range of sources, including film and stage year books, film trade papers, street and business directories, the records of the London County Council, local newspapers, published and unpublished memoirs, police reports and company records. The database allows searching by name of venue or business, address, London borough (as they were pre-1914), by business type (e.g. production, distribution, production, exhibition, venue), and by person (including notes relating to people).

A typical film business record will give you name, address (and any secondary addresses), category and tp of business, original share capital, trading information, the names of directors, and sources. Names and sources are hyperlinked to other records, making the pursuit of such links a fascinating business as you discover that, say, Cecil Hepworth was not only the managing director of the Hepworth Manfacturing Company, but a director of Film Agency (Russia) Ltd. You find all sorts of unexpected additional business interests and alliances in these lists of directors, especially as we chosen to interpret the film business quite broadly and to include equipment manufacturers, cinema uniform suppliers, electrical engineers, vending machine suppliers, musical instrument suppliers, and so on, reflecting the larger picture of what the cinema business really was (as indicated by the lists of such companies provided by the film trade year books of the period).

Film venues covers every sort of entertainment place in London which showed film on a regular basis betwen 1906 and 1914. That means cinemas, of course, but also theatres, music halls, town halls, sports arenas, converted shops, public baths and amusement parlours. The records are not as extensive as those for businesses (more’s the pity) but they do give you name, address, audience capacity, notes, related businesses and people, and sources of information. So it is possible to trace every cinema managed by Montagu Pyke or by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd, or to pursue every film show surveyed by the Metropolitan Police in 1909 at a time of social alarm at these new dens of vice which allowed the young of either sex to mix unchaperoned in the dark.

The Bioscopic Team Rooms, aka The Circle in the Square, the first true cinema in Leicester Square, opened June 1909

One feature we were particularly pleased with is the map of London boroughs, which allows you to search for businesses and venues in say Chelsea, Wandsworth, Lambeth or Poplar. It was an important part of the project that we were able to connect cinema history to social history and in particular to the many other histories of London. Geographical data is a good way of helping to achieve this, though we had neither the time nor the resources to take this further and use GIS data or mapping software.

Indeed there is much about the database that could do with an update, as new information has come in and there are plenty of corrections that need to be made. And if only we could have added pictures. But the project money ended in 2005 and it has not been possible to add to the database since. It is hosted by Birkbeck, and I hope that the university continues to do so and to maintain the URLs as they are – each individual business and venue has a unique web address with its ID number included in the URL, essential for citation and future reference.

If you want to pursue the project’s work further and look at what we wrote, four of our essays are freely available online (at present):

The London Project website itself has background information on the project and on the London of the 1896-1914 period. The database is a freely-available resource, and even if the website is not being updated there is still an email address on the site to which you can send fresh information. It’s being collected, somewhere, and maybe one day a fresher, more extensive London Project database will emerge, one that might even go beyond 1914 or beyond the confines of London. We can but hope.

Catalogues commerciaux

We have mentioned the large number of cinema-related catalogues that have been digitised by the Cinémathèque française for its online digital library, Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Some of these we will go on to describe in detail, but for ease of reference here’s a complete list of all the commerical catalogues. Not all are from the silent era (though most are), and the majority are equipment catalogues, covering cameras, projectors, electrical supply, lighting, fire protection, cinemas seats etc. Notable firms mentioned include Gaumont, Pathé frères, Paul, Urban, Edison, Tyler and Williamson. Many of the catalogues come from the collection of Will Day, whose exceptional collection of films, publications and documentation relating to early film was acquired by the Cinémathèque and comprises one of the most substantial collections devoted to early film anywhere. A number of the catalogues relate to Day’s own film equipment supply business.

All of the links are to the digitised documents, which are in PDF form, downloadable and fully word-searchable.

Kinematograph Year Book

Here’s some really welcome news from those sterling people at the British Film Institute. The BFI National Library has started digitising some key reference works that either are BFI-produced or sufficiently ancient enough to be out of copyright. They are being made available as PDFs and are free for anyone to download. Top of the pile and particularly pleasing to see is the Kinematograph Year Book for 1914. The Kine Year Book (The Kinematograph Year Book Diary and Directory, to give it its full name) was one of two British film trade annuals established before the First World War, the other being the Bioscope Annual and Trades Directory, first published in 1910. The Kine Year Book was established in 1914 to accompany the Kinematograph & Lantern Weekly trade journal and is an invaluable directory of the British film business, listing every producer, distributor, equipment manufacturer, cinema, representative body and much more, in the country. It’s necessary to qualify that a little, because the existence of two film trade year books meant that some businesses registered with one and not the other, but you are not going to miss much. It also supplied a detailed account of the previous year’s activity in British film (in this case 1913). Here’s a list of the book’s contents:

A Retrospect Of The Year
Kinematograph Finance in 1913
Survey of the Year’s Technical Progress
Important Film Subjects of the Year
Picture Theatre Music during 1913
The Law and the Kinematograph
Interesting Social Functions
New Theatres Opened in 1913
New Companies Registered in 1913
Review of Decisions made under the
Cinematograph Act 1909
Important Law Cases of the Year
Pictorial Reminiscences extending
over 40 years – 1873-1914
Exhibitions during 1913
Trade Associations
Useful Tables and Recipes

Film Manufacturers and Agents
Film Renters
Apparatus and Accessory
Picture Theatres in Great Britain
– London
– Provincial
Supplementary List of Provincial
Picture Theatres
Picture Companies and Theatre

A slight downside is that the book has been digitised as plain images i.e. without any word-searchability, which is a great shame. it is to be hoped that the BFI can revisit the digitisation with fresh software to make the ebook all the more useful to researchers – and to do the same for any other silent era books is has in the pipeline. However the individual section are bookmarked in the PDF, which is a help.

Among the other publications the BFI has made available, do look out for Linda Wood’s British Films 1927-1939, a key catalogue and statistical information source for the period, originally published in 1986 (and much used by me ever since). The other books and booklets that have been made available this way are:

  • The Stats: an overview of the film, television, video and DVD industries 1990-2003
  • Producing the Goods? British Film Production since 1991
  • Back to the Future; the Fall and Rise of the British Film Industry in the 1980s
  • British Films 1971-1981
  • British Film Industry (1980)
  • At a cinema near you: strategies for sustainable local cinema development (2002)
  • A Filmmakers’ Guide to Distribution and Exhibition (2001)
  • How to Set Up a Film Festival (2001)
  • Lowdown: the low budget funding guide (1999)

The Kinematograph Year Book 1914 is available in PDF format, size 30MB, and has been lovingly placed in the Bioscope Library.

Movements and sounds

Strip of Eugene Lauste sound film c.1912, with the soundtrack running along the bottom, from http://video.pbs.org/video/1529729774

Here’s notice of a rather interesting item in the PBS television series History Detectives. The programme is a popular history series in which the presenters go off on quest for answers to some historical conundrum or other, and in the first item of the programme the presenter encounters a collector, Rocky Accetturo, who has bought some personal papers relating to Eugene Lauste in an estate sale. Lauste (1857-1935) was a brilliant French technician who worked for Thomas Edison alongside W.K-L. Dickson working on some of the very first American films, before moving with Dickson to American Biograph.

Having been instrumental in constructing a number of the first motion picture film devices, Lauste became fascinated by the possibilities of adding sound to film. Edison had already produced the Kinetophone in 1895, in which Kinetoscope films were supposedly synchronised with Phonograph recordings (in reality it was just music played alongside films of marching bands etc. without any proper synchronisation). Several other inventors around this time attempted to match sound with film in similar fashion, notably Clément-Maurice, Henri Lioret, Henri Joly, François Dussaud and Léon Gaumont. Lauste went one step further and – while working in Britain – patented in 1907 as “A New or Improved Method of and Means for Simultaneously Recording and Reproducing Movements and Sounds“. Here the sound was to be recorded optically and produced alongside the images on the film strip. He continued with his experiments, and between 1910-1913 shot some experimental sound films in the garden of his Brixton home. However Lauste failed to find the financial backing he required, possibly on account of his own intransigence, and it would not be until the 1920s, and particularly the work of Lee de Forest, that sound on film would start to become a reality.

