My 28mm story




This is a classic illustration of how the fascinating hobby of amateur cine drags one off into all sorts of strange byways.

Like many others I have spoken to since, I had a bit of 28mm in my youth and sold it on marriage as not really offering a collecting future. It was only 30 or so years later that I had the chance to become a moderate collector in one fell swoop by acquiring a KOK and a number of films. Their condition was such that I could see at once that, even if I had had one of the very rare 28mm cement splicers, I could never make all these films projectable without big losses of footage and much work.



splicerI therefore had a tape splicer made, adapting a 35mm splicer. The cost still makes me wince, but it has been worth its weight in gold, enabling me to repair rather than cut out and greatly simplifying the whole process. I also adapted a pair of 35mm rewind arms to take 28mm.

I must record special thanks to Grahame Newnham. He acquired Alan Lott's 28mm, among which, I learned, was some leader. With great generosity, Grahame actually let me have some of this super-rare stuff, without which it would have been impossible to provide proper leader for all the films in order to prevent yet more damage and loss of title frames. (This does not, however, mean I have forgiven him for getting the films and in particular the Victor projector). I have eked it out with 35mm film sliced down to 28mm (I call it fake leader) for the head end which never has to go thru the projector. I then had a huge stroke of luck when, through the good offices of Noel Pratt, I acquired a rare Premier Pathescope 28mm projector.


PremierThis has an intermittent sprocket rather than that rather nasty KOK ratchet claw, and 1200 ft spool capacity. The intermittent is much more tolerant of damage I think, as it pulls on more than one sprocket hole (on one side anyway).



I quickly came up against into the perennial question of film identification through the fog of Pathé  habit of changing titles and the fact that some films were missing their titles anyway through the attrition of time. I started small, with the acquisition of a British list of 28mm films dating from around the end of WWI (Thanks to Brian Giles). An immediate problem was that it was in such small print that, having been thru several stages of copying and re-copying, it was hard to read. It was organised numerically and finding any particular film was laborious. It was also irritating that there was no information beyond the titles of films.

I therefore decided to create a simple database, so that I could order the films alphabetically and produce a readable copy. This I circulated to known 28mm enthusiasts, asking for information on any titles held by individuals or institutions so the existence of a film could be noted in the index.

Then I discovered the existence of a huge American 28mm catalogue, complete with brief synopses of the films, which included nearly all of those issued in the UK. This actually got me riled up, because I had never heard of it before despite my interest in 28mm. (I missed Alan Lotts piece in ACE while producing a family in Yorkshire). I felt very strongly that more should be done to make this sort of information readily available rather than squirreled away and known to only a few. I got a copy (thanks to Dave Wyatt) but hit a snag. The photocopy was even poorer than the UK list, a few bits being completely illegible. So I gritted my teeth and decided to transfer it to computer. This was partly a post-chemotherapy convalescence project, or it might not have got done.

I started with Optical Character Recognition (OCR). This is basically copying a document into the computer in editable form via a scanner and clever software. Unfortunately, the software was not clever enough to overcome the poor copy quality. I had done enough typing in to know that with my two-finger typing it would take forever. So I dictated it instead. Actually, the voice recognition software was not half bad, tho of course it struggled with names and odd film-related words.

But it was very much a labour of love, consuming enormous amounts of time.


The result was the 28mm Film Catalogue, reproducing the text of the American Catalogue and providing an alphabetical index covering both US and UK titles.

As part of my researches into 28mm, I contacted Ron Grant who runs a film museum in London. Coincidentally, he was expecting a visit from a German Researcher, Anke Mebold, who had been studying 28mm in North America. She turned out to have copies of not only the American Pathescope Catalogue I had reproduced (which was the 2nd edition), but of the 1st and 3rd editions and also of catalogues issued by the American United Projector and Film Company (which I refer to as Victor since it was his machines they used and promoted). Naturally, I gave her a copy of my catalogue in exchange for copies of all these goodies, then started the task of preparing an index covering all three editions of the Pathescope Catalogue plus the Victor films and those issued in the UK, all cross-referenced. My plan is to produce a set of documents which would provide buyers of the first one with all the additional information I had gleaned, without duplication except for the index. Along the way, I also acquired a copy of a French listing of 28mm titles (Thanks to Brian Giles). This too I databased, tho I have not yet matched all of the French titles with English titles.

