Challenges To Archival Standards In Age Of Multiple Formats

Challenges to archival standards in age of multiple formats

This presentation offers a brief overview of some of the ongoing and current challenges faced by preservationists and archivists in their efforts to provide greater access to unique and historical moving images. It is an attempt to provide scholars, museum and festival programmers and curators, as well as the public with a general understanding of some of the complex issues (technological, economic, institutional) involved in moving image preservation and conservation, with the hope that it may stimulate discussion among a number of communities (academic, archival, public programming and museums) and encourage collaboration.

A diverse range of historical moving image formats and playback equipment have by now become obsolete. There is no question, like it or not, the “digital” revolution has arrived in full force to transform the media environment in which we experience the world of images and sound. The U.S. government imposed conversion to a digital signal for television transmission in June of 2009, marked the decisive “end” of “analog” transmitted media for what is still, the single, most pervasive form of communication for the majority of the public, broadcast television. Although one might argue that the internet and new media such as twitter, facebook and cellular phones have already superseded the tub, by offering a new generation of consumers an infinite horizon of global networks (entertainment, education, leisure activities, economics, social networking, politics, etc) reachable via a vast information highway.

So, what does the new digital environment mean for moving images, and specifically preservation? Scholars often ask preservationists and archivists when such and such a film is coming out on DVD because they want immediate access to these materials for teaching purposes, as well as research. While most moving image archives provide viewing services for scholars and researchers to screen access prints, and more commonly now, tape and DVD copies, many (including university archives) have already begun to lay the foundation (some even executing plans) for offering digitally transmitted files of a variety of moving image material, including 16mm film, one and two- inch tape for television, ¾ inch u-matic tape, ½ inch VHS, Beta SP and Betacam, and smaller gauges, such as 28mm, 9.5mm to name a few. The number of institutional grants currently being offered by U.S. government programs to fund projects involving “digitization” or digital conversion of archival collections has increased significantly within the last five years. If successful, digitally transmitted moving image projects could offer employment opportunities to a now gloomy job market in the archival field, as well as offer a range of solutions to some access problems commonly vocalized by users, such as eliminating the cost of travel to an archive for those who cannot afford the time or money for extended research trips, provide easy access for classroom use and offer increased availability of a wider range of material etc. It could possibly help archival administrators to consolidate their materials and better manage storage and associated costs (for example by eliminating excess copies in cases where multiple access copies were acquired in a variety of commercial formats) by having a tighter reign on their inventories. For institutions, particularly university archives, who have lost funding or who face budgetary decisions digitalization may provide an arguable counter-solution to cases where a decision is pending as to whether or not to sell, or even donate collections to larger, better funded institutions, due to the high cost of storage and maintenance facilities. Digital files on a server would at least allow these institutions to retain the collection in a usable form rather than loosing out entirely on their initial investment.

Moreover, in terms of new forms of exhibition, digital restoration of unique moving images made available on a server could facilitate theatrical presentation of moving images at art museums or as part of larger mixed-medial exhibitions, thereby eliminating the prohibitive cost of union projectionists working full time around the clock on a daily schedule. In addition, it could provide access to material that has been underutilized or not utilized at all, thereby providing administrators facing budgetary cuts with justifiable reasons for retaining collections, by defending their potential use value if made accessible.

If this is beginning to sound too good to be true, then let look at the analog to digital conversion from the more problematic side of the equation . My general impression is that many university taught courses on the moving image rely on DVD’s, or tape to teach their courses because of the easy access and low cost of these formats. I often here remarks, like, “well, there is a copy on ‘Youtube’, so we don’t need to screen” a restored version of a particular silent film at a conference, or its out on DVD so we don’t need to see it or program it. I’m concerned about this attitude and the preference for having access to material that has never been seen before, while there is less concern about the quality of the formats used for public programming, research and teaching. This is a rather contentious topic considering what point of view you approach it from, but I do think the scholarly and archival communities, as well as museum programmers, need to dialogue about formats and presentation of material.