The programme concerns a strip of Lauste sound film which the collector found among the papers. The detective story follows the familiar track for this sort of programme, with their primary source of information appearing to be Wikipedia, but it does get better one they start speaking to archivists about the film strip. We hear the sound reproduced (one second of it, possibly of a mechanical process, maybe the sound of the camera itself) and get to meet Biograph and Lauste authority Paul Spehr, who also shows us the Edison ‘Black Maria’ studio. Finally we discover that a similar short strip of film is held by the Smithsonian, though Accetturo’s is marginally longer, and that his film probably dates from c.1912.

The item runs for some fifteen minutes and is the first item on the programme. It makes some errors (The Jazz Singer wasn’t sound-on-film) and the pseudo-dumb questioning is a bit grating, but it gets better as it goes along and the technology it demonstrates – old and new – is fascinating.

Thanks therefore to PBS for putting up a programme that those of us in the US would not have had the chance to see otherwise, and all in all its a reminder that through the silent era there was this urgent quest to marry film images to recorded sound. Synchronised sound, sound provided by musicians, sound effects, sound produced by lecturers, sound provided by performers behind the screen or to the side of the screen, and then assorted steps towards commercialising sound on film itself. The silents began digging their grave, right from the beginning.

The full History Detectives programme can be seen on the PBS site and the script can be read here. But what is Rocky doing with the rest of the papers on show – letters, cuttings, patents?

Seder and the Strobotop

The Strobotop Lightphase Animator

High up on the Bioscope’s list of essential blogs is Muy Blog, Stephen Herbert’s blog on all things to do with Eadweard Muybridge. Those of you who might think that too narrow a theme for their tastes really should take a look, because Muybridge’s many interests in visual media and technology, and the profound influence that he continues to have on artists, designers and filmmakers, make Muy Blog desirable for anyone enthused by visual invention.

As a particular case in point, do check out Herbert’s latest post on Rufus Butler Seder and the Strobotop. Seder, you may remember, is the author of Gallop!, a children’s book employing ingenious visual trickery which makes animals move (see earlier Bioscope post). The huge success of Gallop! has led to Swing!, Waddle!, and now the Strobotop.

Herbert says that Seder “brings the wonder of 19th-century philosophical toys into the 21st century.” The Strobotop – or Strobotop LightPhase Animator, to give it its full name – takes the idea of the Victorian optical toy, the Phenakistiscope (successive images on a disk viewed through a slot), and adapted for today by means of a pulsating light. See the video above for the Strobotop in action, and read the Muy Blog post for a description of how it works and how ingeniously it reimagines a Victorian means of recreating motion.

Seder is a filmmaker, inventor, designer, artist, muralist and author. Herbert has an essay on Google Docs, The Optically Animated Artwork of Rufus Butler Seder, which is a fascinating acount of an abundantly creative person who finds his inspiration in Victorian optical toys, the sequence photography of Muybridge and his contemporaries, and cinema’s prime magician, Georges Méliès. You can find out more about Seder and his work from his website, Eye Think, or you can meet the man here:

Forever film

The National Audiovisual Conservation Center of the Library of Congress, Culpeper, Virginia

When good film archivists die, they’ll probably go to Culpeper. Or somewhere quite like it. Culpeper VA is home to the National Audiovisual Conservation Center (NAVCC) of the Library of Congress, a state-of-the-art film preservation centre funded by Packard half of Hewlett-Packard and a temple to the art of preserving the film heritage – 1.1 million film, television, and video recordings, to be precise.

