Why You Should Preserve Your Film...Or Else
Movies shot digitally are at a huge risk for extinction. Here's how to save your work for posterity.
All movies will naturally deteriorate over time unless special measures are taken to protect the master film elements. Major studios have their own archives and preservation programs, but as independents, most of us don't have the resources to ensure our movies get preserved. Whether your motion picture is born on film, videotape, or through the more contemporary medium of digital data, all formats are at risk of extinction.
Independent cinema—whether fiction, non-fiction or experimental—is unquestionably worth saving because our stories represent diverse voices and unique artistry often neglected in our mainstream media outlets. But we must come together as a community to save our collective work. We cannot rely on someone else to save our cinematic heritage and make sure it remains accessible in the future.
When the history of motion pictures is written at the end of this century, we want to make sure that work of independent filmmakers will not have been eclipsed.
Movies showing in theaters right now may well be inaccessible and irretrievable by the end of this decade. The hazards, besides simple neglect, are myriad: corrupt digital files, unreliable hard drives, film negatives and prints that are jettisoned or lost, video masters that are damaged by water or excessive heat, and so on.
IndieCollect, a New York-based non-profit, launched its film preservation campaign in 2013 and became fully operational in 2014. Our mission is to save American independent cinema from the risk of extinction and to ensure that the work remains accessible. The IndieCollect team, consisting of archivists, filmmakers, researchers, and technologists, has already saved thousands of important film negatives and arranged for them to be archived at no cost to the filmmakers. We have also gone into filmmakers’ homes and storage units to inventory and archive their work. When the history of motion pictures is written at the end of this century, we want to make sure that work of independent filmmakers will not have been eclipsed.
Digital works are at greater risk of extinction than celluloid media.
I am a filmmaker myself. Now, as an archivist at IndieCollect, I get to help filmmakers locate and inventory their film materials and preserve them. We also advocate for artist rights and want to facilitate their ability to monetize their work. The first step is to help filmmakers save their films so they can generate an income stream in the future as exhibition technology and platforms evolve. Our motion pictures can outlive us, but we have to become good custodians of our work or it will disappear into the ether.
Film to digital
At the moment, I’m excited because IndieCollect has just acquired its own state-of-the-art archival film scanner, a Kinetta. Developed by Jeff Kreines, the Kinetta is a sprocket-less machine that is particularly gentle on old film stock, greatly reducing potential damage. It accommodates a variety of film gauges and creates high resolution, frame-by-frame scans at 2k to 5k, and can output to a number of formats that can be used to deliver theatrical DCPs and other codecs suited for the various distribution platforms, as well as to create LTO backup for preservation purposes.
We are launching our film scanning program with a Kickstarter campaign, "Revive the Early Works of Christine Vachon and Todd Haynes," an amazing collection of 10 films that Vachon and Hayes made under their Apparatus banner. They went on to make Far From Heaven, Boys Don't Cry, and Carol, among many others, and just wrapped their latest movie, Wonderstruck.
Most filmmakers know little about the virtues of LTO tape technology, which major corporations have used for some time.
The Apparatus films haven’t been seen in years, and never before in high-resolution digital form. Some were directed by Haynes and Vachon, who were pioneers of New Queer Cinema. But they also produced films by a startling array of other young film directors, including African Americans Suzan-Lori Parks (Anemone Me) and Larry Carty (Oreos with Attitude), and films starring a very young Steve Buscemi, including Vachon’s Days are Numbered and Tommy's by Barry Ellsworth. A number of the directors to whom they gave a first shot were women, including Susan Delson (Cause and Effect), Mary Hestand (He Was Once), and Brooke Dammkoehler (La Divina). It’s an amazing cornucopia and will be made available in a unique Blu-ray edition to our Kickstarter backers who make a contribution.
Hard drives fail and must be regularly and consistently upgraded and managed. That means that digital works are at greater risk of extinction than celluloid media.
To help media makers meet the challenge of digital preservation, IndieCollect is developing a program to create LTO backups and provide an annual “digital health checkup” for members. Most filmmakers know little about the virtues of LTO tape technology, which major corporations have used for some time. (Another example of indie filmmakers being left out in the cold.) Stay tuned for more news this fall about IndieCollect digital preservation protocols and services.
IndieCollect urges filmmakers to take the following steps and then report back to me.
- Take a basic inventory: Find out where your highest quality elements are for each motion picture project you’ve made.
- Examine your elements: Whether analog or digital, they all need to be archived properly. Do your best to assess their condition and/or readability.
- Let IndieCollect advise you: We can help you develop a preservation plan for your previous and future works. Through our network of more than 40 collaborating archives, we can help you find a home for those materials that belong in cold storage.
- Become a film preservation advocate yourself: Advocate for audiovisual preservation best practices to become part of your film school curriculum, your film festival communications, and your industry conferences and events.