Archiving

“The rate of change in the digital era is constant and ongoing…” Interview with Simon Smith, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

Established in 1984, the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) is Australia’s premier audiovisual archive, holding more than 3 million works, including films, sound recordings, television and radio programs in a variety of formats.

Archivoz’s Evanthia Samaras met with Simon Smith, an audiovisual archivist with 20 years’ experience at the NFSA to learn about their broadcast collection.

(Archivoz) To start, can you please describe your role at the NFSA?

Simon Smith (SS) I’m a Senior Curatorial Officer of Television within the Broadcast Team. My main role at present is managing contemporary television deliverables. If you’re wondering what deliverables are… because there’s no legal deposit fulfillment for these materials in Australia… we work with government screen agencies to ensure that when a filmmaker, producer or a production company obtains government funding, upon completion, they have to deliver a master and documentation (press kit, images, scripts, music cue sheet, available behind-the-scenes extras, etc.) of their latest television series production to the NFSA. I’d say, perhaps half of my working week is dealing with television deliverables.

I also liaise with the independent television production company sector, companies like Fremantle Australia, Endemol Shine Australia and Screentime, to negotiate the NFSA acquiring their back catalogue titles. I also deal with reactive requests—such as when a producer is cleaning out their vaults or when collectors and industry want to donate their collections. There are also requirements to research, write blogs, provide input into preservation queues, assist in curating online exhibitions, develop screening events and undertake publicity when we are promoting aspects of our collection.

It’s a diverse role, and with my interest in modern history and in our incredible collection, one I continually enjoy.

(Archivoz) What are the biggest challenges you face in your role?

(SS) So, there’s an ‘Analogue Avalanche’ and then we’ve also got the ‘Digital Deluge’.

For the last five to eight years, there’s been a real push for the production sector to offer us their magnetic tape holdings. Many production company collections have been residing in long term storage, and for some of their backlog titles, decisions are being made as to whether they need be retained. Thankfully, with our existing relationships with the sector, companies will frequently check in with us first as to whether we hold their works before potentially disposing of materials. So, we’ve been receiving lots of analogue collections in recent times.

We are also receiving quite a lot of material now, which is born digital. I think every archive in the world is struggling with the issue of: how do we deal with this digital deluge? There’s just so much coming in. One hard drive could have 1000s of TV episodes. We had an example recently with community broadcaster Channel 31, which sent through one hard drive with 1400 episodes, covering about 40 series. If that had been an analogue collection, it would have been, you know, pallets of material. The rate of change in the digital era is constant and ongoing.

(Archivoz) What would be the characteristics you feel distinguishes Australian broadcasting material from other overseas television content?

(SS) Australia historically has been more aligned with free-to-air television, whereas America has had cable for decades. Cable television allows a bit more niche programming where it targets particular markets, whereas I think free-to-air television in Australia, particularly the commercial networks have always tried to find the biggest audience. They’ve had to be broadest in appeal, broadest in scope. You could say they have to be somewhat risk averse by necessity. Australian commercial television was maybe riskier in the 70s when you had shows like ‘Number 96′ and ‘The Norman Gunston Show’, that sort of pushed the boundaries a bit more.

But with all the new competing media companies and emerging foreign-owned platforms about to enter the Australian market, the idea of a distinguishable Australian broadcasting identity becomes even more difficult to define.

Left: Malcolm Thompson and Suzanne Church in ‘Number 96‘. Source: NFSA. Right: John Farnham performs ‘You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling’ on an episode of ‘The Norman Gunston Show‘ (1979). Source: NFSA.

(Archivoz) Now I’d like to turn to another side of your broadcast collection. Could you please explain your news and current affairs collection? Including how you acquire this material?

(SS) Our News and Current Affairs Program, which we call ‘Newscaf’ celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Since 1988, the aim has been to acquire news bulletins somewhere in the country every week. The NFSA integrates stations around the country on a roster to ensure even coverage. Where there is a big event in a particular region, we endeavour to roster a local station, so we have a record of the coverage of that event. So, for example, the first week of January, could be Channel 10 Brisbane, then the second week could be Nine News Canberra, and so on. The Newscaf team will reach out to the stations in advance to make sure they are available to deliver material to the archive. Basically, there’s relationship management going on with the networks all the time.

(Archivoz) Could you please explain NFSA’s Deadline 2025 campaign?

(SS) Deadline 2025 was launched in 2015. It’s about raising awareness and funding so that magnetic media formats held in archives are digitised in the near future—before they become lost forever. Film has a lot longer shelf life than magnetic media. Tapes are just not designed to sit on shelves for hundreds of years; the format simply won’t sustain itself like that.

Excerpt from ‘Deadline 2025‘ Discussion Paper (2015). Source: NFSA

(Archivoz) What are your favourite items in the collection?

(SS) My favourite items tend to relate to my particular areas of interest: music, music television and sport. For example, in the last year, I was working with a collector to find an episode of a show called Boomeride. It was an ambitious 1965 music TV show made here in Melbourne, which no one remembers and only ran for 13 episodes. I had heard that Olivia Newton-John was in one of the episodes, though she was not guest-listed in program guides, and of the two episodes we held in the collection, she wasn’t in either. So, I contacted this local collector known to have the Olivia episode, and after some negotiation, he generously provided us with the surviving 16mm tele-recorded film copy. It’s a significant find and a recent favourite, because it’s one of the earliest surviving live performances by Olivia—with songs that no one has ever heard before. Olivia herself was also really happy when she was told about it!

Olivia Newton-John on ‘Boomeride‘ (1965). Source: NFSA, © PAKKTEL.

(Archivoz) Is there anything that’s been kind of strange or unusual in the collection that you’ve encountered in your many years here?

(SS) It’s not TV-related, but we’ve got a little flip book from 1897 that has images from the Melbourne Cup. We digitised each tiny individual image and stabilised it into a videoclip, which ran for three seconds. But what we found out, when we compared the flip book footage to our original film of the 1897 Melbourne Cup—they didn’t match! They were different horses! It turns out, the film in our collection we thought was the 1897 Melbourne Cup, was actually a different race!

Stabalised video of the Melbourne Cup Flip Book. Source: NFSA.

 

Acknowledgement

Special thanks to Simon for sharing such great insights and archival knowledge with Archivoz and our readers.

For more information about the National Film and Sound Archive, please visit their website. Also see their online articles, of which Simon is a regular contributor.

 

An archivist walks (back) into a film visual effects company

Introduction: From film to archives, and back to film

From a young age, I’ve been enamoured with films and the magic of bringing moving images to the screen. In my 20s I pursued undergraduate studies in media production and dabbled in many areas of film production, never quite getting my break into the industry. The closest I got was when I landed a job with a visual effects company in Sydney. However, after 11 months of being there, they went into liquidation and closed down.

In my 30s I set aside my dream to work in the movie business and enrolled into a Masters of Information Management. Within a few months, I lined up a professional placement which turned into full-time contract work. Then within a year, I secured an ongoing role in a government archive. I thoroughly enjoyed my new career and didn’t look back to film until one day my friend tells me about a new school being set up to teach animation and VFX. “They’re offering research scholarships”, she told me, “you should apply”. “But what would I research?” I responded puzzled. “Archiving of course!” she said matter of factly.

Almost two years later, and here I am, doing a PhD about film VFX archiving. On many levels, it’s fantastic being in the film world again. This time bringing my archiving expertise back to help a niche group of creative and techy filmmakers preserve their work and reassess the value of their records. However, selling ‘archiving’ to this community is a challenge. In this article, I present some of my experiences and findings so far during my PhD with the VFX industry.

Film VFX

VFX is a creative and technical field of film production, which utilises digital technologies and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in conjunction with live-action shots. The industry is a transnational “media heterotopia” made up of geographically dispersed places and people funnelling work into networked pipelines to create fabricated and seamless visuals for the screen
[1].

Since its introduction in the 1970s through films such Westworld (1973) and Star Wars (1977), the “spectacle, imagery and esthetics afforded by computer-generated imagery has shepherded digital visual effects to the forefront of film production process” [2].

