The climate-controlled vaults in the George Eastman House archive and the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center are home to the Motion Picture Department’s collection of over 24,000 films.
But there is one shelving unit that holds important moving images in a non-film format: analog tape.
The department holds over 200 videocassettes in varying standards, with most of them in the obsolete three-quarter-inch (or “U-Matic”) format. The tapes contain things such as television recordings from the 1970s to the 1980s, interviews with filmmakers and actors, archival footage, and early video transfers of films from the collection. While not ultimately as critical to the collection as film material, there is still an urgent need to examine the content on these tapes and digitally preserve what is deemed important.
This urgency stems largely from risks to the physical materials themselves; most of the tapes are at least twenty years old and suffer from increasing levels of decay due to the shedding of the magnetic oxide recording layer on the surface of the tapes over time. Also, the obsolete broadcast-quality decks required to play the cassettes are becoming scarce and more difficult to properly maintain. Time, technology, and the looming potential for a zombie apocalypse are therefore driving the need to preserve the analog tapes.
The students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation are assisting with this ongoing project. As part of their training in digital preservation, students are using the video capture equipment in the department’s digital lab to convert many of these tapes into lossless digital video files. These “digital masters” will then be tagged with metadata, cataloged, and stored in the vaults on archival-quality LTO-5 tapes.
One interesting subset of tapes – the original BetaMax cassettes of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation raw footage – are on extended loan to George Eastman House by the filmmakers and have recently been digitally preserved. This process will be examined more in an upcoming post by the Selznick students who preserved the materials.
Tony Delgrosso is the digital archivist in the motion picture department at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film