The reason for mentioning the NAVCC is to introduce an engrossing account of the scale of the work that goes on there, written by Ken Weissman, Supervisor of the Film Preservation Laboratory. The piece, ‘The Ultimate Archive System‘, was written for Creative COW Magazine, and although it covers the breadth of the Library’s film collection across the last century and more, it has much to say about the treatment of its earliest films:

Here, for example, is what he writes about paper prints, which were once treated photochemically but are now being tested for digital restoration:

We started as a photochemical laboratory, and are primarily a photochemical laboratory to this day. It has only really been in the past half a dozen years, or less, that you can even begin a conversation that might convince people in the know that preserving motion pictures might be done digitally. So here in our lab, we began a pilot digital project for a very special collection that we have in the Library of Congress: the paper print collection.

These paper prints exist because of a vaguery in the copyright law at the time that motion pictures were invented. The Copyright Office at the Library interpreted the law to say that a motion picture film is simply a series of still photographs, and therefore the still photographic copyright law applied. If you wanted to copyright a motion picture, you had to provide the Library of Congress two copies of the film, and they had to be on paper. Not film.

A process was invented to literally create long strips of photographic paper, exactly the size of 35mm film stock, and then create contact prints from the original 35mm negatives, onto those long strips of paper. These were then deposited with the Library.

There are over 3000 titles within that collection, some of the earliest films ever made — from 1894-1915, with the vast majority from before 1912. Most of them are unique. In other words, these paper prints are the only copies of these films. They represent the single largest collection of early motion pictures in the world, by far. The Library is rightfully very proud of this collection.

The paper prints had been locked in a vault in the bowels of one of the library buildings, and rediscovered by librarian Howard Walls in the late 30s. The paper itself is still stable, but for the most part, you can’t see the images very easily except by looking directly at the paper — where of course there is no motion.

This is why there have been several attempts over the course of history since their rediscovery to put them back on film. One of the first was by Kemp Niver, and his company called Renovare. He took these 35mm prints (and there are some that are actually a larger gauge than that), and re-photographed them using a clever device that he built, printing to 16mm film. We have used various models of these Niver printers, including one where we replaced the 16mm camera with a 35mm camera, in order to print back to 35.

All of the processes have been interesting, and they’ve all been successful to some degree. However, they’ve also been unsuccessful to a great degree, in that the images are alternately soft, or fuzzy, or very shaky. There was also no way to accurately register the images. In fact, we’ve concluded that in many cases, the images aren’t very well registered on the paper.

The obvious solution is to scan the images, then take advantage of digital processing to stabilize them, correct positioning and so on. Our first scans of the paper prints were 2K x 2K, which theoretically should have been good enough, but in our analysis of the imagery, we think it might be better to go to 4K x 4K. But that’s one part of the pilot program, to figure out exactly how to do it. It’s more of a theoretical workflow because we haven’t practically implemented it yet, but we’re getting close.

Georges Méliès on a Library of Congress paper print

From film to paper to film to a row of ones and noughts – these particular ‘films’, a great many of which no longer exist in any other form than the paper on which their successive images are now held, would seem to be ripe for digitisation. But for Weissman, digitisation is essentially a means for returning the images to film. He argues that knowledge of of how ambient temperature and relative humidity affect decay, measured in a Preservation Index, means that film which under normal conditions might only last fifty years before serious degradation sets, when “stored at 25F and 30% relative humidity, you can expect it to last 40 times longer than that – 2000 years.”

That’s why, as we move further into digital technologies, the plan for now is still to scan the images, restore or preserve them as needed, then run them back to film, and put the film away at 25 degrees, 30% relative humidity, for practically forever. For most people, in practice, somewhere between 600 and 2000 years is beyond forever. Because frankly, once you get to that point, what are you really worrying about?

