Old movies

I was talking to a film scholar the other day about old movies. Appropriately enough, we were having this conversation at IndieCollect, where he and his colleagues scan and digitally preserve independent films for posterity. Many of those films are quite a few decades old.

Nowadays most movies are both shot and projected digitally. No more internegatives, flatbeds, chemical baths, no more sprocket holes, second reels or work prints. Most of process of getting from lens to screen is now done in software.

But in earlier days making a movie involved many different physical steps. Each of those steps had to be done properly or you were left with nothing. Capturing a good image onto your negative was an exacting process, and everything was highly dependent on good old fashioned chemistry and physics.

Even after the negative was in the can, there was still plenty of work to do. Pulling a good print from the negative through proper control of color and timing, then the laborious and exacting process of physically cutting your film on a flatbed, each of these steps required hours upon hours of dedicated and exacting physical work.

Contemplating the racks upon racks of old reels of film at IndieCollect, the tangible record of an immense amount of collective labor, my colleague turned to me and asked: “What do you think motivated them to go through all that trouble?”

To me it seemed like an easy question. “Because,” I said, “that was the easiest way to do it.”

2 thoughts on “Old movies”

  1. Years ago, I stumbled across an atlas in the library. NASA published a photographic atlas of most of the surface of the moon. What amazed me was not the atlas itself, but the description of the probe they’d built to capture the images.

    This was a survey to find possible landing sites for the Apollo missions. The probe had a can of black-and-white 70mm film that unspooled past a pair of lenses and into an onboard film-processing lab. The processed film then crawled past a row scanner and the scanned images were transmitted back to earth at 300 baud. Note that this was one continuous strip of film. All these processes (exposure, processing, and scanning) took place at different rates, so the film itself was essentially a buffer for the data.

    Imagine putting a fully automated and thermally insulated 1-hour film lab in orbit around the moon. Today, we could probably lob a smartphone attached to a Pringles can WiFi antenna. 😉

  2. Thanks — that’s a great example of the same principle at work.

    NASA did it that particular way for a good reason: That was the easiest way to do it.

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