Studios examine preservation policies

Universal fire prompts more industrywide attention

The recent fire damage to Universal Studios' video vault underscores the significance of film preservation and archiving, which already had been receiving increased industrywide attention.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences put the topic front and center with its recent report on the challenges of digital archiving.

And, as Universal execs assess the fire damage -- believed to have affected 40,000-50,000 episodic TV and feature assets, primarily video but including film -- leaders in preservation are gathering today and Saturday for the Reel Thing XX Technical Symposium on technical aspects of restoration and preservation. The Hollywood event is presented by the Association of Moving Image Archivists.

Universal believes all of its affected assets are replaceable as duplicates were kept elsewhere. As they examine the situation, execs will make important decisions about what assets will be replaced. These decisions will be made based on factors including the title, age of title, existing backup and the condition and quality of backups.

Universal's situation certainly will be a topic of discussion at the Reel Thing, said conference co-coordinator Grover Crisp, recently named senior vp asset management, film restoration and digital mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment.

A key element to the preservation efforts at Hollywood studios is geographic separation. As an example, Crisp said Sony maintains at least three versions of each asset (i.e. negative and two duplicate copies), which are stored in three separate parts of the country. Twentieth Century Fox has a similar policy.

Studios also use various protective methods, such as security, dry piping and temperature and humidity control.

Crisp warned that there is more to data preservation than it might first appear.

"Just because it is data -- not a physical thing that you hold in your hand -- do you suddenly throw out all your years of conservation?" he asked. "You still want to maintain and hold onto the original, make copies, make sure the copies maintain the integrity of the original data, and store them geographically separate."

Disney recently started an initiative to scan in 4K resolution everything in its nitrate library, representing an estimated 16 million frames of film. Digital copies, as well as new film negatives, will be created as backup.

The nitrate library includes most of Disney's titles from the '30s, '40s and '50s, primarily animation as well as some live action titles. The scanning process began last month and is expected to be completed within a year. Creating film elements will take an estimated three to four years.