It reads likely a strangely regressive strategy, which so many other institutions are looking to become every more the completely digital library. But film takes up space, digitally speaking – one frame scanned at 4K amounts to 128MB, he informs us, or 24 terabytes for the average feature film. And then you’re not done with it, because you’ll probably have to migrate the files after five years “to the next greatest things”, and have back-up copies, and back-ups of backups, and then repeat the processes five years after that, and then again and again, and keep on paying for it all…

But what also drives Weissman is the love of film itself. A digital file tells you nothing until you can find the kit to run it (if it hasn’t become obsolete in those five years). But with reassuring filmstock all you need is a light source, a lens and a screen, and you can see what you’ve got. And it takes you back to what you started from. “I can’t help feeling in my heart of hearts that the simple solution is usually the best” he argues, adding “and film is a pretty simple solution.”

Film archivists like film, and arguments that film might actually be the best, even the most economic form for storing film long term, is bound to appeal. Until they stop producing film stock, of course. And then there are all those ‘films’ that weren’t ever on film because they were made digitally in the first place, which is what we’re making now. That might at least make the NAVCC’s challenge a finite one, because there will come a point when we stop producing films on film and so you’ll have a measurable problem. But what gets done with the 21st century’s motion picture medium of choice – born digital – doesn’t get mentioned.

It’s not easy having to think about keeping an impermanent medium forever.

Dorothy and Karl

Dorothy Janis and Ramon Novarro in The Pagan, from http://www.altfg.com

A lot has been happening in the silent world, so we’re going to need a few short, quick posts to catch up after all that Dreyfusiana. To begin with, two notable names passed away this week. Dorothy Janis (1910-2010) was one of the last surviving people to have starred in a major silent feature film. The film was W.S. Van Dyke’s The Pagan (US 1929), in which she co-starred with Ramon Novarro. The picture was silent with a music score and songs. Her first film was in 1928 and her last in 1930 – she married in 1932 and decided thereafter that she was done with the movies. There’s an obituary on Alt Film Guide, while The Pagan is available as a DVD-on-demand and digital download from Warner Bros.

Secondly, there’s Karl Malkames (1926-2010). He was the son of silent film cameraman Don Malkames. Karl had a good career as a cameraman, working in newsreels (for Warner-Pathe) and second unit work for feature films, but he really made his mark in film history was in film restoration and the collection of vintage film technology. He worked on developed the machinery for copying silent film formats, most notably preserving much of the output of the Biograph company for the Museum of Modern Art (his father had been friends with Billy Bitzer, D.W. Griffith’s cameraman, and he owned an original Biograph printer). He restored silent films for the Paul Killiam TV series The Silent Years, assisted Kevin Brownlow and David Gill when they were making their Hollywood series and his expertise in the technology of silent cinema saw him cited as an oracle by film archives and film historians. He did as much as anyone has to preserve silent films and our understanding of how they were made. An obituary written by his film historian grandson Bruce Lawton is available here.

The Metropolis showroom

Frame comparison demonstrating stabilisation with camera pans, from http://www.scientific-media.de/showroom/metropolis

Those who haven’t yet had their fill of the story of the restoration of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis may be interested to check out the websites of two of the facilities companies involved.

Scientific|Media is a German digital media production company. On its Metropolis Showroom it demonstrate through short clips the work it has to do to the battered 16mm elements which had to be inserted digitally into the final version. Processes illustrated include stabilisation (OnePoint, MultiPoint, Cross-DeWarp and MotionFiltering/DeJitter), grain management, and the inserting of sequences such as letters and handwritten notes into German. It’s for the technical specialist, but you do get a clear sense of the huge challenges involved.

Secondly there is Alpha-Omega Digital, another German company, which undertook the overall digital restoration work, matching the new material to that which it produced for the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau-Foundation in 2001. Their website reports on this and describes in detail the work that it undertook for the film’s 2001 restoration.

For the record, previous posts here on the Metropolis discovery are: