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Why Is A/V preservation such a nuisance... and necessity

By Joshua Ranger
Senior Consultant
AudioVisual Preservation Solutions

Preservation is a big, fat pain. I dedicated two solid years studying (and 20 years paying off the loans) the archiving and preservation of audiovisual works. I have been consulting in that field for the past five years. Yet, even I find that preservation is a pain.

Why do I feel that way? Well, I'm human, and humans tend to favor those actions that are most simply implemented. To be kind to myself, I refer to this as conservation of energy. To be realistic - I'm kinda lazy.

The other reason I feel this way is based on my work experience. As a consultant, I have had the lucky opportunity to visit and work in archives and media collections across the country - from television broadcasters and studios to military bases, universities, museums and record labels. I've seen a lot of media and drives containing wildly different content housed in all sorts of organizations. But, despite their variety, they all face similar problems, namely backlogs, funding and personnel shortages, as well as those piles of unknown materials that overwhelm collections.

The frequency with which I see these backlogs in audiovisual archives has to make me think that preservation must be a major pain. Preservation certainly does not seem as difficult as the creative aspect preceding it. The production of these materials takes so much drive and effort to conceive, produce and follow through on. Considering the amount of work that goes into production and post production, post-post-production must therefore be incredibly annoying if these same proactive people are not doing it.

That makes me wonder, then, why is it such a pain? It can't be because the actions of preservation themselves are too complex for people who know the media, because they aren't, really. Instead, it seems that preservation is more akin to exercise or going to the dentist or cleaning under the couch cushions - there is no immediate, measurable daily consequence to ignoring it, but when you finally deal with the issue or take action, the direness of the situation slaps you in the face and overwhelms you. This temporal/conceptual block makes preventative actions easy to ignore and curative actions easy to repeatedly put off because, really, who wants to pay the piper in order to face the music?

Ignoring preservation in the near term is essentially exchanging expediency and ease now for discomfort and expense later. At that future point the work (or the teeth or the couch) is not necessarily unrecoverable, but the cost and effort to do so are 1) well above what they would have been had proper prevention been taken, and 2) potentially prohibitive or a major impediment to following through on the needed work.

The benefits of prevention are conceptually obvious - lower costs, better long-term conditions, improved quality of life, lowered restoration effort - but they are not perceptually obvious...until things are too late.

But when we look at history, we see that the cost and benefits of the choice to preserve or not preserve have been felt - repeatedly and viscerally - throughout the industry at monetary and personal effort levels.  For example:

-    After the original production of Titanic, the only thing that Lightstorm Entertainment archived was final release version on color separation film masters. Film is great, but the original, editable CGI or digital source materials are now inaccessible, limiting the choices or increasing the costs of reissuing where those effects may need to be recreated from scratch.
-    After years of delay, TBS HD has recently begun airing Seinfeld in HD at a 16:9 ratio. Typically, older, non-widescreen content is shown in pillar box or ends up being stretched (and severely distorted) to fit newer television sizes. Seinfeld was actually shot on film with a soft matte so that it would be HD-ready in the future, though the new versions had to be re-mastered from the film originals because the older syndication copies are 4:3. Titles and some interstitials also had to be redone because they were not originally shot in the same manner, increasing costs and delays.
-    When the creators of games such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band figured out they could utilize isolated audio tracks as the basis of interactive gaming, it sent record companies scrambling to go through their existing collections of multi-track tapes that had been little used, often ignored, and overwhelming recording studio storage space for decades. By some estimates the Guitar Hero franchise alone sold over 40 million units and earned over $3 billion in revenue.

An interesting commonality in these examples is that they do not fit into what have become the standard arguments for the economic benefits of preservation, most typically monetization through repurposing such as DVD extras, alternate takes on CDS or box sets, and various theatrical or other re-releases. I think we are now seeing the limits of these strategies - the collapse of the physical media market and the increase in streaming services (that don't include the DVD extras) as well as the small completist or fannish markets that, even if one believes in the long tail theory, do not sufficiently support the costs of production and distribution for premium or esoteric content.

Instead what we see in our examples is 1) a spectacular amount of revenue derived (as is often the case with novel technologies) from the unforeseen use of existing material/resources, or 2) the delay and decreased amount of normal revenue levels caused by the unprevented need to restore or recreate inaccessible materials. In the Extra Content scenario, resources are allocated to produce bonuses that may or may not contribute to increased revenue generation. In the Forced Restoration scenario, extra resources are allocated to bringing an asset up to releasable quality (investment that may not be recouped) which is added on top of (or replaces) the now expected bonus content. The bonus material included becomes an additional cost; excluded it becomes something for reviewers to complain about.

In the end, inserting archival procedures as part of a production process - and distributing the cost across time to minimize it - positively impacts future possibilities, just as the time and cost of flossing over the long term benefits one by preventing the sudden, all-in cost of a root canal.


From the studios to independent producers - and the archives that may end up acquiring their materials - these are the types of issues facing content creators and the types of issues occupying us at AudioVisual Preservation Solutions as archival and content management consultants. These are also the types of issues - from a preservation minded bent - that we will be exploring in this new blog for Post magazine. With the increasing use of digital media and the expansion of ways that content is being used and distributed in organizations, we're seeing the traditional walls between archives and other departments crumbling. Success for all will depend on learning new skills and ways of thinking, forging or strengthening cross-department relationships, and innovating new means for re-use and access. We hope this venue can be a place where archival and production issues can uncover their conflicts and their commonality, looking for new ways to move ahead and solve the issues we all face in maintaining the works we create and love.


The New York Times had an interesting article recently about the continuing restoration of Abel Gance's Napoleon since its initial release in the 1920s, citing the fact that there is little likelihood of seeing it projected on film outside of special occasions because the cost to the copyright owners (Zoetrope Films) is too great.

Posted By Joshua Ranger on April 02, 2012 09:32 am | Permalink