Make a Kinograph to Digitize Film Reels

Photography & Video
Make a Kinograph to Digitize Film Reels


I was teaching film history in Jordan when I found a garage full of old film cans headed for the trash. There was some curiosity about what was on them, but not really time or resources to figure it out. This is how most films are lost forever. I photographed the label and the first few images of nearly 100 reels with a point-and-shoot and a hastily-built light box.

Then I waited.

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Months later, HM King Abdullah II visited our school, and I showed him a frame from one of the prints featuring his late father, the highly respected HM King Hussein, deplaning in Moscow during a royal visit in the 1970s.

He looked at me and asked “How much?”

I asked for $10,000. He agreed without blinking and walked away.

PRO TIP: When negotiating with a king, always add a zero.
PRO TIP: When negotiating with a king, always add a zero.

I was able to digitize just 10 of the 850 reels with that money. To digitize the whole lot, at that rate, would take $750K. Commercial digitizers were proprietary machines the size of refrigerators, averaging $250K. I needed a fast, cheap, portable, digitizer built entirely from parts that could be purchased online and shipped internationally.

Enter the Kinograph. The prototype was developed as my thesis project at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. It’s controlled by Arduino and Processing, and uses a DSLR for capturing frames. The total cost, with camera, came to just over $3,000.

Click here to download design files and instructions for Kinograph v. 0.1.
Click here to download design files and instructions for Kinograph v. 0.1.

There are plenty of areas for improvement and I’m now working with the open source community to make Kinograph, and the whole process of digitizing film, easier and more affordable. We are running out of time before the films that are left decay beyond repair. While we still can, it’s important that we get as many hands on deck to help conserve our shared visual heritage.

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Matthew Epler

Matthew Epler is a creative technologist in Brooklyn, NY. His work has been featured in the Milan Triennale Museum of Design and on Wired, Huffington Post, Newsweek, Reuters, BoingBoing, Vice, The Creators Project, Creative Applications, the Processing home site, the Raspberry Pi home site, and many more.

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