La Cinémathèque québécoise

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Textes et essais

3D Cinema Devices Coming Soon!

October 2016

par Flora Fiszlewicz et Marina Gallet

Victor Animatograph Corp., No. 4, caméra 16mm, 1994.0277.01-04.AP
16mm camera, Victor Animatograph Corp. no. 4, United States, c. 1930; Height 20.7cm, depth 16.2cm, width 8.2cm; Cinémathèque québécoise coll., gift of Werner Nold; 1994.0277.01-04.AP
One of the earliest portable 16mm movie cameras for the amateur market. Only the well-off could afford such a camera in the early 1930s, however, as it cost around $175.

This past summer, the Cinémathèque québécoise’s film equipment collection began to be digitized in 3D! Members of the TECHNÈS 1 research project at the Université de Montréal have been working to create an online encyclopaedia which will reconsider the role of technology in film history. This immense project, unfolding over a seven-year period, includes selecting several hundred film devices, photographing and digitizing them in 3D, documenting them, indexing them in a database, and then making them available online. In the end, the project will cast new light on the role of equipment and know-how in the cinema.

As a partner in the project, the Cinémathèque québécoise has recently been the site of the first 3D digitizing tests using equipment in its collections. This is an opportunity to follow the beginnings of the project, which operates within technical constraints and those imposed by working in a museum context while meeting the specific needs of researchers.

From Selecting and Preparing the Equipment . .

Among the 2,300 devices in our storerooms, sixty or so have been selected by TECHNÈS scholarly committee for this initial experiment. These essential devices are drawn from a broad range of categories (movie cameras, projection equipment, film splicers, etc.) and sometimes illustrate the evolution of technology over time. For the moment, the selection takes into account the research topics of the project’s forty-eight researchers and members, the condition or fragility of the devices, and the tests being carried out to determine the capacities and limitations of 3D technology. Given the breadth of the collections found in the project’s partner institutions (such as the Cinémathèque française, the Swiss Film Archive and the George Eastman Museum un Rochester, New York), more precise selection criteria will be set at a later date.

To prepare it for digitizing, the device is placed on the turntable in the position it would be used, with targets placed around it to help the scanner situate itself. Cinémathèque québécoise coll., 1994.0277.01-04.AP

After they have been retrieved from our storerooms, the devices are transported to our offices in Montreal. The TECHNÈS crew brings their 3D digitizing equipment, which is incredibly lightweight and easily transportable (just two scanners, a laptop computer and a few accessories are all that is needed). Each piece of film equipment has its own specificities and vulnerabilities, and is inspected by the Cinémathèque québécoise archivist of the film-related collection before being scanned in order to determine if it can be handled and positioned without being damaged. If the device is small in size, it is securely placed on the turntable. It is sturdiest in its position of use, and it is in this position that the TECHNÈS crew is allowed to handle it, while the archivist or a museum technician is in charge of every other form of handling it. Targets are then placed on the base around the device, as seen in the photo opposite. These reflective and self-adhesive pads enable the scanner to situate itself in the environment, and the space between them – no more than five or six centimetres – determines the precision and speed with which the device can be digitized.

. . . To Its Digitizing in 3D

When the cinema device is ready, the digitizing equipment is calibrated. The scanner must be adapted to the atmosphere of the room (humidity plays a role, but light appears not to have an effect), and the 3D data acquisition software to which it is connected, Creaform’s VXelements, needs to know the desired shutter speed (for example, 8 ms) and resolution (between 2mm for the broadest scanner and 0.1mm for the most precise, which requires more time to digitize the device). The targets are then shown to the scanner so that it can situate itself in the space, and the digitizing can begin.

The process uses real teamwork, as one person moves the scanner around the device to digitize it while another person conveys the information provided instantaneously by the software, for example whether the scanner is too close or too far from the object being digitized. Each scanner has three cameras and a beam of light that is cast on the object. The scanner must be kept at a certain distance from the device and moved slowly, without however remaining too long in the same spot, which would cause a loss of quality in the final image.

Joachim Raginel, research assistant at the Université de Montréal, scans a device while following the information provided by the software; August 2016; © TECHNÈS

While the TECHNÈS crew thought initially that the size of the objects or the complexity of their shape would cause a problem, in fact the difficulties they have encountered in these tests have come from other sources. Instead, the colour and shape of the device and the reflectiveness of its surface seem to affect the quality of the digitizing: the scanner has more difficulty with dark colours and round shapes, and is especially disturbed by polished surfaces and transparent components. For this reason, the dust on the devices is preserved as much as possible.

