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Shoot, Process, and View Estes Cineroc Movies
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By Jeff Lane

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Using available technology to shoot, process, and view Estes Cineroc movies. by Jeff Lane 11/11/05

The Cineroc, which was sold by Estes in the early 1970s, was a masterpiece of engineering, reducing the size of a movie camera to a BT-65 and 4 ounces fully loaded with film and batteries. The compact size and simplified design were off the scale. It's still a holy grail for collectors. Recently a new, unused sample sold for $553 on Ebay. But if you want to fly it, you have to deal with several problems:

o No daylight-balanced user processed color reversal film is available except stock that has been in refrigerators for 25 years.

o Kodak and Agfa no longer market an E-6 kit for home processing in the US.

o The labs (if you can find one) that can process the film are cine labs and are used to working with much longer footage. Current Kodak super 8 film comes in 50-foot cartridges, and it must be removed and loaded into the Cineroc cartridge, which requires 11-foot lengths.

o Who watches films on projectors now anyway? Exactly nobody (OK, maybe a few retro-geeks). So you convert the films to Quicktime or other digital files to view them.

One thing that used to be a problem was the batteries. No more. The "N" sized batteries are available at any Radio Shack, and they're great-quality coppertops that last a long time.

I got my first Cineroc as a teenager from an adult rocketeer mentor who bought it but never flew it. He sold it to me for $10 in 1975. After all, who could afford that outrageous price of $19.95? Having owned two Cinerocs and having used another owned by a friend, the following film, processing and scanning methods have evolved over a many years.

In the 70s you shot film and sent it to Estes for development. When the lab was no longer in business and film was no longer available, I experimented with Ektachrome film and found that you could process it in an open tray (in total darkness) using Kodak's Hobby Pak 500ml E-6 chemicals. The trick was that you had to constantly agitate in order to keep the immersed, loose film in the tray from sticking together and causing variably processed sections. There are other methods of processing I won't cover them here.

After just a few flights, my first Cineroc weathercocked into a stiff wind on a summer day visiting relatives in Yukon, Oklahoma in 1986 and flew parallel to the ground at high speed across the interstate finding its final resting place in the grill of an 18-wheeler traveling at full tilt. Big Guy, if my Cineroc punctured you grill, I'm sorry. I'll never do it again. But at the time it seemed like a good idea, 'cause, you know, there's no such thing as a calm day in Yukon.

A friend let me use his Cineroc in the early 90s even though it had never been flown before. Borrowing something this valuable is dumb, but fortunately there wasn't any damage after 4 or so flights. I taught kids at a church VBS program how to build model rockets (instead of the usual popsicle-stick crafts) and we launched the Cineroc during the Saturday VBS launch (using daylight reversal film, which was still available at the time) and showed the film the next day during services. I've never seen people so excited in a church service. They were shouting "…show it again". I had to show it 3 times and then frame-by-frame.

Around the year 2000 or so, Kodak stopped manufacturing super 8 color E-6 reversal film altogether. Color negative films are still available, as is Kodachrome, but the negative films don't work real well for projection, and Kodachrome is ASA 40, which if shot in the Cineroc would require push processing of 1.5 stops. Kodachrome processing is 14 steps and there's only a couple of places in the whole galaxy that process it so I'm not sure you can even get Kodachrome push processing done.

In 2001 I acquired another unused Cineroc and resumed experimentation. The first step was to get some daylight balanced film, which was a mistake. I was able to find some daylight film on Ebay which had been refrigerated since the late 80s. I shot a flight, but when I processed the film, the emulsion sloughed off from the base and down the drain after the first step (I was attempting "hose processing, which was a disaster, too). The primary problem was that the film had been stored in a freezer rather than refrigerator.

So the Cineroc was forced into retirement.

Around 2002, Kodak reintroduced 7240 VNF464 Super 8 film and on their web site they confirm that limited stock is still available. Recent purchases were made from B&H. Snap it up while you can. It'll last for years if refrigerated.

The problem is that it's tungsten balanced, and the color is blue-shifted when the film is shot in daylight. Ideally an 85a (orange) filter should be used to get correct color balance.

Filtration creates a new problem; a reduction in light to the film which requires compensation in the form of additional time in processing (push processing) to get the correct exposure. I shot a test roll and tried to avoid these problems by shifting the colors toward orange in Photoshop after scanning. The exposure was fine, but shifting the colors did not work. The color shift toward blue was too extreme and I wound up with a B&W look that was very undesirable.

The next step was to try the 85a filter with push processing. A local camera shop had some high-end acrylic filter material (most of the filters are glass, which is harder to work with) from Cokin. I carefully cut a piece and CA'd it to the existing Cineroc hood. Big mistake. The CA vapors sublimated into the filter acrylic and then crystallized onto the surface of the mirror. None of the solvents I tried made a dent in these wonderfully cool-looking crystals, so of course they destroyed the mirror. When I get another Cineroc, I'll use the original mirror and add the filter using Goop glue (a petroleum-based common household cement), minimizing glue coverage and allowing some airspace between the filter and lens hood so the mirror doesn't fog with glue sublimate.

The eventual solution on my current Cineroc was to use Goop glue to attach the filter between the lens hole in the body tube and the mirror, which is a new, larger mirror (from Hobby Lobby) cut to shape. It had to be a larger mirror in order to clear the thickness of the acrylic filter, which is ~3mm thick. The mirror is mounted to a piece of balsa similar in shape to the old hood with Goop glue. On the first flight with this setup, there was some flare caused by the sun hitting the edge of the mirror, so a new hood was created simply by covering the assembly with black electrical tape. It's ugly, but it works.