Moreover, archivists must begin to question the nature of our work when the general public, including some scholars, programmers and curators of festival ( some of whom are not moving image specialists) have little insight into what we are really doing. Having been involved in exhibition programming for over 15 years, I am shocked when I realize how little is known about proper format and presentation of moving image material. While this is something archivists and an older generation of moving image programmers are extremely concerned about, I’m not sure the general public and art museum curators, and some academics (not all) entirely understand how important presentation is. On the other hand, I frequently hear fearful remarks about “digitally restored material” that is not presented in the form of a 35mm print. There seems to be a general misconception as to what it means when were refer to a moving image being digitally restored or involving analog and digital methods, and terms like digitally re-mastered advertised commercial releases of films on standard DVD. This confusion is due to the commercial use of terms for marketing purposes or promotion. For this very reason, its important that archivists, scholars, programmers, and lab technicians engage in some kind of dialogue so that there is a better understanding of the work involved in preservation and presentation of moving images. Otherwise, we risk mis-educating the public by presenting them with poor and unacceptable standard DVD projection.

What I have written above may sound like both gloom and good in the same breath, but it is likely due to the fact that our field, as we know it, will look entirely different within the next 10 years and this is a little difficult for a number of us to swallow right now. Realistically, and for a variety of reasons (technology, money, expertise in conversion of data etc) we are still considerably far away from the quick and easy, improved access currently being promoted to support the digital transition. However, if the motion picture industry has its way, and it appears thus far to have gotten its way, the moving image archival field and as a result, academic scholarship of moving images, will follow the direction the industry takes us in, as we have always, and will continue to be, driven by the industry.

Whatever does happen, we can assure ourselves that we will have to give something up in order to gain something else. If a digital landscape offers promises of convenience, in the form of easier and wider access, it also raises ethical questions about the mission of archives as well as the forms of scholarly inquiry and methodology being employed to study the history of moving images.

We should be asking how and in what ways archives can better provide access to a broader range of materials. Possibly, by collaborating with academics to plan special events (nitrate screenings, lectures and on site presentations) in which archivists and preservationists can discuss and make presentations utilizing moving image formats that cannot be handled by the public. This may be one way that scholars can inform archives of what materials is of interest for historical inquiry, and as such may impact archival plans as to what material should be restored. Many factors decide what moving image materials get preserved (donor funding, grants, high profile), but I do think academic input should be considered in the overall scheme of how and why archives select material for preservation.

Stabilization test – Sage Femme de Premiere Class (Gaumont, 1902). Directed by Alice Guy.

Taking the above brief discussion into consideration, I want to address the specific points I tried to make in my presentation during the March conference. I began my presentation by projecting an example of a split screen stabilization test done by Colorlab Corporation of Md and New York. An original nitrate print of the Alice Guy film, Sage-femme de première class (1902), recently found at Northeast Historic film in Maine, and donated to the Library of Congress was inspected by staff who reported that there was a lot of movement and a considerable amount of shrinkage in the print, that is, damage to the original artifact at some point in its lifetime, and not the result of the actual production of the print itself. I think most present at this screening were stunned to see side by side comparative views of how digital technology can provide a relatively non-evasive intervention into an original, heavily damaged moving image artifact whereby it could be visually improved without sacrificing the overall formal and technical content of the original. If the print was printed by traditional analog means, the result would have been disturbing movement of the frames such that the film would be difficult to watch, while the method of doing a 2k scan of the original nitrate, followed by stabilization fix to the data file generated from the scan, allowed corrections to be made prior to a film out to a 35mm negative print (preservation material) and 35mm theatrical projection print (public access).

How does the format of a work effect access to moving images?

A. Analog vs digital – the industry drives the moving image field. As we transition to digitally born materials, or materials that involve combined digital and analog preservation methods, a number of factors come into play that effect presentation.

High definition vs standard DVD - quality of image projected. If you screen a standard DVD for teaching purposes, how do you expect to discuss historical issues of lightning, aspect ratio or other specifics of mise-en-scene? A standard DVD will not produce an image of equivalent theatrical quality when projected to an audience. Even viewing a standard definition DVD on a good, calibrated video monitor is problematic for the serious film scholar and/or student. quality image.

Do you understand the difference between a commercial DVD release and a digitally restored film that is released on a Blu-ray disc, or to a 35mm print?

B. Projection

Disappearance of 35mm silent projection in major venues : museums, festivals and university settings.
With the gradual and already quite alarming disappearance of 35mm projection, especially silent projection, format becomes an issue. What are acceptable formats for theatrical exhibition?

C. Formats currently in use

Digital Betacam videotape – native analog
Beta-SP videotape – native analog

Standard DVD – digital signal
Blu-ray disc – digital signal

Other formats or intermediates dying out : HD-Cam, DVD-R, etc.

D. Preservation vs restoration

E. Digital Restoration
Whitney Museum of American Art – Alice Guy Blache retrospective. Digital Restorations by Frank Wylie, Dayton Digital Filmworks.

