Big Brother 2

 

 

BIG BROTHER 2

 

As I am retired, I have a fair bit of time I can devote to my film habit and have accumulated a fair bit of experience in a short space of time, so here is an update to continue the story of my forays into 17.5mm.

One of the conclusions I reached early on was that successful projection with the Home Talkie requires a film in apple pie order. This in turn means a virtual frame by frame check and the sorting of any damage. The problem is that so much 17.5 is damaged, and splicing is a very limited response both to damage that may interfere with projection and to weaknesses that will get worse on projection and ultimately take the film beyond repair. A particular problem is what I have come to call the chad (as per the US Presidential election debacle in Florida). By this I mean those areas below the sprocket hole where the claw pulls, which are suffering from splits on one or both sides. The result is a piece which is sooner or later going to be picked out by the action of the claw, creating yet another enlarged sprocket. Sometimes the true extent of the damage is not visible to the naked eye and has to be examined thru a projector lens. Quite often, the damage can be less than appears at first, with what seemed like a split turning out to be merely a mark, or at least not connected to the sprocket hole and so posing no particular threat. However, the lens can reveal chads I might otherwise have missed, barely visible but ready to fall out soon. The appearance can be different from the other side of the film splits can seem clearer from the base side.

The tape splicer I have had made provides a way of dealing with chads. Tape is placed onto the film to cover two sprocket holes, protruding just into the picture area (this is unavoidable, particularly with 17.5s cushion corners, as there has to be a margin of tape all round the perforation in order to get a clean punch-out of the hole. I currently use the same tape as for 16mm, about 15mm wide. I need to experiment with narrower tape, and try putting it on across the bottom of the sprocket hole, covering the damaged area but not the sprocket hole, so avoiding punching, missing one corner and hopefully saving time). Quite by chance, the splicer provides a convenient cutting edge to slice off the tape to just the right length to wrap round the edge to cover the same amount of the film on the other side. The sprocket holes then have to be punched out using the separate punch. A snag is that, as the punch uses pins to locate the film for accurate punching, I can only do two sprocket holes at a time. Any more and the holes needed for locating the film are covered by tape. So dealing with a string of chads becomes quite a chore.

I have found that this technique can be extended to cover the odd enlarged sprocket, too. I am still experimenting with covering two or three enlarged holes in a row by taping once and then a second time but on a staggered basis. This is a tad hard to explain clearly. I tape two holes and punch, then the next two. The area between these two tapings is largely clear of tape, and it is across this area the second tape layer goes, covering one sprocket hole from each of the first two tapings. Basically, tho, a run of enlarged sprockets is something I have found no answer to. I can deal with chads and with the gouges where the claw has ripped the film down the line of perforations but left the torn bit of film in place. The same approach works for those edge splits, from either side. Bigger splits mean bigger bits of tape, sometimes even proceeding as tho making a splice, with tape the full width of the film on both sides.

All of this is about repairing the base rather than worrying too much about the condition of the emulsion and appearance on the screen. The first priority is making the film safely projectable. Another technique I have used is replacing dry cement splices with tape without losing any frames. Provided the join will come apart cleanly, a near-butt tape splice can be made by trimming the end of the overlap.

David Wyatt (film owner), Peter Spooner (video camera and sound man) and I (film checker and projectionist) managed to make a video copy of the 6 reel 17.5 feature,Three Men in a Boat.I spent an entire day checking and repairing the film, which included all the sort of problems I have outlined above. Each reel had of the order of50 splices, a number of which I re-made with tape, as well as a variety of chads and other damage. I was thankful and a little surprised that the whole film went thru without a hitch.

As a bit of a digression, since then Peter and I have done the same with two silents, Destiny (7r, Dave Wyatt's) and Christus (8r, mine). Interestingly, Peter now has a DVD of Christus, which definitely has more material than the 17.5mm print. I had always assumed all 17.5 films were uncut, and as far as I can tell, this is true of the sound films. It would, of course, be much easier and cheaper to edit down films with no sound to worry about. Pat Moules tells me that when he owned Christus in the 1970s, it was in perfect condition (I doubt there were two copies). Well it isn't now, and I was highly doubtful it would go thru the Home Talkie, so we adopted a sneaky approach. As 17.5 silent has sprocket holes on both sides, we would show it laterally inverted, the sprockets on the "other" side, i.e. where a soundtrack would be, being in rather better shape. Among odds and ends I have picked up over time was a small right-angle prism in a mount. With a bit of fiddling, I managed to secure this close up to the Home Talkie lens nozzle. With the projector at right angles, we were able to film quite successfully, with the prism correcting for the reversed film.

