Arts and Entertainment

Alaska inventor and his film scanner are in demand in Hollywood

An Alaska man who invented a unique digital scanner to rescue crumbling old films says he is overwhelmed with work from Hollywood executives after moving to Los Angeles.

"You could call it a rags-to-riches tale," said Reed Bovee, 55.

Bovee invented his scanner in the basement of his Airport Heights home and unveiled it in 2012 at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

Interest from studios and archivists wanting Bovee to digitize their aging film was immediate. Within months, Bovee sold his Anchorage home and moved his family to Los Angeles, launching Reflex Technologies down the road from NBC and Disney.

"We were just inundated with work, and Anchorage, Alaska, is not exactly ground zero for filmmakers," he said.

For more than a year, Bovee has been scanning thousands of hours of footage from the Frank Zappa film vault.

The films feature Zappa's concerts and Zappa's own filmmaking, Bovee said.

"Almost every famous rocker in the 1970s and early 1980s at some point hung out at Frank Zappa's house," Bovee said. "Jimi Hendrix was in some of the footage."

Joe Travers, the "vault meister" helping preserve Zappa's old films for the Zappa Family Trust, praised Bovee's work.

"The quality of the imagery we get back from the films is amazing," said Travers, a former Duran Duran drummer. "It's a unique machine that would never damage film in any way. That's a very big deal because we're on borrowed time with this film."

Bovee's invention is also helping save fragile, historically important Alaska films, said Greg Schmitz of the Alaska Moving Image Preservation Association.

"It's a pretty incredible piece of equipment because he basically built it in his living room," Schmitz said. "It handles shrunken film really well."

Schmitz said last week he had another package ready to send to Bovee, containing film shot by Clarence Erwin Rusch, a rural Alaska schoolteacher in the 1930s and early 1940s who captured images of dog mushing, hunting and other scenes.

The nonprofit has relied on Bovee to digitize dozens of deteriorating films, including images of Alaska's constitutional convention in 1955, shot by delegate Steve McCutcheon. Alaska, the 49th state, is the only one with such footage, Schmitz said.

Bovee's path to Hollywood ran through Anchorage, where as a child he learned to work on film-production equipment with help from his father, a teletype repairman and broadcast engineer.

In Barrow in the 1980s, Bovee ran the TV studio, providing local programming. His footage in 1988 drew the world's attention to the rescue of three gray whales, a story memorialized in the 2012 film "Big Miracle."

In 1993, after returning to Anchorage and starting a family, Bovee wanted to supplement his income as a documentary filmmaker.

He launched a new business, Cinevision Film & Video, scanning home movies and films onto VHS tapes, then DVDs and Blu-ray discs as technology changed.

But it was frustrating he couldn't save old film that could no longer be shown, after it became "potato-chip brittle" or shrank so much it couldn't run through a projector without being destroyed.

A decade ago, Bovee began seriously working to create a digital scanner that lacked the film-damaging sprockets and "violent" start-stop motion of other digitizing scanners. By the time he got his patent in 2012, Bovee had spent more than $1 million.

Raising the money was a "seat of the pants" task. He borrowed funds from companies that hired him to make documentary films, such as Princess Cruises. He used his family's savings and credit cards.

"Every nickel that came in the door was immediately earmarked for research and development," he said. "I worked 18-hour days, every day, in my basement in Airport Heights."

He's paid off that initial investment and employs seven people, including his wife, Kristy, and their two adult sons. The business is building new scanners, at upward of $350,000 each, as studios bring in more old film for Bovee to process.

Bovee said he's proud he's preserving history. One highlight was rescuing the 85-year-old film of the first filmed ascent of Mount McKinley in 1932, the Lindley-Liek expedition.

"In many of these cases it was throw it in the dumpster or bring it to us," he said.

Bovee said Los Angeles doesn't feel like home. He gives Alaskans a discount because of the professional opportunities he had growing up.

"I was offered more opportunities at a younger age in Alaska than I would have gotten anywhere else in the world," he said. "In Alaska, someone would say, 'Hey kid, here's a camera, go make something.' "

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or