Another issue is the mechanics of processing. I don't know of any way to process cine film in a standard 500ml daylight film processing canister, so I created my own film holder from a couple of soft plastic water bottles, some flat styrene to center the assembly, and some small-diameter brass rod stock from the local model shop. Essentially the film is wrapped around nested cylinders with the polyester film base resting on the cylinders and the emulsion facing out into the chemicals. The challenge was to get two cylinders to fit one inside the other and to keep the film from shifting around. The solution is to pierce the smaller, inside cylinder with small brass rods spaced every 8mm (see photos) and canted so one side has the rods repeating at intervals that are centered on the positioning of the rods on the other side. This results in a natural spiral up the cylinder with no stress on the film. The brass rods are held in place by friction on the inner cylinder. The spacing must be carefully laid out to reduce crimping the edges of the film with the rods, but to provide enough edge pressure to keep the film from shifting around. I haven't run my processed film through a projector yet (since I just scan the film and make Quicktime files as the final product), but even though I spaced the rods carefully, the small crimps on the edges of the film may cause problems in a projector. The crimps relax somewhat with age. The second water bottle is cut evenly on both sides like a clamshell. Flat styrene is fashioned and hot-glued (with keyholes in styrene and bottle to guarantee purchase) to center the assembly.

After the film is wrapped around the inner and outer cylinders, the end of the film is tucked into the center of the assembly and flops around but doesn't unravel during processing. This end is usually only 6-8 inches long and is footage of your fingers moving away after turning the camera on. The starting end is threaded into a ½" slit in the inner bottle. It sounds complex, but it only took an hour to fabricate, and 3-4 trial loadings before I could adequately load the film in a loading bag. It takes 4-5 minutes to load the film into this custom processing holder.

The current chemicals I use for processing are purchased from B&H photo. I'm testing two different brands, Tetenal and Paterson. They last about one month after mixing and are similar to the old Kodak Hobby-Pak and Agfa 500ml E-6 chemistry sets, neither of which is still in production. There may still be some old Agfa stock, which I was able to purchase as recently as spring of 2005.

The standard time for processing E-6 in fresh chemicals (at 100 degrees f.) is 5-7 minutes for the main developer, so when it's pushed 1.5 stops to compensate for the light loss at the filter, processing time becomes 11-12 minutes with fresh chemicals.

I've found that a couple of factors in the mechanism of the Cineroc are very important for proper film transport. One is that the end of the film where a rectangular hole is cut to mount it on the take-up reel in the Cineroc film cassette must be centered very carefully. If this end of the film is forced to one side or the other of the take-up reel, it creates rotational resistance and slows or stops the transport of the film. The pulley shaft usually needs to be wrapped with a small amount of Scotch tape to increase friction fit against the inside of the takeup reel so it will turn reliably. Another factor is the size of the rubber band and tension it applies to the mechanism. If it's a little too small, the film transports too quickly, causing jumpy frames and some unexposed areas. If it's a little too large, the film drags, which results again in a jumpy look, white multiple-exposed frames, and temporary stops during high-g events such as staging. In my newest camera, the original rubber band had to be replaced because it was slightly too large. I always clean off the rubber band with alcohol before a flight because the rubber surface oxidizes, which reduces traction at the metal axle. Also, never leave the rubber band around the takeup reel in storage because it will stretch.

I've added a roller switch to the shoulder of the Cineroc where it fits inside the body tube of the launch vehicle so film transport stops at ejection (footage of parachutes flopping around or the launch site swinging by gets old quick). This allows two flights per load. I've also added a small piece of Post-it note so that the roller switch raises a second or two after deployment because otherwise it seems like fightus interruptus if the film stops at ejection.

I scan the film on an HP flatbed scanner (with transparency adapter) at 2800 dpi. It scans 24 frames at a time (a physical limitation of the size of the light on the scanner). Ektachrome film is normally capable of 4000 dpi resolution but the Cineroc lens isn't capable of that resolution and push-processing the film results in larger grain. 2800 dpi resolution happily results in ~640x480 video resolution (standard broadcast quality).

In Adobe Premiere I exported a filmstrip file (with random video images) at 640x480 resolution and 60 frames in length (the maximum allowed). You can't create a new filmstrip file in Photoshop, so you have to import one, paste new scanned frames, then flatten it and save it as a new .flm file. When you open a .flm file in Photoshop, it has a separate channel containing timecode and the frames. (This base filmstrip file is used over and over again, using "save as a new filmstrip file" to get intermediate editable filmstrips) You select the timecode channel within Photoshop, adjust the transparency of the channel to 30% so you can see the pasted footage to fine-adjust size, frames and rotation, and you're ready to paste the raw scans. I usually adjust the density, sharpness, and color of the film too. The 60-frame base .flm files allow pasting two 24-frame raw scans plus an additional 12 frames from the next raw scan. Once you have the raw film layers pasted, you have to flatten the layers before you can save it again as a filmstrip file because the format doesn't support layers.

The intermediate filmstrip files (usually 3 per flight) can then be edited down in Premiere, a flattened movie exported, and you're headed for the limos and red carpet. MPEG movies are 2-3mb each.

Alternatively, the films can be transferred to digital video by many film and video duplication companies, then imported and edited on computer. The cost for these services can be quite reasonable (in the $20-$75 range depending on length of film). In terms of quality, the best way to transfer the images would be to cut the film into strips that would fit on a high-resolution drum scanner, and then edit the images down as described above. Hmmm… do I detect a comparison article, including the Oracle?

The COSROCS site photo section (cosrocs.org) has some recent finished Cineroc movies which were completed using this methodology.

I encourage experimentation, opinions, and additions to this epic.

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