At the June 20 meeting...

June Cold BarbeQ Looks Back, Around and Ahead

Old Film technology

As experienced by Bob Paulson

New England Section's final '95/'96 program year meeting at National Boston Video Center was an event much to be remembered. The cold portion of the barbecue was sumptuous, as always, spiced and warmed by Becksonian chili. If I heard an explanation for the lack of Beck-style charred h-dogs and smoked h-burgers, I don't remember it. The usual crowd of hungry history buff NESectioners was swelled by two groups representing SMPTE's future and present, Officers and members of the Mashpee MA (Cape Cod) SMPTE Student Section represent the first half of our 21st century future! They are our first officially chartered Senior/Junior High School, almost 30 members strong at their April 25th induction meeting. About a dozen SMPTE executives and governors in town for two days of Executive Committee and Board of Governors meetings represented SMPTE's present.

Section President/high school student Jon Forsythe and SMPTE President Stan Baron both spoke eloquently about their visions of the Society's future from the perspectives of global standardization needs, and recruiting and educating future technologists to meet the unknown challenges of 21st century needs for communications technology development.

SMPTE's tradition-rich filmic past was represented by the evening program, "One Hundred Years of Cinema." This was presented by film pioneer Alan Katelle, Founder and President of the Movie Machine Society, and Bob Brodsky and Tone Treadway, specialists in film-to-tape transfer of 8, Super 8 and 16mm reversal film shot from the 1920s to today.

Mr. Katelle reminisced warmly about the pre-SMPE (1916) efforts of Eastman Kodak and Bell and Howell in the development of the 35 mm film gauge standard. (This standard is storied to have been set by Thomas Alva Edison in the 1880s, when he indicated the width of film he desired for his Kinetoscope camera as the thumb/forefinger separation distance of his upraised hand.) From his Society's equipment collection he first one of the eight Bell and Howell 35 mm film cameras assembled in 1909. It was wood-bodied, finished in leather with metal trim, had separate view finder and taking lenses, and exposed its 400 foot load by hand cranking. Pioneer film maker Martin Johnson's use of one of them on a tropical safari resulted in a design change to an all metal body. The film's speed was estimated to be about ASA 10.

After film making became a commercial enterprise in the early '20s, a drive to create an amateur market emerged. Costs of 35 mm film and cameras and projectors were out of reach, and 35 mm film's cellulose nitrate base was unpredictably flammable. In 1923, George Eastman introduced a new "Cine Kodak" 16 mm system, camera, projector and safety film. Its projected quality was deemed satisfactory, compared to 35 mm projected quality, by E-K scientist Capstaff and his staff. The 16 mm width was chosen purposely to prevent greedy 35 mm nitrate film stock manufacturers from slitting it and selling it to unwary amateurs. The tripod on which the camera was mounted was a "Special Model A" made for Mr. Eastman.

The next milestone in amateur film system development was RCA's 1935 introduction of a 16 mm Sound on Film (SOF) camera, hand cranked, but battery operated to capture, amplify and record sound. The mic was positioned just below the viewfinder for almost direct coupling to the operator's lips.

Katelle's last camera exhibit was a Longine-Wittenauer camera/projector introduced in 1957, designed by Oxberry animation stand developer John Oxberry. The reel arms when extended moved the camera shutter out of the projection path. It didn't sell well, because of the added lamp house and reel extender weight penalty when using the system as a camera. A post-presentation question prompted Mr. Katelle to recall Thomas Edison's efforts to create an "Edison Home Kinetoscope." The safety stock film was 22 mm wide, consisting of three rows of tiny images (like 8 mm film's image size) with two rows of sprocket holes on either side of the center image. The playing time of the 150-foot reel was three times longer, as the projector ran the film to its end, reversed to project the center image, then reversed again.

Toni Treadway's and Bob Brodsky's joint presentation especially traced the '30s waxing and '90s waning of 8 mm film stocks for amateur use. Eastman produced the first 8 mm film stock in 1932, followed by Kodachrome in 1935. Sales of 8 mm stocked peaked in 1958. Fairchild introduced an SOF camera in 1962. Super 8, introduced in 1965, featured smaller sprocket holes and a larger image.

They played videotape transfers from amateur films from the '30s and '40s to demonstrate their skills in capturing motion picture sequences on films that were shrunk, fragile and/or faded. They are meticulous in making the transfers to tape at the frame rate at which a sequence was shot, from 16 down to 12 and some times lower frames per second. They decry the insensitivity of television documentary producers who project all films at the 24 fps sound film speed, because those are the only projectors conveniently available.

Treadway and Brodsky efforts to preserve this material have been spurred by their articulation of the truth that things filled by families reflect the culture of the times. In a post-presentation interview, Toni agreed that small format 8 mm consumer magnetic tape camcorders can be valuable in culture archiving. I believe we agreed, however (these statements may not accurately reflect Toni's views, since I wasn't taking notes), is that most of that footage is unusable, because camcorder shooters are undisciplined and fill up cassettes of tape with mostly Out Takes. Editing them out results in a second generation tape of much poorer technical quality, because the In Takes were not properly lit, framed and/or shot creatively.

Demand for small format film cameras and stock began to shrink dramatically by the late 1980s. E-K discontinued 8 mm stock manufacture in 1991. Early in 1996 they announced discontinuance of all SOF stocks and Ektachrome stock. Manufacture of Plus X and Tri X and Kodachrome reversal stocks. The decision to continue their production will be a continuing board meeting agenda item.

(Paulson's personal editorial wrapup, inspired by Toni's and Bob's missionary appeal.) This attrition in Super 8 mm film stock availability is a serious problem for serious amateur film makers. It may be ameliorated by the '96 Holiday Season blizzard of 6.35 mm (1/4-inch) digital camcorders and editing systems now promised. (However, you can't affordably project it for a small audience.) However, this trend is of serious concern to young people aspiring to become the Spielbergs, Lucases, Coppolas et al of the first half of the 21st century. Film makers around the world have always perfected their skills by shooting and editing on film.

The storied film directors of the 1990s are quick to recollect their experiences in thusly learning their craft. They used the cheapest film stock available in their student projects. In the 1930s this was 16 mm black and white reversal stock. In the 1980s it was 8mm black and white and color Ektachrome and Kodachrome reversal stock. How can there be any 21st century generations of film makers, if there is no affordable film stock available for them to use? Shooting on 6.35 mm digital videotape is not an answer. Where is the budget pressure to shoot sparingly, rather than running the cassette to experiment and hope for good shots? Where is the need to carefully light and frame the talent movement and shots in a scene before pushing the start button?

Now there's a challenge for the MP part of SMPTE to accept! Mount a campaign to "Maintain Super 8 SOF stock in production, or the future film industry is doomed!" Any volunteers for this campaign? Start by encouraging university "mass communications" faculties to use 8 mm film equipment and 6.35 mm digital video camcorders in separate programs for film makers and videographers.

Bob Poulsen is with Omnimedia Communications. He can be reached at (508) 366-4694, BobPOmni@aol.com.