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Substandard is a harsh review of 3-inch reels. There is beauty in watching 4-minute home films recorded on small reels, and it stems from the beginning of cinema when moving images began.

Recently, it has irked me as to why 3-inch reels are still a popular form of media to have digitised. They are so short and meek in their prowess. Especially compared to the marathon-long VHS tapes or touch-of-a-button, high-definition filming available on our phones. I even enjoy watching these jittery, discoloured and (mostly) silent videos — even those that are overexposed and covered in dirt.

Something is enchanting in these incredibly short, moving images of documented life. I can only liken it to the beginning of cinema itself. When films were called moving images, and the spectacle was in the newness of video technology itself.

The Personal Touch of The Kinetoscope

It isn’t easy to pinpoint where the art of moving images began due to many people creating video technology around the same time. Yet, Thomas Edison’s invention of the kinetoscope in 1891 definitely began the capitalisation of a spectator watching a moving image.

The kinetoscope’s intimate and self-contained showing of moving images paved the way to why home filming became popular. It was a personable attraction designed for one person to view at a time. The kinetoscope displayed its films inside a cabinet with a window for spectators to peer inside and watch the show. The small size of the attraction meant the kinetoscope was installed in many tourist hotspots like amusement parks and hotels.

So, what has this got to do with filming onto a 3-inch reel?

Well, Edison genuinely believed that moving image technology would not make as much money if larger groups could watch the show at the same time. A faux pas on his part since cinemas and television are incredibly successful even to this day.

Yet, his belief did touch upon one part of the truth. That the technology of moving images is incredibly personal to the consumer. There is a love for creating films yourself, whether this is documentations of your life or Oscar-worthy dramatizations. The beauty of 3-inch reels is in the hands of the creator.

Yet, this is only part of the answer.

The Cinématographe’s Technological Amazement

The second answer to the question is the content of these moving image films.

The Lumière Brothers began the worldwide attraction of moving images as a spectacle of life with their invention of the cinématographe. It was a lightweight camera and projector that displayed short videos for audiences to engross themselves.

One of the most famous moving image clips was of a train arriving at La Ciotat station. Let’s be honest; if this video were at a cinema today, it would not entice audiences to flock to the screens. (Or maybe it would if it meant we were out of lockdown?) But, back in the 19th Century, the film’s novelty shocked many audiences, with some spectators hiding behind their chairs in fear of the oncoming train hitting them!

The novelty of watching menial moments on a screen captivated audiences and later introduced the market for home video cameras. Soon, everyone was documenting their own ordinary moments of life. There was a captivation in watching the variety of lives and cultures displayed on 3-inch reels. Their rawness in content and novel technology is a spectacle to watch even to this day.

The Sudden Burst of Presence

The sharp cuts and abruptness to 3-inch reels can feel like they lack in substance. Yet, similar to how the Lumière Brothers captivated audiences with their short clips, which lacked narrative, 3-inch reels have a familiar charm.

“Rather than a development that links the past with the present in such a way as to define specific anticipation of the future […] the attraction seems limited to a sudden burst of presence.” – Tom Gunning

Tom Gunning created the term “Cinema of Attraction” to categorise moving image cinema before the development of narrative storylines. These early shows enticed audiences with surprise through momentary appearances of moving images.

Much the same, home videos filmed on 3-inch reels have a “sudden burst of presence”. They contain 4-minute time capsules of the present. Most of the reels were documentation of life that lacked the temporal structure shown in films we see in later years. The videos would have people interacting with the camera or a voyeuristic approach where the viewer sees a glimpse into the camera holder’s life.

The beginning of home filming were private spectacles. They encapsulated moments in time and attracted others to watch what the camera holder had experienced. The beauty of 3-inch reels are in their abruptness: they erupt with the presence of a time once had and spilt with the ordinary person’s intimate documentation of the familiar.