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Archives Alive! New Tech Makes Old Clips Easier to Access

By David Heuring

Mao Zedong, former leader of the People Republic of China. From the ABCNEWS VideoSource Archive. Photo courtesy of ABCNEWS VideoSource.

Documentarians and other filmmakers who rely on images from libraries and archives to tell their stories are being helped by long-promised advances in technology that make it quicker and easier to locate and acquire the right content.  Following are some examples.

Independent Television News (ITN) Archive

At Independent Television News (ITN) Archive in central London, a database is available online at There is no cost for visiting the site and using it as a resource. Like most of the larger archives, ITN also employs a team of researchers to assist in searches. ITN maintains offices in New York, Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Tokyo.

ITN's holdings date to 1896 and include an estimated 300,000 hours of news material. The oldest shots cover the coronation of Czar Nicholas in Russia. Clips from TV programs and feature films can also be found at the site, due to its relationship with Britain's Channel 4. The holdings are kept in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault in London. Copies of themed collections are also kept in New York and Johannesburg to facilitate retrieval and delivery.

"Our business in the US has been growing steadily since we opened the New York office in the late 1990s," says Dominic Dare who heads ITN's Los Angeles office. "Our presence in Los Angeles—the heart of the US film and TV industry—provides a resource for producers and other clients on the West Coast. It gives TV producers and other filmmakers a local point of contact with whom they can deal face to face and in the same time zone."

Sophie Jones, ITN's public affairs manager, says that in addition to television and movie producers, the archives are used as a resource by new media and educational filmmakers.

"Our old films are keeping very well," says Jones. "Our nitrate films were transferred to videotape many years ago. Much of the old nitrate has been sub-mastered onto safety film and is available off-site as backup to our tape holdings. The majority of the older material is on 16mm stock, including reversal and print material."

Jones notes that most video archiving is now done on DVCPRO tape, generally at 25 MBps, with the occasional use of Beta-SP. Older tape formats are transferred to digital formats as they are used in news bulletins.

ITN provides daily news footage to independent TV stations around the world on a daily basis, as well as supplys its own 24-hour rolling news channel. The news holdings go back to 1955. Due to the use of servers, most new material comes into the archive in digital form. ITN also receives material on a daily basis from Reuters.

ITN seeks any content that compliments its holdings; its recent addition of Channel 4 material is one example. Through representation deals and the purchase of other archive collections, ITN has expanded beyond daily news holdings to include the Reuters archive and a number of historic newsreels, including British Paramount News, Empire News Bulletin, Universal News, Gaumont Graphic and Gaumont British. ITN Archive also represents the historic French Pathé library in the United Kingdom.

The archive's ethos includes work with educational bodies such as the British Universities Film and Video Council (BUFVC), providing online services for educational purposes. In the future, teachers will be able to download pictures and incorporate them into educational projects.

 "The Archive is an important asset in terms of the nation's cultural heritage," says Jones. "We feel it's the most extensive and important visual document of the past 106 years to be found anywhere in the world. The ITN Archive acts as a gatekeeper of our visual heritage, with some rare and exclusive coverage showing key historical events of the 20th century."


ABCNEWS VideoSource

ABCNEWS VideoSource has been gathering, storing and repurposing images since 1963. The operation serves 500 broadcast outlets with daily video news feeds. The archive also provides access to materials from the Associated Press Television News and the British Movietone News, which includes holdings from as far back as 1898.

The company maintains a 12-station client research facility at its New York office. Individual booths allow researchers and producers to work on their own. Clients can research all of ABCNEWS VideoSource's databases and screen tapes in 3/4" Beta or 16mm formats. The tape warehouse is just down the hall, ensuring fast access, and the facility is equipped to do most dubbing in-house.

The archive's holdings are cataloged on a state-of-the-art media access and retrieval system known by its acronym, MARS. MARS is a powerful and versatile media asset management system developed specifically for ABCNEWS. The user interface is Windows-based. Orders can be done electronically. Requests can be faxed or emailed, and for a small fee, the staff will research a selection of shots for clients who prefer that method. An appointment is required to use the on-site MARS system, but there is no charge.

