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Notes from the Reel World: The Board President's Column, April / May 1996

By Lisa Leeman

Dear Members,

The IDA's executive director, Betsy McLane, has been bending my ear about a shocking problem. I'd heard about it for years, but didn't think it was that serious, and I thought someone else was taking care of it. No, I'm not talking about a secret Congressional plot to eliminate all funding for the arts or about a potential new form of digital censorship called the V-chip. I'm talking about film and video preservation. Before your eyes glaze over and you insist that this is a matter for film archivists and Martin Scorsese, please read on.

Betsy recently delivered and heard testimony for the Library of Congress Panel on American Television and Video Preservation, and the news is grim. This year, in the 100th anniversary of cinema, we can view some of the first films ever made, but we are losing videotape made as recently as the Seventies. It turns out that videotape is not a particularly stable medium, and after a number of years, the binding material in the tape base "goes gluey." At that point, it is almost impossible to retrieve an image, and the documentary that you spent five years making, or that priceless footage of the riots/earthquake/election/fill-in­ the-blank landmark historic event, or even that home movie of your firstborn 's first steps will all be gone, forever. So much for posterity.

How many years do we have before our precious tapes "go gluey"? No one knows for sure, but the experts are guessing seven to ten years. And that's pushing it. Seven years. We've got to start preserving our work. Pronto.

So what can do we do? There are two main issues here: medium and storage. Film is by far the most stable medium for preservation, and the best thing you can do is to strike a black-and­-white separation master of your film. A typical feature film costs $35,000 to preserve this way, and Kodak representative Rick Utley says he knows of no documentaries that have gone through this process. Okay, moving right along, the next best thing is to strike a polyester-base inter­ positive from your A and B rolls. This runs about $1,800 for an hour-long l 6mm program.

As for videotape, know that work on video is called "migrating images," because the base is so unstable that images must be regularly transferred to preserve them. A program on video needs to be transferred to new tape every seven years. Obviously, analog video will look like mush in a few generations, so consider going digital. But even digital tape and disks must be retransferred every seven to ten years, as the tape and disk are unstable media.

Next, take those prints and one-inch masters out of your closet and put them in a storage vault. The number one enemy of film and tape is change of temperature. The number two enemy is too high a temperature. Nu m ber th ree is humidity. Vaults like Pro-Tek in Hollywood keep your work cozy at a constant 45 degrees Fahrenheit and 25 percent relative humidity. The annual cost of storing an hour-long 16mm print and master negative is $10.

It used to be that both the great and everyday events of our times were well documented and preserved for future generations. Newsreels were produced regularly, and independent filmmakers often shot film simply because they knew what they were seeing was important. That footage has ended up in classic films like Berkeley in the Sixties and the series Eyes on the Prize. But as video became the standard medium of news gathering and the economic choice of some independents, our history has been disappearing before our eyes.

We owe it to ourselves, to the subjects of our films, to our audiences, our kids, and to posterity to preserve our work. We can pat ourselves on the back for documenting our times, but we haven't accomplished much if our images disappear in a decade. So get those finished works onto a stable medium and into proper storage. And start building preservation costs into your budgets. We must educate ourselves and our funders, who need to understand that a black-and-white separation master, a tape-to-film transfer, or a few years of vaulting should be considered a standard part of the cost of filmmaking.

One last thing. There is actually a category in the preservation world called "orphan films," and yes, documentaries fall under that rubric, along with independent films and videos, video art, experimental work, and home movies. We may be considered orphans, but we do have a caring orphanage: the IDA Documentary Center at the Academy Film Archive, part of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles. The archive, headed by Michael Friend, already contains over 2,500 classic and modern documentaries.

Michael is actively seeking original negs and masters to be deposited at the archive, as well as outtakes with important cultural or historic value. When Michael told me he will talk to anybody interested in storing or preserving their work, I asked him if he wasn't worried about being deluged by filmmakers. His reply: "Deluge me." He's serious. Call him. His number is (310) 247-3027.


Lisa Leeman