As preservation director of the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Alice Guy Blaché

exhibition, which featured 35mm theatrical projection prints from a number of international archives, as well as restorations of six Library of Congress 35mm film prints, I was asked to discuss how some programming and preservation decisions were made.

Combined analog and digital restoration was the preferred method of preservation for a number of reasons, the principal one being mostly all the surviving material was in the form of older duplicate negatives generated around 1978-1983, prior to use of liquid gate. Due to the poor quality of the dupes, which retained printed in defects from the original nitrate copies (discarded due to deterioration), the following procedure was followed :

Frame by frame scan of artifact at 3k brought down to 2k followed by :
Digital enhancement – use of software (examples Correction, Diamant, Davinci) to paint-out, minimize and eliminate defects (dirt, scratches, marks, tears, damaged or loss frames) that altered the condition of the original artifact at some point in its lifetime.

A recent acquisition, an original nitrate, tinted, positive of the film Mixed Pets (1911) is used as an example to explain how and why digital restoration was carried out for a nitrate positive print recently acquired for the exhibition, and restored with a grant from the Women’s Film preservation Fund, New York Women in Film and Television..

I screened a series of power point images of some nitrate frames from each scene of the comedy short, Mixed Pets to try and explain why the digital route of restoration was selected for this, previously lost film, and the earliest known, extant, Solax production to date.

Mixed Pets (Solax, 1911) directed by Alice Guy Blaché.
35mm tinted and toned nitrate positive
Condition of nitrate : bleaching, severe deterioration, gassing, shrinkage, surface defects, dirt ground into the emulsion.

Since the print suffered from a range of physical problems, it was decided that the digital route could best handle the artifact in its current state, rather than forcing its fragile condition through a film synchronizer where it risked being further damaged.

In addition, since the Whitney museum had projection facilities that could accommodate Blu-ray disc, it was decided that after the preservation negative was generated, a Blu-ray disc would be the access copy for theatrical projection, as the budget for projectionists was restricted to Sunday programs only, over the course of an exhibition schedule that ran from November 2009 thru January 2010. Since that limited the time that 35mm prints could be projected, the Blu-ray disc format offered more screenings of the restored LC material. The possibility of circulating parts of the exhibition in the future was a further consideration, so having a range of projection formats available (digital Betacam, beta-sp, Blu-ray, etc) to prospective programmers was another advantage to selecting this route.

Digital restoration – preferred route, scan and output to 35mm dupe neg and theatrical projection print as well as Blu-ray disc, or other acceptable theatrical format such as Beta SP, or Digital Betacam (although the latter two may be not considered acceptable theatrical projection formats by some purists, many festivals and museum programmer often rely on tape when prints are not available).

I noted to those present, the significance of lab technicians in the field of preservation, and how they are often, the unsung heroes of our field. Lab technicians can provide insight into historical aspects of an artifact, that few scholars and even archivists may be aware of, especially those lab technicians with an extensive photochemical and film production background.

For example, a pink toned interior scene in the nitrate print presented unique visual problems in the end product (Blu-ray disc) because the print itself suffered from bleaching in parts of the frame of these scenes.

Frank Wylie of Dayton Digital Filmworks explained to me how the blotchy pink color in the print was probably the result of the original shot being out of focus (the far background wall is in sharp relief, the foreground is not) and the uneven bleaching effect of out-gassing on the pink tint, which irregularly affected the density of these shots, causing a "blotchy" appearance.

Moreover, a floral patterned wallpaper in the background of these shots appeared even more blotchy and uneven when the pink toned color was digitally added in.

Since most cinematographers (from the very beginning of Cinema) had the option of checking focus via visually checking a piece of translucent, frosted film placed in the camera gate, this failure to focus properly was probably result of the failure of a "zone focusing" system being used at the time in the Solax Studios. '

Most studio productions of 1911 relied upon clearly marked zones upon the studio floor, in which actors could move and remain in focus. These standardized zones made rapid scenery changes possible and let the actor know where he or she could roam and remain in the shot and in focus.

The focus error in this film could possibly have been introduced by the disruption of "normal" filming routines by the introduction of the few close-ups scattered throughout the film that demanded the changing of focus to a non standard position, but that is only speculation. However, this production error is potentially an important historical clue to the practical consequences of the evolution of filmic language; the introduction of more complex production methods can result in more errors.

In the end, the out of focus shots, which are obvious and were undoubtedly noticed by the production staff, were probably deemed acceptable by the studio due to the high cost of motion picture production and scheduling concerns; a rationale that never seems to fall out of favor, as all motion picture production is enormously expensive relative to the time in which it is produced.