Then the task was to identify the original 35mm film from which the 28mm print derives. Henri Bousquet has published a superb multi-volume catalogue of all the Pathreleases from 1895 to 1927, giving the original length, so I am adding to the master index the title, year of release and length of films which I can reasonably match with 28mm films. This involves a lot of trawling and cross checking descriptions of films, in English for 28mm but in French for Bousquets work. This too would be interminable but for the help of my wife Angie, who searches the database then types in the French information, while I switch between French and English catalogues.

Alongside this, other things were happening. Peter Spooner had previously filmed from the screen some 17.5 films (I was just the projectionist), and was keen to do some 28mm. So we set to and recorded about 90 minutes of film, reproduced as The 28mm DVD (see Catalogue pic above), to which Peter added some music and a brief commentary. At the age of 80+, Peter is wrestling with the complexities of recording to DVD and re-editing on the computer.

The other thing that happened was an email from Tony Saffrey, who had been contacted by an Australian lady who was selling a KOK and some 50 reels of 28mm on behalf of an older friend who was retrenching. I therefore flirted shamelessly with her on the phone and by internet to buy most of the films. I have yet to pay off the debt I ran up. It did help that I have a brother in Oz who organised things for me and happened to owe me some money so I didnt have to wrestle with sending money across.

When the films arrived there were as one might expect many problems. About a third of the spools were heavily rusted and dropping dust onto the film, so the first priority was to transfer them to cores and try to sort out the spools. I have previously made a few 28mm spools from 16mm 400 ft spools with new cores, but I still have about 20 originals to refurbish. It involves an awful lot

of work. I am having to keep some on cores pending spools, so I have made a possibly unique thing, a 28mm split spool. I also made a second rewinder (since sold on) so I could do the dirty work in the garage and the more detailed checking elsewhere.28spools 003

As you see, this exercise has involved a number of people and all sorts of non-film activities. I am now pondering the famously huge Canadian catalogue to add to my existing listings. Further DVDs, drawing on the Australian films, have been recorded, including two early six-reel features and many more shorts.

I have formed very definite views on 28mm spools. I do not like the small (1.25") cores. The film curls very badly and is easily torn on its way thru the projector, thereby creating the common 28mm problem of no leader/no end/no titles. If a spool has rusted more than a small amount, I remove the core and replace with an aluminium core of 1" diameter, with the protrusions to engage the pins on the spool arms. The spool cheeks are screwed to this new core. Over the aluminium core is fitted a 35mm 2" plastic core, cut down to about 30mm width, or a pair of 16mm cores which don't then need cutting. The aluminium core has a pin to engage the slot in the plastic core. I tried a solid aluminium core: too heavy.



This picture was naturally irresistible, showing all three of the most important 28mm machines in one place. The Victor, alas, was not mine.



Here are some pix of my latest (2014) batch of 28mm films. When it goes bad, 28mm really goes to town. Two of eleven reels are hopelessly gone; one smells more of vinegar than any film I've come across and one appears to have turned into a solid lump. The product of this decay is a nasty brown powder, very like rust but far more virulent, affecting especially cans but also reels. The cans in this case were a write-off, with completely illegible labels and rusted thin. The spools are nasty but mostly salvageable (at least where there are spools), I have known some that have become almost like lace in places, a load of holes held together by not very much. Transferring them onto cores is a smelly, dirty job best carried on outdoors to avoid choking on fumes and dust. It's astonishing any of the films remain intact, but they seem to survive except for the few that are on a different, poorer stock. This batch includes several reels of a feature of which I already have part. Sadly, Reel 8 is the one that's gone vinegar; (interestingly, the titles seem relatively unaffected, suggesting vinegar is from defective stock). Such is the life of the 28mm collector.


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