Back to Basics at AMIA / by KirstenStudio

This past Tuesday the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) began their preliminary workshops as a precursor to the main annual conference event, which this year took place in historic Richmond, Virginia. I was only able to attend a couple of the workshops this year, but it was well worth the 7 hour train ride (got a lot of work done in transit) from Penn Station to Richmond's Main Street station. The A/V Tech Basics for Archivists event was led by Eric Wenocur of Lab Tech Systems. The four hour workshop broke down the types and purpose of what is now largely retro audio/video equipment. This instructional was intended for librarians, archivists, and other preservationists charged with conserving and/or preserving and duplicating their A/V elements.

IMG_0134As an editor, I was familiar with most of the equipment, or at the very least, I had seen it before. When I worked at a post house as an assistant editor, older decks existed for D-2 or D-3 tapes, but weren't used. In fact I can only remember one instance were we fired one up. The deck actually worked too. When I began post work, decks for formats such as DigiBeta tapes were still in more regular use, however, even DigiBeta is considered an old format these days. Who needs a tape anymore, right?

Well those involved in preservation do and it's formats like these that are deteriorating faster than film in many cases. This is why a/v equipment understanding is so important. Wenocur had sample equipment set up at the head of the class, as well as a handy camcorder to project close ups of the equipment onto the screen. It was a good overview of video equipment, but from my experience, the real test is practical application. What A/V Tech Basics for Archivists offered was a way to generally familiarize oneself with this equipment and it's various purposes, be it monitors, patch bays, connector cables or vectorscopes, it can all be overwhelming if it's new to you, but at least this offered a start.

In my opinion, some of the most valuable information offered was simple troubleshooting tips that might seem pretty obvious, and I can vouch for this, but often get overlooked.

  • Know how things are SUPPOSED to work.
  • Start with known good signals, paths and/or monitoring
  • Change one thing and observe that change before moving on to another
  • Swap things out, such as cable, equipment, software
  • Cut the problem in half
  • Go back to the manuals and hang out to them!

Another point that Wenocur brought up, which I think is one of the more urgent problems in need of solution is that this is old equipment and the number of technicians out there with expertise in servicing this gear is fast dwindling. Many are retired or have moved on to more contemporary skill sets and aren't actively working on this stuff anymore. The danger of this equipment becoming useless because no one can fix it is very real. That's why it's detrimental that new generations learn about this equipment sooner than later, but in reality it's not a growing career path to service retro equipment, just as the number of film projectionists are fading as DCPs take over cinemas.

Nevertheless, workshops like Wenocur's offers some expertise sharing and I wish the workshop attendees luck when they get back to their collections and start digitizing analogue style.

Although I was bummed not to have been able to make it for the 2 part workshop, Small Gauge Projection and the Art of Projector Maintenance and Repair, since workshops overlapped, I went with Back to Basics… What You Need to Know When Starting an AV Preservation Project.

Back to Basics brought terrific presenters in Rachael Stoeltje of Indiana University Libraries, Lee Price of Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) and John Walko of Scene Savers.

IMG_2116Stoeltje began the conversation by talking about goals (Rachael mainly addressed film, while John Walko spoke more to video). She told her audience to think about their  final goal for a project or collection. Is it preservation, digitization or something else? Maybe it's just about trying to preserve what you have, so it might be best to do a film to film preservation, or maybe it's about accessibility and you want to stream your content so reformatting a collection it to small digital files such as MPEG4, would be best. Or should it be a 2k or 4k frame by frame scan because the final goal is theatrical screenings? One must consider the purpose in order to properly identify what work is needed. This informs what you will do with your materials and the costs involved.

Of course it is also essential to identify what you have. Whether the elements are nitrate, acetate or polyester film, most will require unique handling as well as storage. Knowing film gauge and type of print is important to deduce. Is it a release print, a negative, A/B rolls? Labs need to know this for budgeting and timeline, as each type of stock or print require various levels of labor. Running time should not be ignored. A 3 minute film versus a feature length film of 90 minutes can obviously make a difference in time and money.

Next on the list is to carefully evaluate condition of the elements. Is there biological, environmental or mechanical wear or damage? Shrinkage, mold, vinegar syndrome are all common, unfortunate conditions of poor stooge conditions and time. Being aware of these problems will provide an understanding of what needs to be quarantined (vinegar syndrome), or what requires scanners with sprocket less drives (reels with shrinkage).

