Film Preservation

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For several nights now I have been fast at work programming a web resource for film archivists. This is an assignment for a class I am taking on Internet fundamentals, and once the work is done it will go live on the web. I am exhausting myself in an attempt to streamline my CSS and XHTML, and provide solid content. Keeping this blog has not lessened my appreciation of what it means to go live, as I thought the ease of it might do, but instead I feel a greater sense of responsibility, to myself and to the library profession.

I think back to my days as a bookseller, and I can feel the weight of the published word, nearly stifling in volume and density. The number of books which would pass through my hands as the head receiver seemed large, if I let myself forget about all the other book stores in the world. My bosses kindly let me take home all of the catalogs of upcoming publications and backlist titles, ostensibly for my collage making, but really I had a strong desire to know just what the larger environment of book publishing was like. Reading thousands of book catalogs each year can be inspiring, anesthetizing, deeply informative, and even heartbreaking. There are just so many books published every year, so many left over from last year, and years before, just so many voices…an atomic accumulation of paper-bound mycelial axons, slowly communicating with the global mind.

As I research more and more about the state of film preservation today I am beginning to feel a familiar sensation. Reel after reel of film is degrading and hard decisions are being made in the triage of our cinematic heritage. There are significant concerns about access and viability which need to be decided first. A majority of the films which are in need of restoration are so-called orphan films, meaning films for which no clear copyright or provenance is established.

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“Orphan films make up the overwhelming majority of our cinematic heritage, and are a vital part of the culture and cultural record of the twentieth century. Indeed, the Library of Congress declared that it is in the task of restoring these orphan films that ‘the urgency may be greatest.’ They include a vast treasure trove of newsreels, documentaries, anthropological films, portraits of minority life in the U.S., instructional films, and even some Hollywood studio productions. While it is both a tragic shame and an unnecessary loss to our culture that scholars and citizens are hampered in making use, for example, of
orphan books and musical scores, the difficulty of access to orphan films is a matter of crisis because these works are literally disintegrating. At a time when digital technologies allow for more sophisticated and cheaper restoration and distribution of old films, uncertainty about copyright status has impeded restoration efforts. Worse still, in most cases the films are completely unavailable to the public even for simple viewing.”

Quoted from the Center for the Study of the Public Domain paper Access to Orphan Films

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The situation is similar in other nations as well. Even Hollywood, with its awe-inspiring reserve of liquid assets, has been unable to preserve much of their history. “Of the tens or hundreds of thousands of movies made before 1950, fully 50% are already irretrievably lost. For films made before 1929, the loss rate is far worse: over ten years ago, the Library of Congress estimated that 80% of films from the 1920s, and 90% of films from the 1910s had already decayed beyond any hope of restoration.” (See The Silent Era: Lost Films for a small sample)

Digital restoration or archiving is an increasingly standard solution. Digital preservation is believed to be a cure for many photographic and archival ills, but already there are unpredictable digital dustclouds lying dormant before the breeze. David S. Cohen, in his Digital Proves Problematic article from April 20th of this year, echoes a sentiment familiar to agencies already invested in digital preservation. Apparently “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Science and Technology Council warned in 2005 that within just a few years films shot with digital cameras could be lost.” He cites Andy Maltz of the Academy’s Sci-Tech Council that “they had found archival tapes unreadable just 18 months after they were made.”

Fortunately there is a significant amount of work already being done by remarkably dedicated associations and individuals. The George Eastman House, the Library of Congresses National Film Preservation Board, and the Association of Moving Image Archivists are all wonderful agencies in the United States working toward reversing daily losses. Internationally UNESCO has gone a long way toward establishing standards of practice, and much of the work being accomplished today can be attributed to several reports they have issued since the late seventies. Just as incredible, and perhaps the most significant foreign association is The International Federation of Film Archives. Not only is their list of member organizations a formidable networking tool, but they have developed a beautiful Code of Ethics. Just look at these two principles:

“1.4. When copying material for preservation purposes, archives will not edit or distort the nature of the work being copied. Within the technical possibilities available, new preservation copies shall be an accurate replica of the source material. The processes involved in generating the copies, and the technical and aesthetic choices which have been taken, will be faithfully and fully documented.
1.5. When restoring material, archives will endeavour only to complete what is incomplete and to remove the accretions of time, wear and misinformation. They will not seek to change or distort the nature of the original material or the intentions of its creators.”

I admire FIAF very much and I am thrilled to see so many countries represented on their membership roll. Who could imagine that organizations from the US, China, North & South Korea, and Iran would all subscribe to a Code of Ethics like that?  They do say film is a universal language.  (But then, they also say that math, English, cookies, glossolalia, Google Translator and love are universal languages, so maybe they’re not to be trusted)

I will post a link to my site once it goes live, and hopefully I’ve done enough researching and vetting of information to be of use to someone, somewhere. There is such an accumulation of noise in our informational substrate, and I hope to sustain my focus while navigating through it. I don’t want to become another monkey plugging away at reauthoring the Library of Babel.

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