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Kinograph, A DIY Digitizing Tool, May Be The Savior Of Film

Vinegar syndrome reeks of chemicals and the cooking ingredient it’s named after. The odor is the first sign of film decay. From there, the film base gets brittle, shrinkage occurs, liquid-filled bubbles appear, and in some cases, it bleeds pink or blue dyes. Calling this gory may be dramatic, but it’s a fundamental contributor to the irreparable loss of 90 percent of all American silent films and 50 percent of American sound films before 1950.  

Part of the dilemma is that preserving film faces massive financial barriers--many institutions simply don't have the resources to keep up. But under the belief that “history belongs to those who hack it,” artist and cinema historian Matthew Epler combats this with his invention, the Kinograph. Using a consumer-grade DSLR camera, materials available online, open source software, 3D printing, and no special skills, Epler has assembled a simple but sophisticated machine to digitize film that anyone could build.

The Kinograph currently requires $1200, if you already have the camera, but Epler has plans to get it under a grand. In comparison, the digital preservation cost for just one canister ballparks at $800, nevermind the shipping fees. The other alternative would be to purchase a digital motion picture scanner, which costs upwards of $175,000.  


Epler's home-grown Kinograph machine.

Epler crunched the numbers after discovering some 600 orphaned reels while teaching in Jordan. Russian, Arabic, Vietnamese, and English are scrawled on the films, many with seals from the USSR, some dating back as far as the 1920s. So, when King Hussein II of Jordan visited his school, Epler, having discovered that he had a reel of the king’s dad asked for $10,000 to restore the film. He soon realized he should have asked for a bit more (c’mon, that’s toilet paper to a king), and after sending ten reels to a film lab in Germany, the money was gone. 

Unfortunately, King Hussein forgot about the project as soon as he left, and there were 590 more canisters to go.  Frustrated by the lack of democratization in digitizing film, Epler was determined to find a cheap and easy way to preserve the world’s history with quality.


The 650 forgotten film reels Epler discovered in Jordan, including one showing the former King.

There have been other attempts to make a DIY film digitizer but most involved either tedious hand-scanning of negatives or rigging an old projector to play the film while the images are captured. In addition to being difficult to find, the problem with projectors is their use of intermittent motion, a mechanism that inserts hooks into the sprocket holes starting and stopping the reel at each frame. This movement just happens so fast the viewer sees the images as a moving image, like a flip book. Imperfectly, this puts stress on the film and can lead to breakage. Many professional film scanners and telecines (machine that converts motion picture to video) use continuous movement to advance the film and a high quality sensor that perpetually scans the image either line-by-line or pixel-by-pixel. Regrettably, this goes beyond the capabilities of an SLR camera.

Epler’s answer combines parts of both approaches, along with 3D printing a specially-designed roller and buying a two-dollar switch. Essentially, with a continuous feed, the roller uses its strategically-placed bumps to trigger the switch at the start of each frame. This then signals the shutter to take a picture captured frame-by-frame. As a bonus, these 3D printed rollers can handle 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm film without having to be changed out.

The raw images get downloaded into Processing and from there are loaded into OpenCV for batch rotation, cropping, and color correction.  

AEO Sound software then transcribes the soundtrack on the edge of the film into audio that can be synched with the moving picture. As you can see from the video above, the results are legit. 

In just four months, Epler impressively came up with the described design and prototype, but his vision does not end there. He’s always believed in the power of shared knowledge and its access. When he first found the garage full of canisters, he photographed each of the labels and posted them onto afilmarchive.net welcoming people around the world to translate them.  

Accordingly, he hopes to inspire a community-driven effort to preserve film by supplying the Kinograph blueprints for anyone to create a film-digitizing studio, or at least eliminate the financial barrier for them to use one.

Digital archivist Erik Piil of Anthology Film Archives is watching this project closely and acting as an advisor to Epler.  Concerned about the accuracy and integrity of the film, Piil is excited to see how the Maker approach to digitizing film opens up doorways for the level of control, price, and efficiency for archivists. Various films have special needs to restore them to the original form, and today’s machines are proprietary.  As a result, due to the lack of demand, investing into developing the specific technology usually does not pass the cost-benefit analysis and innovation is stunted. He warns that Epler’s Kinograph doesn’t satisfy all the archivist’s needs, but it potentially lays the foundation for it to be possible.  

For now, Epler is working furiously to further reduce the cost and fix the remaining bugs that would jeopardize the quality and longevity of the Kinograph. He will be posting the materials, instructions, and code online at the end of July.