Memory, Images, History
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles
Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.
That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at firstsounds.org
At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.
Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.
I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.
The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.
Sunday, February 14, 2010
Blog posting written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive
While the NEA discontinued funding moving image archives in the early 1990s, other organizations took up the challenge. As early as the late 1980s, the American Film Institute’s campaign “Nitrate Won’t Wait” had increased public consciousness about the need to save and preserve the precious moving image heritage. Through theNational Film Preservation Act of 1988, Congress established a National Film Preservation Board and created a National Film Registry (25 titles are added each year by the Librarian of Congress), which identified ‘National film treasures”. The initial impetus for the Act was the concern over the commercial treatment of classic films, including re-editing to fit television time slots, panning and scanning to fit the tv screen, and electronic colorization of black and white materials.
The National Film Preservation Board consists of appointed representatives from virtually all of the medium’s professional organizations, including the Society of Cinema and Media Studies, the Screen Actor’s Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, and the National Society of Film Critics. The reauthorization of the Board in 1992 asked the Library of Congress to complete a study of the state of film preservation, Film Preservation 1993, which in turn led to the Founding of the National Film Preservation Foundation in 1999.
The NFPF is now funding film preservation projects at a national level, both through direct government monies and grants from private foundations and companies. While the National Film Registry’s titles are overwhelmingly culled from mainstream Hollywood’s output, the NFPF mandate is to fund only so-called orphan films, i.e. films which were never copyrighted or have entered the public domain. As a result, many previously marginalized films and film genres, including amateur films, industrials, educational films, medical films, avant-garde, and silent films are now being preserved.
The 1990s also saw a number of private foundations become involved in the preservation of films, including The Film Foundation (TFF, founded by Martin Scorsese and other film directors in 1992), and the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI), both of whom have shown a preference for classic Hollywood cinema, although TFF supports avant-garde film preservation through the NFPF, and PHI has funded the preservation of third world titles. Meanwhile, the major film studios, including Sony Entertainment, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and Universal have redoubled their own preservation efforts, at least of materials on which they own copyright or which they are planning to re-release in digital formats.
In 1997, the Librarian of Congress commissioned another study to look at the state of television preservation, Television and Video Preservation 1997. A Report on the Current State of American Television and Video Preservation. Seven years later, the National Television and Video Preservation Foundation was finally established in 2004, albeit without the participation of Congress or the Library of Congress, which had initially funded the NFPF. Instead, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and Jim Lindner, a video preservationist, have made initial cash donations, while video laboratories have offered in-kind services. The National Television and Video Preservation Foundation (NTVPF) has secured preservation services from preservation sponsors which has lead to the preservation of ca. 35 titles. (to be continued...)
Friday, February 5, 2010
With the development in the United States in the late 1960s of government funding sources for preservation through the National Endowment for the Arts and the growth of local, regional, and television archives, a sea change occurred in the U.S. archival community. While moving image preservation had previously been handled by only a few nitrate-holding archives, including George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archives, Museum of Modern Art, and the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division, literally dozens of new archives were founded in the following years, making the need for a North American organization apparent. Suddenly a host of regional archives, archives of special collections (dance film), and television news archives appeared on the scene. What had been a loose organization of film and television archives at the end of the 1970s, the Film Archives Advisory Committee/Television Archives Advisory Committee (FAAC/TAAC), was formalized in a new organization, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), founded in 1990. Unlike FIAF, which was based on institutional membership, AMIA became an organization of individual archivists and other persons engaged in film and television preservation, including commercial laboratories, the major studios, and stock shot houses. By 2003, membership had grown to nearly 1000, with yearly conferences, a newsletter, archival education, scholarships, a journal, and an internet listserv as a part of its mandate. The organization has also expanded from a strictly North American organization of archivists to one with members spanning the rest of the world. As a result, of these structural changes, the field of film and video preservation has matured from a group of individual collectors into a discipline with standards and sanctioned practices.
While films and videos were often stored in substandard environments, film/video archivists now attempt to maintain strict standards for climate control and vault safety. By the late 1980s, it became increasingly clear that both acetate and nitrate materials benefited from extremely low humidity and very cold environments. The lifespan of nitrate film, for example, could be doubled by lowering the ambient temperature in a vault by 5˚ and the humidity by 5%. Storage suddenly became the first line of defense for preservation, not the transfer of images to newer film stocks, making the 1970s slogan “Nitrate Can’t Wait” an anachronism. At the same time, the Library of Congress and other institutions developed cataloguing standards for moving image materials, while the archives themselves began the massive project of properly cataloguing their holdings. Finally, the old policy of sending out for screenings “unprotected” prints, i.e. materials which had not been preserved, was discontinued in most archives. Instead, preservation priorities were often formulated, based on the need for public access to given titles. Making all this possible was regularized funding.
The National Endowment of the Arts was created in September 1965 through an Act of Congress. Based on a recommendation from the Stanford Research Institute, the NEA formally announced in June 1967 the awarding of a $1.3 million grant for the establishment of an American Film Institute, which furthermore received matching grants from the Ford Foundation and the Motion Picture Association of America. Based on the model of the British Film Institute, the AFI’s mandate was to support the production of quality films, train filmmakers, and foster the preservation of American film. From the start, the AFI’s role was not to actually preserve film, but to act as a conduit for collecting films and funding archives, such as the Library of Congress and George Eastman House. Essentially, the AFI became a re-grant agency for NEA film preservation funds, while taking an allowable 30-35% cut for administrative overhead. And while the archives received a total of more than $ 10.5 million for film preservation between 1968 and 1972, the AFI’s overhead costs took an ever bigger bite out of funding, so that by 1972 film preservation accounted for a mere 9% of its expenditures. NEA continued funding the archives through the 1970s and 1980s, but its funding levels remained at about $350,00 - 450,000, despite inflationary costs for film preservation, due to increased laboratory costs. With restrictions placed by the Reagan NEA on the kinds of content that could be preserved, as well as continuing to cut back funding, film preservation reached another crisis in the early 1990s. (to be continued…)