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Why We Need A Digital Database to Archive and Ultimately Preserve Films

Why We Need A Digital Database to Archive and Ultimately Preserve Films

Film producer and festival programmer Ted Hope recently wrote on his blog Hope for Film about the need for the industry to create a digital database to archive films. He has given Indiewire permission to reprint the post on our site. As he points out, you can’t preserve films unless you have the elements to work with. Hope has the interest in creating such a database, but is looking for feedback. Read his ideas below and post your thoughts in the comments section.

Film preservation is a difficult thing. And it has gotten more
difficult. But it could be made easier.  Like many things, although
there is not yet an app for that, there is a simple fix.

If you are reading this now, I am going to assume you know about the “digital dilemma” and recognize that we probably are going to lose a
great deal of the films that have been created over the last decade.  As digital is not a stable medium,
and filmmaker rarely migrate their data, archive quality versions of
films that were originated on digital and never output to film, are
probably gone for good.  I guess one simple fix would just be to educate
people more about this.  But then again, knowledge does not ofter alter
behavior — or else we wouldn’t smoke, over eat, or have unprotected

Yet we have the mechanisms and infrastructure to make everything a
whole heck of a lot better — and who knows maybe we can save a few films
from oblivion.  Digital requires it’s own initiative (and I have a few
ideas about that too), but good old celluloid —  reliable as an archive
medium for about 100 years — has its own challenges too, starting with
the most basic of knowing the what and the where.

Preserving films is one thing, but the process can’t start unless you
have the elements to work with.  You won’t have the elements unless you
know where they are.  How often do we hear the tale of yet another
version of “Metropolis” being discovered in a vault somewhere?  The fact
is filmmakers often lose track of where their elements are. They have
their film print made at a lab, and then they forget.  If we were lucky
enough to have had our film funded by a third party, but if your film
industry is at all like mine, precious few companies last for eternity.
 Companies go out of businesses.  Labs go out of business.  Humans
forget.  And soon we don’t know where our mix master is, let alone our

If every film festival requested on their application for filmmakers
to identify where there film elements are, we would have the foundation
to create a fantastic database.  We could even take it one step further
and ask filmmakers to identify what their preservation plan was; not
that they would most likely have a preservation plan, but if you ask the
question, at least they’d start thinking about it.

As most festivals use WithoutABox for their applications, it should be easy to facilitate, right?

If the database was collected, it could be put on line and filmmakers could thus update it if they ever moved their elements.

Help me think this out.  It is a simple fix.  I thought I would
initiate it as soon as I ran a film society, but well, things happen and
things get delayed, but there is no time like now.

This Article is related to: Filmmaker Toolkit and tagged , , ,


Buster Keaton Fan

I believe a lot of the thought is stuck in the past. Sad really. You Tube or some other platform is phenomenal for disseminating and storing video. Movie invisible since the 20's can be viewed around the world. As far as digital losing it's quality over time? I have never heard such a thing. I would love to have seen this article focus more on this. However I have found the opposite to be true. Yellowing of paper of newspaper clippings can be easily made to appear new quality images like they were printed yesterday. If the art is culturally valuable copies are made around the world now. In multiple languages. Film will become as ubiquitous as digital images as the technology grows. Meaning? They should be available in multiple formats, in multiple quality versions on servers around the world. I am amazed at the high resolution images of Buster Keaton that are available from Russian, French, German and United States servers. These images survived the transition from film to digital just fine. I would like to see numerous copies of films thrown out and stored in the digital environment. Loosening of the copyright laws on film would enhance this possibility. Great topic.


Microsoft SharePoint would be a good tool for this purpose. Not only could you create libraries, but you could also add search and query features plus workflows to automate tasks such as adding a film or more complex processes. One thing I always wanted to see is a database with films and their attributes, such as genre, cast, director, etc. You could also add other elements like documents, wikis, calendars, even group sites or personal FaceBook type social sites. All that stuff is built into SharePoint. And speaking of adding a social component, that may be a way to pay for it, if people were willing to pay an annual or monthly fee, like they do to AFI, for example.

