Preservation: Frequently Asked Questions
What is moving image preservation?
Older film stocks inevitably deteriorate. Tape and electronic formats inevitably obsolesce. Moving image preservation necessarily involves migration of content from one material carrier to another as well as efforts to extend the life of originals. It is best thought of as a multi-step process including:
- provision of appropriate storage with controlled temperature and humidity
- continuous inspection and repair
- restoration of pictures and sounds, often by means of multiple copies
- duplication of the originals onto newer, more stable film stock
- creation of high resolution digital copies and storage of those copies in a trusted repository
- access online and through screenings and educational programing
- fundraising to sustain the process
Why preserve moving images?
For well over a century, professionals and amateurs alike have roamed the globe with cameras in hand documenting traditions, telling stories, and recording events of the day. By preserving the images they left behind, we enable generations yet unborn to investigate pasts and places they otherwise could not know.
Although still overshadowed in most histories by Hollywood feature films and their European alternatives, many researchers place increasing value on the types of works collected by MIRC: documentaries, newsreels, independent works, home movies, industrial and educational films, political ads, public informational shorts, scientific footage, local television, and stock footage. These one-of-a-kind works often lay untouched in storerooms, basements, cupboards, sheds, and garages. Now, thanks to preservation efforts, they are beginning to be seen, attract scholarly attention, and enjoy new popularity. They reveal the full range of ways moving images have been used to entertain, educate, inform, and influence diverse audiences.
Why preserve moving images now?
So much of our moving image heritage has already been lost. For example, less than a quarter of the commercially produced films of the silent era (prior to 1927) are known to survive. Survival rates for material recorded on the first video tape formats are expected to be even worse. Proper storage and handling can extend dramatically the useful life of most surviving material. Some content must be copied to a more stable carrier immediately, however, lest it be lost forever.
What about digitization?
The present moment of technological transformation presents new opportunities, but it also poses special challenges. As the costs of film stock rise, the traditional method of preserving film by making another film copy is increasingly expensive. Although it is less expensive to create a digital copy, storing a large number of digital copies in perpetuity requires sophisticated technology and presents a significant recurring expense.
What is MIRC’s approach to preservation?
Preservation work begins the moment we receive a collection. Incoming films and tapes are inspected, transferred as needed to appropriate archival containers, and stored in air conditioned and humidity controlled vaults. MIRC’s professional curatorial staff continually assesses the collections to identify titles of historical, cultural, and/or aesthetic value that are in urgent need of duplication. Duplication for preservation purposes ideally involves creation of a copy on archival polyester film stock as well as a high resolution digital master copy to be retained in MIRC’s Digital Video Repository.
As part of the Fox Movietone News Digitization Project, MIRC intends to produce and store a digital surrogate of every title in its Fox Movietone News Collection. A digital surrogate is a high resolution scan that retains information on the edges of the film strip typically lost in film-to-film duplication. When originals are at risk and the content is of high value, we will create preservation copies on polyester film as funding permits.
Funding preservation is an ongoing challenge. MIRC sustains its collections through University allocations, licensing revenue, grants, and generous donations from patrons like you. To find out more about how you can support our preservation efforts please email us.