3D depiction of the device directly following its scanning; August 2016; © TECHNÈS

A scan is completed in ten minutes on average, creating a “.csf” file of approximately 1 GB. But three or four more scans are needed of the same device in order to obtain an image of every face of it: the bottom, top, sides and in some cases the interior are analysed separately by the scanner and then assembled in post-production to obtain a single view, which can be manipulated and turned about. Because the device must be repositioned after each scan and the targets put back in place, a total of around two hours is required to digitize a small device completely.

Creating an Encyclopaedia of Cinema Technology

These initial tests, although extensive – fifteen devices were digitized in 3D in twelve days – are just the beginning of a long-term project. The files created through the digitizing process must first be reworked during post-production: using VXmodel, the 3D digitizing post-production software provided by Creaform, the accessories used in the scanning (turntable, targets, etc.) are removed from the image before the device’s surface mesh and texture are improved with 2D photographs of it. Afterwards, the files are touched up with Maya modelling software.

The shape of the device is worked on in post-production before any other step in order to remove all the accessories used in digitizing it (the table, targets, etc.); August 2016; © TECHNÈS

The goal of these tests, apart from their technical aspect, is also to evaluate the possibilities and constraints of the equipment, from a cinematic and museum-practices perspective, in order to establish procedures that meet the needs of the situations observed. One of the main ideas concerns the added value that 3D digitizing can bring, and the need to use this technology for every device. For while 3D digitizing can provide an image of the volume, space and scale of a device, most researchers continue to wish for access to the devices themselves, or to carry out their research based on photographs, which in some cases provide more detail. It thus remains to be determined in which cases, and in response to which research needs and topics, 3D digitizing is best suited and can provide supplementary information over and above that found in a photograph. It has already been decided that objects accompanying the devices (cases, lenses, etc.) will only be photographed.

Texture is then applied to the device and improved through the use of 2D photographs; August 2016; © TECHNÈS

Finally, apart from the 3D depiction of cinema devices, the project will document and make accessible the context of their invention, manufacture and use. The encyclopaedia’s search engine and interactive “online tours”, the encyclopaedia will make available documentary information on each device, including 2D and 3D images, archives and filmed interviews. A made-to-measure database is being designed to store this information, while documentation methods which meet the standards in use in the cultural heritage domain are being developed with scholars in the École de bibliothéconomie et des sciences de l’information (EBSI) at the Université de Montréal. One of the major challenges will then be to put these data and documents to best use online to provide a rewarding experience and develop a kind of history of cinema technology. This will be determined, in part, by the choices made throughout the project, from the devices selected to posting them online. By providing free access to the information gathered, sharing and re-using it in other contexts and projects by other individuals and researchers becomes possible.

The Cinémathèque québécoise is pleased to contribute in this way to greater knowledge of and access to its large collection of cinema equipment. The initial research has already enabled it to augment the documentation of its collections, for example by distinguishing between three different models of a Pathex movie camera which until now had been treated as identical in our database.

La première Pathex
9.5mm hand-cranked movie camera, Pathex, manufactured by Établissements Continsouza, France; Height 10.25cm, depth 9cm, width 4cm; Cinémathèque québécoise coll., gift of Robert Lapalme; 1993.0387.AP
La 2ème Pathex
9.5mm hand-cranked movie camera, Pathex, manufactured by Établissements Continsouza, France; Height 10.6cm, depth 10cm, width 4.3cm; Cinémathèque québécoise coll., gift of Robert Lapalme; 1994.0325.AP
9.5mm hand-cranked movie camera, Pathex, manufactured by Établissements Continsouza, France; Height 13.5cm, depth 10.2cm, width 9cm; Cinémathèque québécoise coll., gift of Nancy Coté; 1997.0034.01-02.AP

Thanks to Rémy Besson, Kim Décarie, Nawal Maftouh, Louis Pelletier and Joachim Raginel for the information and photographs they have supplied.

To read the French version of this text


  1. Founded at the initiative of André Gaudreault, TECHNÈS is an international research partnership into cinema techniques and technologies which brings together 18 partners: three university research groups – GRAFICS at the Université de Montréal, Dispositifs at the Université de Lausanne and Arts pratiques et poétiques at Université Rennes 2; six archives and film archives – the Cinémathèque québécoise, The Swiss Film Archive, the Cinémathèque française, Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, the International Federation of Film Archives and George Eastman Museum; three film schools – the Institut national de l’image et du son, the École cantonale d’art de Lausanne and the École nationale supérieure des métiers de l’image et du son; and six disseminators/producers – the National Film Board of Canada, Canal Savoir, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, Amsterdam University Press, Érudit and Idéeclic.