Producing VFX for films involves some specialists skills and tasks including 3D modelling, animation, texturing, lighting, effects and compositing which are provided by digital artists and an array of proprietary, open-source and bespoke software and tools. VFX production also generates high volumes of data, assets and records. Selecting, archiving and maintaining this material can prove to be a challenging process in the industry.

Archiving VFX

VFX studios do not generally employ records management or archiving specialists. Instead, information technology staff or data managers are assigned the task of archiving data, records and assets, usually, once a production project concludes. While some studios have sophisticated tools and processes in place to select only high-value assets that were used in final shots and which represent the ‘hero’ elements (key characters, props etc.). Other information (such as business records and the metadata and contextual information about the assets) are not always archived with the production asset material.

Access and retrieval of archives can be troublesome as archives are generally written to passive LTO magnetic storage tapes. Locating and restoring tape data can often rely upon staff knowledge as there is not always a detailed tape manifest or database to build upon. Besides, another issue is that new generations of LTOs are released every few years, and generally, the tape readers are only one to two generations backwards compatible. This means that if archives are not being migrated to newer tapes, the data becomes trapped due to media obsolescence.

Archiving is motivated by a need to free up online storage space for new productions. When I talked with senior VFX practitioners, they indicated that sometimes they would go back to their previous work if a sequel is on the cards or to reuse a specific technique. However, the technical environment progresses so quickly that most of the time, they just rebuild everything from scratch.

The notion of preserving evidence of VFX for cultural or historical purposes is not high on the agenda for VFX studios. Although, there is evidence that VFX collections do exist in publically accessible archives [3]. VFX is an industry that is continually looking ahead to the next job and the future creative and technical breakthroughs. Looking back to the past—to the records of previous generations of digital artists is something most studios do not consider.

This is partly because they often don’t own the rights to their work. Under copyright law, VFX studios and their artists are considered “work made for hire” [4]. Intellectual property rights sit with the producer (generally a film studio). This means, technically, film studios are the owners of the work and thus should have responsibility for managing VFX archives over time.

Because of the ownership model, the VFX industry takes information security VERY SERIOUSLY. Upon entering any VFX studio, you must sign an NDA and adhere to their strict security policies (e.g. visitors must be escorted at all times, certain machines have zero network access, studios cannot promote their work until the film is released and/or they have permission from the studio).

Conducting research with the VFX industry

So far in my research, I have interviewed over a dozen VFX practitioners based in Australia, USA and the UK. I have heavily relied upon my personal contacts to facilitate the research and introduce me to key staff in studios around the world.

As I experienced, first-hand, VFX studios are very busy work environments. They all have impending deadlines, and staff don’t have precious time to spare—especially not for some Archivist PhD Candidate! Selling the benefits of proper archiving can be a challenge as it inevitably will require resourcing. Smaller-scale VFX studios are generally resource-poor, and the larger studios have competing departments vying for more staff, software or newer tech.

In addition, due to the rigorous information security, I get the impression that for some studios, letting in an Archivist is seen as a risk not worth taking. To try and mitigate this, I have agreed to adopt strict confidentiality and anonymise all my research findings. However, this can also work against me as often the first question potential participants ask me is, “So who else have you spoken to?”. So without having the option to name-drop, I have instead ‘sold’ my research as a potential means to create more online space, improve access and retrieval and usability of their records over time.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve reflected upon some challenges and findings of my industry-focused doctoral research project with the film VFX industry. In the next year or so I hope to continue to document archiving practices in various VFX studios around the world, share my findings and explore how improvements could be made to help ensure that evidence of this significant discourse of modern cinema is preserved for future generations.

References and notes
[1] Chung, H.J. (2012). Media heterotopia and transnational filmmaking: Mapping real and virtual worlds. Cinema Journal, 51(4), 87–109. doi: 10.1353/cj.2012.0071.

[2] McClean, S. (2014). Digital storytelling: the narrative power of visual effects in film, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 5.

[3] For example, see Dan Curry papers, 1967-2008, UCLA Library Special Collections z

[4] Copyright Act of 1976 (USA), § 101