Yes, the resources would be huge. You'd need a SAN or very high capacity storage drive system. You'd need an array of high end servers. But this is required regardless. Microsoft also has a cloud option that could handle the hardware end for you.

Dennis Doros

And by coincidence, AVPreserve's website just put up today the following information up on their website based on presentations at the AMIA conference last week:

Chris Lacinak, "The Cost of Inaction"
Michael Casey, Indiana University, "Why Media Preservation Can't Wait the Weathering Storm"
Seth Anderson, "Navigating the Digital Archive: First, Know Thyself"
Seth Anderson, "Mastering Your Data: Tools for Metadata Management in AV Archives"
Kara Van Malssen "From Zero to DAM"
AMIA & DLF HackDay 2013 Projects and Outcomes

I'm sorry, Indiewire doesn't seem to allow links but search for "AVPreserve" and go to "Papers and Presentations"

Dennis Doros

The preservation of indie materials, especially in the digital age, is going to be one of the great moving image problems of this century — even greater than films on nitrate stock. At the same time, who is going to create and administer the database, who is going to pay staff to support it and how is this going to be promoted so filmmakers will want to spend their time entering the data? A good start, of course, would be the Association of Moving Image Archivists who is already grappling with these issues. Many of these issues were discussed last week in Richmond, VA at our annual conference and many of our members are traveling the world to bring solutions such as the production of open source databases and proper care for all audiovisual materials. As for what can be done for indie directors, there is much information on the AMIA website under Resources and Publications — including info on Disaster Recovery, a Film Preservation Manual for indies and a whole lot of useful information. For digital, there is no standard longterm preservation option as we stand here today. Personally, I feel everything of importance should be on hard drives with LTO (Linear Tape Open) backup but both of these have to be stored properly and migrated every few years.

Supporting AMIA by becoming a member, coming to the events that happen around the year, and using the sources available to members is a good way for filmmakers to start the process. The best thing about AMIA is that it is open to everyone interested in promoting the preservation of moving images.


Indie filmmakers can learn the basics and a supportable strategy for preservation in the Digital Moving Image Archives Toolkit:


I go the route another indie filmmaker told me about: archive all the raw footage to two drives plus bluray data backups (no matter how many it takes or how long it takes to burn). Then once the film is finished, do it again with all the master project files, elements and final movie. That's two drives and bluray data backups for every single element of a movie. Upgrade the drives every 3-5 years.


Most films that disappear without a trace are doing humanity a favor….between the National Registry and most library's dvd collection the future generations will be well served. They should put most of their focus on their own culture…not ours.

Digital Indie Girl

Very interesting point you make Ted. I agree that we should seriously look at what our options are to better archive and store the millions of films that exist in the world. Not only for filmmakers to access but for future generations, as well. Film is a medium that allows creatives to communicate what sometimes can be complex ideas into simplified visual lessons that will be important for our younger generations to have access to. This to be developed point of access will most definitely need to be thoroughly thought-out organized and stable in order to stand the test of time. Are there any organizations, like archives and history institutions that may be interested in hosting a annual forums to address these concerns. Also, maybe partnering with a Netflix/Hulu/Youtube creators to come up with some type of solution, I think the infrastructure exist in separate places and strategically bringing the right people to the table will be key here… just my two cents #digitalindiegirl


I actually ran into this issue with Withoutabox not too long ago. I had moved back from South America and a film I produced on S16 was still down in South America. I wanted the digital copy I had loaded up on Withoutabox and I asked them if I could download it and they said there was no way to do that? So I loaded the film to their site, but I cannot get a copy from the original upload. That is correct, you can even upload a new version but cannot download the content you uploaded. My thought is if that could be done at least you would have a platform where the copy of the film that you are sending to festivals could be safe and always available if you lose the elements, etc.

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