Online text databases can be accessed at, and clients can order viewing cassettes in 3/4" or VHS formats. Time code numbers are used to indicate the shots they want. License fees are calculated based on the rate per second (which is based on the markets being cleared), multiplied by the seconds of clean footage. A 30-second minimum is standard for all programs except TV commercials.

For filmmakers searching for more general shots, AVS reels are available from ABCNEWS VideoSource. AVS reels consist of shots centered around a certain theme. Hundreds of such reels are maintained, including such frequently requested subjects as business settings, cities, Americana, natural disasters, politics and warfare.

To help filmmakers who access breaking news, ABCNEWS VideoSource recently linked with ABCNEWS' domestic newsfeed service, ABC NewsOne. The result is a daily digital feed of more than 300 breaking news stories and packages, which happens via a media distribution system called Pathfire Digital Media Gateway.

"At ABCNEWS, it is our policy to keep practically everything we shoot and/or produce," says David Seevers, manager of ABCNEWS VideoSource. "Even thought the volume of footage orders is strong, a large percentage of the collection sees very little action and is maintained mainly because of its potential historical and cultural importance."


National Geographic Film Library

The National Geographic Film Library traces its history to the Jane Goodall wild chimpanzee documentaries, footage from Louis Leakey and the Jacques Cousteau television specials. Acquisitions and agreements with other archives (most recently a reciprocal agreement with the Australian Broadcasting Company) has enabled National Geographic to expand the range of motion images it offers. At the heart of the library is more than 25,000 hours of National Geographic film dating from the mid-1960s.

National Geographic's Film Library functions as a repository for all National Geographic Television and Film projects. Images from other sources, including the World Bank, are also part of the archive. The Film Library, headquartered in Washington, DC, supplies material to satellite offices in New York and London. Its fully catalogued database is available online at The archives can be searched based on subject, location or production criteria.

More than 100,000 shots are available online in files compatible with Windows Media Player or RealPlayer. Active documentarians and other filmmakers can access the files by registering online. These shots make up more than 2,000 hours of material and give an indication of the breadth of the National Geographic portion of the holdings. Matthew White of National Geographic says, "It's really the only working digital database that's available online right now. We've found in the documentary community that people very much want control over the research process. Our system is a way to give them control. We're also developing a catalog of MPEG 2 files, and we're going to be able to make those broadcast quality files available to individual filmmakers in a similar way. This is part of our effort to adapt to the technologies filmmakers are using, like Final Cut Pro."

White says that many clients are asking for high definition images. "Clients requesting high-definition images want film-originated material," he notes. "Generally they don't consider video-originated images satisfactory for their hi-def projects. In response, we're working with a company in Minnesota called Hi-Wire to create a bank of high-definition images."

Hi-Wire is using a Thomson Spirit DataCineTM to transfer images. In addition to high-quality imagery, the move will significantly reduce cost and production time for clients, from weeks to a matter of days, according to White. "Our key goal is to use technology to increase client satisfaction by making it easier to do business with us," he says.

White says that while National Geographic has always been a film-heavy organization, significant segments of the holdings are stored on various video formats. "We have holdings of video materials that go through a process of periodic transfer," he says. "All of the one-inch material that was here is now stored on DigiBeta. And of course we're carefully watching the other collections."

Film archives and libraries see for themselves a responsibility beyond the business of selling images. White is no exception.

"We absolutely feel that part of the world's history is represented in our archives," he says. "It relates to the mission of the National Geographic Society. We invest time and effort in working with other archives around the world to make sure that their film and video material is properly maintained. These archives reveal the various cultures, histories and landscapes of the world. I think you can count on National Geographic being a leading figure, working not only with our material but material in other archives around the world to make sure that visual images of our history and our cultures are preserved for all time."


David Heuring is a writer at Creative Communications Services. He is the former editor of American Cinematographer magazine.