Anyway, to continue. I say without a hitch. In fact, there were two. My solar cell (35mm size) conversion seems to give quite a high output and we had some difficulty matching sound levels. The first reel has somewhat distorted sound, therefore. The second is that my lamp and blower fan conversion made the motor extremely hot, so much so that I subsequently went over to suck instead of blow. The light still seems dim to me, tho, maybe because I use Xenons a lot on other gauges. Since then I have reverted to blowing for the fan. This is because I concluded that the very basic axial fan on the motor shaft operates so as to suck air out from the lamphouse. A fan sucking the opposite way on the other end of the lamphouse, I reasoned belatedly, was going to reduce air flow. I also mounted a supplementary, larger fan in front of the motor - it doesnt look elegant but it keeps the motor from overheating quite so much. See Home Talkie for more on this.

I have since discovered another possible cause of problems when running a film thru the Home Talkie. I put a lot of proprietary cleaner on one film and it broke on projection, with no other obvious reason or damage as the cause. After removing most of the excess cleaner, the film ran thru fine. 17.5 can exude a sticky gunge and it may be that this can cause a problem too. Its all very difficult, as you can't clean a film before checking it, as this tends to make any existing damage worse. However, sometimes the film is so greasy the tape won't stick too well, so I have to do delicate cleaning of a damaged area first another big time-consumer. I use some dry cleaning fluid I persuade my local dry cleaner to sell me. You can't get carbon tetrachloride any more far too dangerous in this nanny state and proprietary products tend to leave a "film" on the film, which also stops the tape sticking. Also, on the same film I put too much cleaner on, it retrospectively weakened the adhesion of the tape so I had it all to do again. If you do not have the patience of a Saint and the optimism of a Liberal Democrat politician you shouldn't be in 17.5 I guess.

Another project has been to try to make black leader. Clear leader isn't too hard, tho the tenacity of 17.5 emulsion in the face of water and even undiluted bleach took me rather by surprise. But if you have a film that has lost its leader, the choice of missing the first few frames or having a glaring white screen is unedifying. You need black leader. My first attempt was not a great success. I sprayed some clear film with first primer then black paint. It gets thick and uneven. I also had other problems with this approach that are far too embarrassing to relate.

I emailed the BFI, who suggested domestic dye, with acetic acid (which you are still allowed to buy), to help "fix" it. This idea is supported by an article in Nine Five Review for January 1969 which describes the use of Johnsons Cine Fade solution for making fades by dyeing the film black on a graduated basis. I wonder what it was (tho I don't suppose we'd be allowed to buy it any more). So I bought some standard Dylon cold water black dye to try. My first effort is not too bad, tho' up to a light it looks a deep purple rather than black. The dye only took on the emulsion, not on clear film. (I wonder if the dyes used on the tinted 17.5 silents colour the base or the emulsion?) What is really surprising is the length of time film can be soaked in water and leave the emulsion intact. The dye needs three hours and I have actually left it in overnight.

There is a snag however. As you may have guessed by now, I am extremely reluctant to destroy a single more frame of film than I absolutely have to. I have about 8 (of 11) 500ft reels of The Middle Watch, which has the unusual feature that three of the four 1000ft reels are totally wrecked by what appears to be water damage, which has partially stripped the emulsion away about every 12-15 inches or so, making the film completely unrecoverable but leaving considerable lengths with intact sprockets (or that can be used even with some damage by turning the film so the pull of the claw is on the opposite side of the sprocket hole). Ideal for leader except so far I can't get black leader in more than 12-15 inch lengths cos the dye don't take where the emulsion is damaged.

My first effort at dying was in a 2.5 litre plastic bottle, just feeding the film in thru the neck. It tends to crumple the film a bit and there comes a point where no more will go in easily. I assume you can't do it on a reel, as the dye would not be able to penetrate to all the film. Likewise any kind of frame to wrap the film round might leave undyed areas? I then tried cutting the film into the 12-15 inch strips with intact emulsion, but, naturally, the strips tended to stick to each other, so that I had to try to mix them round, then take each one out to see if it could be used or needed more time.

I have now had two 16mm tape splicers converted to 17.5. One has an adjustable pin, helpful with shrunken film, the other has removable pins. The idea here is to punch out more than two holes at one go (see above) and maybe, in the distant future, punch out short lengths of leader, if I can figure out how to slit 17.5 cleanly from 35. For now, I have more than enough bits of Middle Watch to strip with bleach for clear(ish) leader or to dye so I can put at least a bit of black at head and tail. I also use what I call "fake" leader. This is 35mm slit to give an approx 17.5mm width of film with no sprocket holes. I suppose one could simply split 35mm the film and acceptsprocket holes on one side. This is only usable at the front end of a film, of course, where it never has to go through the projector, but it is a useful way of supplementing leader. I use it a lot more on 28mm, where leader is as rare as hens' teeth and what little bits there are have to be cannibalized from one film to another, with fake leader to eke out supplies a bit - no good wasting precious leader that will never go thru a projector anyway.

