Welcome to 2017

Making the Rewards, Part 6

The LRF did not rest during the holidays. The last days of 2016 and first week of 2017 were spent completing some strategic technical activities regarding three main components of our production workflow.

1. The Baby Slitter

Do you remember the 1917 Slitter we introduced before? It covers only the very first step of the film production workflow - slicing big jumbo rolls of triacetate material into miniJumbos suitable for the width of our "Little Boy" coater.

After coating a miniJumbo, what’s the next step that allows us to test the film in our cameras? We need to slit the film into "pancakes" that are the proper width of the format we wish to produce (35mm, 120, etc). This operation is technically called “converting” and of course it must be made in complete darkness. Our 1917 slitter is not suitable for this task because it is located in a bright room with windows, and it lacks the precision necessary for film that goes into actual cameras.

The beastly Kampf with the "RISERVATO FILM FERRANIA" sign hanging from the front.

The one perfect tool to slit Jumbos to miniJumbos, and then miniJumbos into pancakes, is our wonderful Kampf slitter. However, as we have mentioned before, the Kampf is a massive beast that will require a lot of resources to move, install and restore - so it will remain sleeping in our storage for a while longer. As with many of our large machines, for now it's best keep them safe and instead work with something that is smaller, and requires fewer people and less energy to operate.

And so we have the "Baby Slitter!"

This motorized table-top slitter was custom-built by Ferrania's old machine shop specifically to convert miniJumbos into pancakes of different widths. It was found in poor condition but as you can now see, after some work from Beppe and Marco, it's shining again and has been configured to convert a miniJumbo into five 35mm bands suitable for 135 format cartridges.   

2. Cinema Perforator #1

Once the Baby Slitter has done its job, we will have 35mm width pancakes, but there is one last step before we can put the film into a camera - perforation.

We are cinema guys at the core, so all our still photography products will be manufactured with cinema standards which, as you probably know, have a much higher precision.

Please meet Perforator #1 - our completely restored 35mm cinema perforator. This is just one of many we have in our huge storage and we will eventually configure each one for a specific format.

We turned on the lights so you could see this beauty, but of course it operates in complete darkness, punching the sprocket holes into the edges of the film with precision spacing, and also adds the "signature" - the logo and codes printed on the edges of most films.

After the Baby Slitter and Perforator #1, we have film that can be spooled into canisters using an everyday bulk-film spooler, just like the ones you can buy even today. In fact, this was how we created the first roll that we introduced in the last post.

3. Re-programming Little Boy

It might be difficult to believe, but our “Little Boy” is a fully computer-controlled machine. This means that all parameters of the machine and its operational behavior are coded into a program that changes depending on the type of film to be manufactured.

The core of Little Boy's control system is not a single computer, but a series of industrial process controllers. Each of these controllers is responsible for a single parameter of Little Boy - for example the temperature and/or humidity in one of the eight drying zones,  (Yes, the Little Boy drying tunnel is composed of a sequence of eight zones, each with a different climate that can be programmed independently!)

Little Boy's controllers are from Turnbull Control Systems (now owned by Schneider Electric), so we refer to as "TCS controllers" - and there are around 50 in total that control every aspect of the coating process.

During the "golden age" at the LRF, the programming of all TCS controllers was automatic, using a centralized VAX server that is, of course, not working anymore. (In fact, we're curious how many people out there even remember the venerable VAX servers which powered the pre-internet systems of many universities, factories and other large-scale networks... Let us know in the comments below!)

Each TCS controller has some analog inputs and outputs managed by an internal program written in the FORTH language. After many years of inactivity, most of our TCS controllers lost their parameters stored in memory when the backup batteries ran out of juice. We refreshed all of the batteries and re-programmed each controller again.

What is the solution while we await the future arrival of "SAMANTHA VAX 2.0?" We pulled each controller and programmed them manually using both a hand-held terminal and a TTY terminal on an old, but still working, Windows '95 machine in the original server room (both pictured above).

This was yet another long and annoying process, but it worked! Many thanks to Massimo Brusoni, the former Ferrania IT Manager who visited the LRF to help us complete this task.

Looking Ahead

We begin the new year with another three steps forward! For those who have been following along, we have:

  1. Successfully coated our first photographic material

  2. Restored a number of machines necessary for preparing miniJumbos before and after coating

  3. Refurbished and reprogrammed the process controllers that power Little Boy

  4. Optimized our team so that each is focused on a very specific aspect of producing our first film

We are more confident and excited than ever. Our long, shadowy delays are behind us and we are making (the term used for synthesis) and testing the coater nearly every day to keep this momentum.


David Bias

New Yorker. Crazy for old cameras and analog film. But I love sci-fi. Go figure.