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Film Archivists Face a Digital Dilemma

By Bob Fisher

There was no copyright protection for motion pictures produced in the United States until 1912, but first-generation filmmakers found a loophole in a copyright law protecting still pictures. They made paper prints of every frame and filed them with the Library of Congress as the copyright law required. Kemp Niver was head of security at a Hollywood studio in 1953 when he learned that paper prints of some 5,000 of those films were in the National Archives in Washington, DC.

Niver used a 1917 film projector and a 35mm motion picture camera to build an optical printer in the garage attached to his house. He subsequently made arrangements to copy the paper prints onto 35mm motion picture film. It took him 30 years to restore some 3,000 films, which he donated to the Library of Congress. The other paper prints had degenerated beyond the point where restoration was a possibility. Niver also wrote 10 books about the histories of those films.

During a 1992 interview, I asked Niver what inspired him to dedicate 30 years of his life to this noble but unpaid venture. He replied, “Every time a piece of film dies, a human thought dies with it. If I can do something to preserve that thought, isn’t it worth doing?”

It was a rhetorical question. Nonfiction films produced since the dawn of the motion picture industry have given the public insights into the endeavors of their ancestors. For example, The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt incorporates footage that a Vitagraph newsreel cameraman shot of the future president leading US troops in Cuba in 1898. The film, which aired on ABC Television in 1986, earned an Emmy nomination for producer/director Harrison Engle.

Engle could have told a compelling, factually accurate story without the newsreel footage, but it served the purpose of giving the audience a more organic feeling for Roosevelt as a flesh-and-blood human being.

One more example is Sumo East and West, a 2003 documentary directed by Ferne Pearlstein, incorporates scenes of Japanese Sumo wrestlers in a match in Hawaii. That historic footage was taken by Thomas Edison himself during a visit to Hawaii in 1903. Pearlstein discovered the film in the National Archives.

Third example: Steal a Pencil for Me tells the story of a Dutch couple who met in a Nazi concentration camp. They survived, got married, migrated to the United States and raised a family. The couple was celebrating its 60th wedding anniversary when the film was produced. The documentary is a blend of archival footage and live-action interviews. There is an especially compelling scene of the Gestapo arresting the man’s family in 1943. A neighbor who lived across the street shot that 8mm film through a window. Director Michele Ohayon discovered that footage while she was interviewing families of the couple’s childhood neighbors in Amsterdam.

There is a treasure trove of film history in the National Archives. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has more than 5,000 documentaries, industrial films and newsreels, as well as the IDA collection, in its archives at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study in Hollywood. The UCLA Film and Television Archive is home to thousands of television news stories and theatrical newsreels as well as orphan documentaries.

There are thousands of other nonfiction films being preserved for posterity at approximately 100 public and private archives in the United States alone, and countless numbers of others in private hands. When Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski received the IDA Preservation and Scholarship Award in 2005, we asked him what it takes to preserve images rendered onto film for posterity. He replied, “Film should be kept in a cool dark place where the temperature is consistent.”

Properly archived film will last for 100 or more years before it needs to be migrated to a new negative, print or digital media. The bad news is that there are still more questions than answers about films produced and/or post-produced in analog or digital video format.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences addressed this issue last November in a comprehensive report entitled The Digital Dilemma: Strategic Issues in Archiving and Assessing Digital Motion Picture Materials. The 75-page report was co-authored by Andy Maltz, director of the Academy Science and Technology Council, and preservationist Milt Shefter. A line in the second paragraph of the foreword states the mission: “Even some of the artists who are the most evangelical about the new world of digital motion pictures sometimes seem not to have thoroughly explored the question of what happens to a digital production once it leaves the theaters and begins its life (if all goes well) as a long-term studio asset.”

The year-long study was launched during the winter of 2005 after Phil Feiner, chairman of the Academy’s Digital Archiving Committee, proposed a summit conference with studio archivists, technology leaders and their counterparts in other organizations, including government agencies, healthcare, universities and astronomers.

“This was the first time the chief technology officers and archivists from the studios and other peer public institutions, including the Library of Congress, UCLA Archive and the Association of Moving Image Archivists met to discuss this preservation issue,” Shefter observes.

They discussed mutual concerns and shared ideas. For instance, in 1999 scientists at NASA were unable to read digital files describing images that the Viking space probe sent back to Earth in 1975 because the data was archived in an obsolete format. To put that into perspective, there have been standards established for almost 80 analog and digital video formats since Ampex introduced the first two-inch quad system just about a half-century ago.

“The Academy is not an advocacy organization,” Maltz stresses. “We gathered people who know and care about the importance of archiving our heritage to discuss the issues and to determine the questions that needed to be asked and answered. More than 70 experts were subsequently interviewed and asked those questions. ‘The Digital Dilemma’ report is a summary of our findings. Our goal is to shed light on an issue of general concern.”

The report compares both practices and costs for digital and photochemical archiving. It cites a general agreement that because of the degradation of signals and the obsolescence of formats and standards, digital media is much more volatile than film, and costs for archiving are markedly higher. There is a consensus that digital files should be migrated every four to five years.

New York Times journalist Michael Cieply brought the Digital Dilemma report into sharp focus with a December 23, 2007 article headlined "Scene Stealer--The Afterlife Is Expensive for Digital Movies." The final line of his story grabbed the attention of fans as well as filmmakers: “We could be watching Wallace Beery [movies] long after more contemporary images are gone.”

Beery portrayed characters in Hollywood films from 1913 through 1949. To put that into perspective, tomorrow’s audiences could be watching film of Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba in 1898 long after digital images of the war in Iraq are relegated to the dustbin of history.

Shefter observes that all Hollywood studios have been archiving their feature films, including the original negative and intermediate stocks, on YCM (yellow, cyan and magenta) separations on stable black-and-white polyester film in humidity- and temperature-controlled environments for the past 40 years, and in some cases longer. He says that properly archived film will retain its original imaging characteristics for more than 100 years, and that the YCMs can be used to recreate faithfully accurate duplicate copies of the final cuts of those films.

“The report seems to have struck a nerve,” Maltz concludes. “It has sparked a lot of interest and raised many questions in various sectors of the industry. Our goal was to make people both inside and outside of the industry aware of this important issue.”

Stay tuned. Feiner says that The Digital Dilemma is the first chapter in a quest to find practical solutions to the issues defined in the report. The next step is a continuation of the dialogue with the goal of creating universal practices and standards for digital archiving. The alternative is stated near the end of the report: “If we allow technological obsolescence to repeat itself, we are tied to continuously increasing costs, or worse, the failure to save important assets.”

For more information about the work being done by the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, visit The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) is another source of useful information. The nonprofit organization, headquartered in Los Angeles, has more than 700 members who are archivists around the world. The AMIA website offers contact information for more than 100 film laboratories, archival service facilities, libraries and other organizations that deal with these issues. Visit


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.