And then there is storage, which people often sort of forget about but what's the point in doing all the evaluating, preserving, digitizing, etc, if the original and/or new elements are not properly cared for? 50 degrees with 30% humidity is a good environment for your average films. If nitrate, I believe conditions should be even cooler and for those poor fellows suffering from vinegar syndrome, freezer storage with air exchange is recommended.

Some of the other important points that were mentioned to consider are, available staff to do all this work, the future digital preservation needs, the file and codec types and the frequency those need to be converted into the latest technology, as well as the players one will view them with, among others.

Stoeltje sited great examples of the universities' preservation efforts by showing stills from projects such as the Peter Bogdanovich home movies, and John Ford home movies. These was funded based on Stoeltje's and the universities' hard work with applying the above practices, which won grants that save these films. Look to these for inspiration!

Lee Price spoke about funding opportunities. It always amazes me that there aren't more out there, but that being said, they do exist. He broke them down into the following categories:

  • Government funders
  • Private foundations
  • Corporate & businesses
  • Individuals
  • Special events
  • Internal sources

I was happy to see Women's Film Preservation Fund on the list of private foundations (full disclosure, I am a committee member of this fund) among the more obvious resources, such as National Film Preservation Foundation. 

IMG_0138Price also offered some research tips by suggesting the Foundation Center and Guidestar, both terrific resources and if you can visit Foundation Center in person, even better, as the staff there is incredibly helpful as well as their workshops, some of which are complimentary.

What funders ask themselves when reviewing applications is something to think about too and Price ran through a list of those questions from whether the proposed project is appropriate for their funding source, to whether the planning process makes sense. One more item I'd like to add is to really pay attention to what the funder's requirements are. If you don't have all the information a grant giver is requesting than offer a clear explanation as to why you are unable to provide it, or why you are delayed in providing it.

Other fundraising ideas that were suggested included the ever popular crowd funding (a full time, strategic and labor intense job in itself but has great potent ion when well orchestrated), blogathons (this was totally new to me - no doubt I'm the last to know - and found the idea pretty inspiring) and the good old website donation option (which still mostly requires a campaign of some sort and lots of social media hard work).

It seems that many are doing a combination of all of the above. There are few funders that will give one project everything it needs and many of the larger grant givers require matching grants, which for many are pretty out of reach. Funding in todays day and age, is a game of ingenuity.

John Walko, of Scene Savers, was the last speaker and an essential voice since video preservation has become more and more topical, as awareness builds. He offered interesting before and after split screen examples of everything from color correction to wet gate transfers with remarkable differences.

Walko also addressed preparing for a preservation project by collecting data such as formats and running time, but also some situations that are unique to video, such as situations when several programs exist on one tape. Consider whether those programs should be divided up into separate digital files when they are transferred to another format, or kept as one file. If one file contains separate programs, how is that metadata recorded? Also when considering digital files types, make sure they are compatible with the systems in place at their respectful institutions.

Of course video deterioration is a whole other ball game with its own problems that are different from film. Walko mentioned a few ugly sounding issue with video tape, such as sticky-shed syndrome, tape shell damage, video tape can mold too, or horizontal video tape tears (that's right, it tears the long way - yikes).

For video preservation projects, Walko offered some tips for project planning. He suggested to find out about access to the following:

  • Transfer equipment
  • Time base corrector
  • Waveform/ Vectorscopes
  • Broadcast quality decks
  • Calibrated monitors
  • Professional encoders

And when it comes time to decide on format, one should ask themselves the following:

  • Who will access this material? (An institution with high speed internet connections, or the general public with varying types of connections)
  • Anticipate the materials future use and needs

All this can feel overwhelming, that's why it's good to put together a realistic timeline, along with areas of cost, such as initial prep, shipping, digitization, storage and of course long-term management. It won't get done over night and it's ongoing. As archivists, librarians, preservationists, project managers, personal legacy holders, we all just have to take it one step at a time.

As you can tell by this extra long post, there was much information covered in the course of these 4 hour workshops and I didn't even come close to covering all of it. Just think if I would have attended the whole conference?!?

Please email with any additions or corrections to this post. I was taking notes very quickly.