As usual, the process of making this fake leader was a bit hit and miss. My first effort was to build a frame out of scrap Meccano , with two razor blades positioned partially into narrow slits between sections of a roller, over which the film passed and was slit. It was a bugger to thread the film and required huge effort to pull it thru. The result was the film broke very easily. I decided this was far too complicated, and would probably only work with rotating blades anyway. The new, simpler approach was about a yard of mild steel sheet cut to approx 17.5mm (and another for 28). This lies on top of the film and is laid against a guide piece, which is clamped down. Holding down the "template" and cutting along the side with a sharp hobby knife has proved a fairly easy way of making fake leader quickly, if not absolutely precisely.

I have figured out or measured a few more dimensions for 17.5. Kermabon refers to the perforations as square, but some at least seem to be slightly rectangular, at 1.6mm wide by 1.5 mm high. The frame height may be 9mm but the overall sprocket pitch including the frame line is 9.5mm, which is as you would expect twice the pitch of a 35mm sprocket hole (think about it). I make the gap between the perforations and the edge of the film a mere 1.2mm. I have also tried measuring the sound track and its position but this seems widely variable. I have French film with tracks from 2 to 2.5mm wide, with the picture 3.1 to 3.6mm from the edge of the film. A British one shows 2.8mm of track in a margin 4mm wide from edge to picture.

I haven't reached a conclusion on sound separation yet. 35mm is 19/20 frames (depending on how you count), which is 15 inches, 16mm is 26 frames, 7.8 inches. 17 .5 may even vary between France and UK.

Simple things I can do for myself. Now I am on 17.5 again, I am back to checking more of the films and, of course, most of the easy hits have been done already - I'm down to the really hard graft on films that need hours of work. One thing I finally decided, having found a particularly oily film, was that I needed a two-speed (and double geared end) rewinder, especially for film cleaning and treatment. So I decided to make a pair of adapters for my Muray rewind arms. There is just room for a 17.5 spool between the locating lugs for the different adapters and the retaining clip that folds over to retain the spool. However, this makes it impossible (certainly for me) to make a one-piece adapter, so I just made ones much like the 9.5 adapters, plus a small length of sleeve (actually, I later found a way, after finding that the loose bits kept disappearing inside spools that had no bearing for the reel to ride in the spindle, just the spool side). The adapters slide right back over the locating lugs and butt up against the body of the rewinder. The adapters just cover the lugs, thereby providing the drive (you can just see the lug in the slot, on the right), but leaving room for the spool, and the sleeve (about 18mm long - could have had a longer one, slit like the 16mm adapters for the retaining thingy, but I thought, what's the point?) takes the spindle size from 6mm (9.5) to 8mm (17.5, 16, 28, some 35). Easier with a pic or two, showing various incarnations.

 

     175adapter1     175adapter2     175adapter3     175adapter5     175adapter5     

 

OK, now back to where I started. Peter Spooner came with his video camera, DVD recorder and general stuff, and we set up a small screen to project onto, using the 24v 150w lamp to keep the lamphouse cool - you ideally need a modest light for transfers, anyway. The biggest problem was with connections - finding a set-up where everything worked OK for the recording was a nightmare, and took hours, spread over three days before we finished. (This is the defining problem of modern electrics/electronics. Somebody should do something about it.) We filmed Pathetone 511, so I can finally fulfil my promise to its owner, plus Sleepless Nights (8 reels), The Avenger (8) and Lorna Doone, (10!). My Home Talkie performed flawlessly throughout, so I am being forced to modify my view of it slightly. It seems that, if the film is in very good shape, and the projector is threaded correctly, it will perform well. I was particularly pleased with Lorna Doone, because I had spent many hours and sweated much blood over it. It had a problem of recurring stretches of elongated sprockets which, on any conventional measure, is beyond repair. However, tho' I was not sure it would work, I used my double-strengthening with tape approach, for longer sections than I had ever done before, and it seems to have worked well, tho' I am awaiting the final edit from Peter before I can be sure.

This is partly because I didn't really get to watch any of the films much as they went thru. The picture was small and a bit dim, and I couldn't really follow the sound, as it was emerging only from Peter's monitor and wasn't that loud or clear, nor could I actually see the picture. This mattered because there was a significant lag in the sound between the film picture, which I could see, and the sound from the monitor. (It shows my confidence that an electronic solution to my French sound separation issue is possible is not misplaced). This makes it not only difficult to follow, but much too irritating to want to, so I concentrated on keeping a wary eye on the projector.

This success with Lorna Doone opens the possibility of saving more films than might otherwise be possible. I have considered the question of why one should bother, as everything is no doubt going to be available on DVD some time or another. I have several thoughts. One is that there can be nothing in DVD showing to compare to the sense of achievement in repairing and projecting a piece of celluloid from maybe 70 years ago. That satisfaction in the digital age is reserved to the handful of people who actually re-master films for transfer to DVD. Another is that I hate to see things junked, but I suppose the main reason, and the only one that really matters, is that I like doing it. What else is there?

Click BB1 below to return to Part 1 and Home Talkie for the continuing saga, or go to the 17.5 main page (link below) and see what else there is on other machines.

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