While we feared that the scene might appear visually distracting to contemporary viewers when projected (especially when compared with crisp shots of diegetic inserts of newspaper advertisements shot in black and white at a close range) the frames of the images of this interior scene were not further modified or corrected. From a historical point of view, it was important to retain the historical integrity of the artifact. The point I tried to make in this example, was that the range of focal lengths in the shots of this scene were the result of the actual production when it was shot, and not the result of damage to the artifact itself. Another common example similar to this, is when an object such as a nail or object hanging on a wall in the background of a shot is at first glance mistakenly taken to be a defect in a print, when it is actually something present in the scene, whether by accident or intentionally.

Further evidence to support Frank’s claims about the focal length variation in some scenes of Mixed Pets is further supported by Trade Press accounts of the period in which it was reported that later in the fall of 1911, Solax built new facilities in order to improve production standards and focus on comedy as a genre. Surviving Solax prints from the years 1912 to 1913, reveal that an improved and more higher production standard likely was in place after 1911, as the lighting and mise-en-scene of Solax films such as A Fool and His Money (1912), Canned Harmony (1912), Matrimony’s Speed Limit (1913), A House Divided (1913) Roads Lead Home (1913) demonstrate a more sophisticated use of lighting, camera work and stylistic and technical devices for purposes of narration. Comparison of prints of these films reveal the importance of dealing directly with the artifact and how aspects of the preservation process reveal key technical information for understanding film style, narration, and changing production values of the period in which the films were produced.

As a production, Mixed Pets presents many examples of the often uneven use and application of a range of stylistic and technical devices being employed in the mid-teen during the transitional period of cinema, when producers experimented with and incorporated a range of devices, close-ups, matte shots, diverse camera focal ranges, as well as attempts at visually detailed compositions in their attempts to tell more complex stories, but overall it is a more uneven production than the later films mentioned.

While surface defects present throughout of the nitrate print (dirt ground into the emulsion, scratches, and some of the bleaching) of Mixed Pets could be somewhat minimized using digital software, the historical circumstances of the actual shooting of the production, that resulted in the uneven focus of the images in the above interior scene with pink toning, along with budgetary and time limits, were left as is, and as such demonstrate, that preservation involves making judgments about how far one can go with regards to enhancing or altering images.

G. Digital Restoration – what is the end product?

Digital file – in this case the digital file may be considered preservation material, but a preservation negative is always generated in order to ensure long term survival of the artifact in the event that the digital file is corrupted or damaged.

Further advantages - Other formats can be generated directly from the digital file including : print or pre-print (preservation elements) such as 35mm negative and positive prints, and a range of access or viewing copies such as standard DVD, Blu-ray disc (also used for theatrical projection) and tape (Digital Betacam, Beta SP).

H. Advantages and Disadvantages of the digital route or combined digital/analog route

Advantages : direct method of transfer to other formats (as opposed to migrating from tape to intermediate format in order to arrive at an access copy such as a standard DVD or Blu-ray disc for theatrical exhibition).

Improved visual quality of artifact – the stabilization screen test is one example.

Access – more venue possibilities in the future, as 35mm projection dies out, with the exception of festivals and specialized events.

Restoration benefits – can combine analog and digital methods which could be cost effective as digital files can be worked on and updated as new technology is investigated. Tests can be generated without having to produce prints which are costly. Silent color studies for example.


Migration problems, loss of data over time or during restoration process
High cost – labor involved in digital enhancement
Loss of historical presence of artifact – end of film as we know it
Confusion – will we be able to tell the difference between digitally restored moving images and that which is not- will it matter?
Projection – different results, professional versus amateur grade.

Exhibition media standards are often not complementary to legacy formats: i.e., 4:3 aspect ratio images, shoe-horned into 16:9 ratio HD presentations, result in reduced resolution images since you only use the center portion of the total frame and pad-out the remaining space with black "pillars".

Changing "Color Spaces", the native color reproduction characteristics of the playback device and the Codec (compression-decompression software schemes used to encode the images) can actually unintentionally alter density and color information of the digital master with disastrous results.

These errors are often enacted by proprietary software and hardware that is hidden from view within the playback device and corrective measures can be difficult and time consuming. Proper color and density reproduction of a digital element requires knowledge and skills of all the potential variables and their implementations.

*Special thanks to Frank Wylie of Dayton Digital Filmworks for his input and contribution to some technical points of this presentation.

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