Soldiers don't die

"A man dies only when he is forgotten"

Sunday, May 8, 2016

The 8mm War Films: Behind the Scenes

Here's the two reels of film and the projector we used. The small reel is the snippets of color footage, spliced together from other reels. The larger metal canister contains the black & white film. The projector was Grandpa's and still works.

It actually is from the 1940's. It uses a spring-belt drive to spin the reels and the large box on the back houses the (very fragile) projector bulb and the fins for radiating heat (which it really generates tons of).

As you can see it's a Kodascope 8, model 70. The styling of the machine is very Art Deco.

Holding the mono film up to the light, you can see it's started to curl and warp with age, and no longer lays flat against itself. This makes it very difficult to feed smoothly thru the projector as the teeth in the film advance sprockets tends to slip, making it 'freewheel' out of control. We had little control over the speed of the film, and the slippage tended to make a vertically scrolling picture that was blurred. We tried to control this as much as possible, but some portions simply couldn't be saved. Oh, and it reeked of ammonia. I guess the emulsion chemicals started to break down. Really, it stank.

We knew this was our one shot to digitally preserve the film, and even then we might not succeed for several reasons.

1. If we waited a few more years, the films might have been completely unwatchable. I've seen pictures of what ruined film looks like and it isn't pretty.

2. Once film is exposed to air, the decay process speeds up. The airtight metal container protected it, but once the lid was popped open all bets were off. The film gives off ammonia as it decomposes and it STINKS.

3. The projector is almost 80 years old, the electrical wiring and motor are original. We can only guess how much longer it will work before it burns up...we figured if we don't see sparks or flames, it should be okay. The motor itself was noisy and made a smell of ozone. The cord wasn't frayed however, I think it was replaced at some point so we should be safe. We kept a fire extinguisher in arm's reach just in case.

4. The projector bulb is the original one. These bulbs aren't made like this anymore. You never, ever touch a bulb with your fingers, because the oils will weaken the glass and possibly cause it to shatter once it heats up (and boy does it get hot!)  We only have one spare bulb. If that blows, we're done.

5. We'll have to turn the projector off and let it cool down about every 10 minutes, to avoid putting too much strain on the dinosaur motor and the ancient bulb. At operating speed we could see heat rippling out of the vents in the top of the bulb housing. Dad said "you could almost bake cookies off this thing" ...we also can't touch the metal casing even after it's turned off, or it could burn fingers.

5. We can't afford a professional digitizing service, so what I'm doing is recording the projected image with my Canon DSLR, set at highest quality for minimal loss. Another concern I have is the refresh rate of my digital recorder not syncing up with the speed, or frame rate, of the film. (This is what created the wobbly, flickery look to the image in some parts.)

Dad used to work for Kodak and he told me some fun facts about film. Celluloid is one of the most flammable materials known to man, and they keep old movie films in flameproof vaults because the risk of fire is so great.  When movie film catches fire, the chemicals generate oxygen as it burns, so the fire feeds itself and gets hotter and hotter. Movie theater fires used to be very deadly and hard for fire crews to put out. That's why every theater has multiple fire exits.

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