Film Preservation Part Two: Video Preservation And The Future Of Digital Preservation

Cannes Film Festival

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In December, an article featuring the Academy of Arts and Sciences’ Head of Film Archives Mike Pogorzelski was published in the 411 Publishing Newsletter that illustrated the difference of archiving film and digital archiving.  The complexities of archiving do not end with film, however.  Video faces its own preservation hurdles.  Videotape is composed of a flexible plastic called mylar covered with a layer of magnetic particles that function like bar magnets.  Videotape was not designed with high resolution and it does not have the survival rate film has.  Additionally, many early formats of video require specific playback mechanisms that are no longer manufactured.

"The history of television preservation is even more depressing and complicated than film because the original video tape formats used in the 50s and 60s have only a handful of the playback machines used that are still in existence and only a handful of people qualified to maintain and run them," said Pogorzelski. 

The problem is specifically dire for one or two inch videotapes.  The moving components in videotape heads that read these formats are no longer manufactured.  Once the current stock of these components is exhausted, there are no longer factories that create them.  Although it is dangerous to say there is no way for these to be created in the future, there has to be the will and financial backing for new manufacturing plants to open.

"We are really in a last chance to transfer or migrate them to a more contemporary format," said Pogorzelski.  "The good news is that there are a lot of tapes that are being transferred to digital formats.  Digital, as it turns out, is a very good way to store analog TV.  NTSC video is only 525 lines of resolution.  It’s not like a 4K feature film that takes up many terabytes to store.  A lot of TV libraries are being transferred to digital formats."  

The preservation of film and video libraries is under the discretion of the movie or television studio that initially produced, or who brought the rights to, the property.  Chosen entities have preservation teams ensuring their future will remain secure.  However, there are film and video prints that have lost owners over time, either through bankruptcy or other similar circumstances.  These items are known as orphan works.  Orphan works do not have government agencies preserving them. 

"It’s a production company that went out of business and that library is sitting in a vault or a lab or warehouse somewhere, and there is no one with any money who’s properly able to take care of them, to restore and preserve them," said Pogorzelski.  "A lot of archives in America are not for profit archives that are responsible for taking care of that kind of work.  Many independent film makers were so immersed in getting heir film made that they never though about or considered how it would be preserved or taken care of.  This is one of the non-profit activities that the Academy does to preserve cinema history."

One wouldn’t necessarily expect a philosophical debate to arise over film and video transfers to digital formats.  However, many studios have begun "cleaning" original versions in the digital process.  The films become modified from their original release, with modified colors, removal of dust, even the elimination of brush strokes in animated features.  Currently 20th Century Fox is dealing with this dilemma as they transfer "The Robe," a Richard Burton feature released in 1953, from faded Eastman film stock to a digital version. 

"In order to recreate the color palette of the film, we’re using our general knowledge, or experience, of what those film stocks are generally capable of reproducing, and what they look like generally," said Pogorzelski.  "It is very subjective.  We’re trying to stay as close and true to the original achievement as possible, but at the end of the day there are judgement calls.  Fox is very keen to stay true to our philosophical approach to restoration, which is to restore to the original film rather than making it look like, say, a film made in the 21st century." 

Regardless of what format a current production is shot in, there are a few bits of advice Pogorzelski offers to producers wanting ensure there is a future for their works.

"The most important thing is to lay your data off on multiple depositories, whether it’s a hard drive or an LTO tape or if you are making a high def master, clone the master," said Pogorzelski.  "Keep them in different geographical locations.  You always assume that you will take care of your material; that you won’t be smoking at 3:30 a.m. in your apartment in Westwood, but what about the guy above you?  If all your masters get burned down, what will you do?  Everybody is assuming they are the careful ones, but it doesn’t excuse you from making back-ups and keeping them safe."

To read the first part of this article, please visit:

For more information about the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Science and Technology council, please visit: