[Frameworks] Largest purchaser of Kodak 16mm film stock, NFL Films, has switched to digital production

Dave Tetzlaff djtet53 at gmail.com
Mon Aug 25 22:08:27 UTC 2014

Well, even though NFL Films has gone digital, and will probably close their lab after their current supply of stock runs out, they know the value of their massive archive of 16mm footage, and the archival value of photochemical film. I can't see them committing that history to any conversion to any digital format for the purpose of dumping the film archives. Digital formats are always relatively short-lived, being superceded in one way or another, and there's always a newer and better film scanner down the road. Besides, the task of converting all that material boggles the mind. The practical requirements of maintaining an archive such as NFL Films has offer some small solace to photochemical film artists.

Obviously, the biggest threat to the future of photochemical filmmaking is now the continued existence of stock. As many have noted, Kodak is only capable of stock production on a mass-industrial scale, and as the demand for big orders of stock decreases (as it inevitably will as this is all about Big Business bottom lines) Kodak will certainly close up shop altogether sooner or later. It remains to be seen whether there will enough of a market to support production of photochemical film on a smaller scale, both in terms of the initial cost of developing the limited-run production technology, and in terms of subsequent sales.

But, let's say someone steps up to fill that gap. 

For years, Fred Camper has been saying the greatest threat to 16mm as an art-form is the vulnerability of the projection equipment. Projectors are more likely to go awry than are cameras, and qualified repair folks are extremely hard to find. One can imagine a say when all the projector techs have retired or passed-on, all the shops closed, with the knowledge lost to the next generation. (Also a possibility with cameras, of course, though less likely.) However, as long as well-funded archives of 16mm exist, SOMEBODY's going to need to know enough about sprockets and claws and shutters and so on that mechanical knowledge of photochemical cinema will survive Film-film artists may be able to tap into that in order to keep their chosen medium viable.

Still, it wouldn't be a bad idea for photochemical film artists, curators, archivists etc. to form a tools-preservation cooperative. A first step would be to acquire complete service documentation on every common make and model of 16mm projectors, cameras, flatbeds, etc. A second and even more crucial step would be seeking out and acquiring EVERY specialized tool referenced in that documentation, before all those special widgets get dumped in the landfill, and engaging a mechanical engineer to document the exact specs for each tool, such that a machinist would be able to produce new ones from scratch in the future. (Assuming there will still be machinists in the future...) Third would be stockpiling spare parts, and things like projection lenses. I shudder to think about how much of this stuff has gone into dumpsters in the last 15 years. 

(The last time I tried to find anything wider than a 50mm for a Pageant it was like searching for the proverbial needle that might or might not even be in the haystack. That was 6 or 7 years ago, and I'd guess it's gotten worse since. Heck, even wide/fast lenses for Eikis and Elmos have gotten seriously scarce. Last time I checked there seemed to still be some supply of options for wide-barrel Bell&Howells, but the idea of running prints through one of those gives me the willies...)

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