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The History of Archival TV & Film Storage: Protecting the Past

17th January 2020

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We’ve seen that history – both distant and recent – has not always been kind to the hallowed artefacts of film and TV history. If you were brought down a bit by the pessimism of our last post on the history of TV and film archives, take heart: modern efforts at preservation have made enormous strides. Read on to find out how early losses shaped our approach to preservation, and some of the techniques we use today to maintain a record of modern culture.


The history of preservation

For much of the history of film and television, film and television execs weren’t interested in its history. The two mediums were either considered to be throwaway entertainment, or later on, simply not worth the cost and effort of preservation. Some of this was only realised to be notable after the fact, as either a point of historical interest or the vehicle for a future star.

The BBC maintained a policy of overwriting its tapes up until the 1970s, meaning that shows and TV films including the likes of Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee have been lost forever. Live broadcasts were not recorded at all, while some shows have simply vanished from the archives, including at least five missing episodes of Doctor Who. In the US, meanwhile, TV historians decry the loss of nightly newscasts during the Vietnam War, and similar shows which would now provide a snapshot of the nation.

Other records have simply been poorly maintained. Both nitrate film and the safety film it was later copied onto are prone to degradation in hot or humid conditions, with more modern film being subject to what’s known as the ‘vinegar effect’. The breakdown of acetate film into acetic acid causes the film to shrink and become exceptionally brittle, by which point it is beyond repair. It’s estimated that 90% of silent films prior to 1929 and 50% of ‘talkies’ made before 1950 have been lost forever.


Early efforts

Incredibly, some of the earliest film prints are actually the best preserved. Many films made between 1894 and 1912 were submitted to the Library of Congress to obtain copyright protection. The means of submission – individual frames printed onto paper – have held up far better over the years than a lot of film stock. While the prints are not of a particularly high quality, they have now been transferred to film stock, and represent some of the oldest surviving examples of cinema.

The earliest efforts at film preservation occurred in the 1930s, although the topic was discussed in the industry at least a decade earlier. It was not the film industry which took up the baton initially, but institutions and historians. New York’s Museum of Modern Art began its cinema collection in 1935, obtaining curios including negatives from the first ever motion picture company. That same year saw the founding of National Film Library in the UK (now the BFI National Archive); while in 1936, the Cinémathèque Française was founded in Paris, which survives today as the world’s largest repository of international films.

Both film and TV studios only began to preserve films in earnest in the 1970s. MGM reacted to their disastrous 1965 vault fire by working to preserve all of their surviving movies, while the BBC took the decision to retain old broadcast tapes, and formalised its archiving process. Film preservation would become a cause celebre in the next two decades, as filmmakers including Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese reacted to the degradation of their own film stock.


Modern techniques

As streaming has opened up the archives to old TV and films, so interest has grown in the past, and studios have had a basis to monetise it. As such, the clamour to preserve the past has grown stronger, and the technology involved in preservation has improved. Provided they are properly managed, archives can now store and protect items for hundreds of years, with the potential to copy them and keep them for hundreds more.

One famous example is the National Film Registry, a wing of the US Library of Congress. Their collection of over 700 films deemed to be “culturally, historically, or aesthetically” significant swells by up to 25 films each year, which must be at least 10 years old when they are picked. They either source these films from their own copyright archives or, in the event that the quality has deteriorated, they track down collectors, preservers and other institutions for a pristine copy. On one occasion, they even created an entirely new cut of a film whose master had been lost.

As with most film and TV archives, the Registry is climate controlled, and built underground in order to reduce the ambient temperature. To avoid the risk of flooding – a perennial issue for underground storage – the Registry is buried in a hillside to help with drainage, and the shelving is raised off the ground. Special lockers used to contain and control volatile nitrate film are kept in a separate location. Many modern archives also contain data storage vaults, containing vast banks of hard drives with digitised copies of films and TV shows.


Safety and security

Secure shelving allows for films to be stored in a high density arrangement, while also being tightly secured. In the National Film Registry’s case, the archive must also be earthquake-proof, and both the building and shelving were specially engineered to accommodate this. As you would expect, the use of either a mobile shelving arrangement (carefully controlled to eliminate jostling of the canisters) or doors on static shelves help to prevent unauthorised access, keeping the archives under lock and key.

Perhaps the most prominent risk to a film or TV archive is fire. Due to a number of factors, fire is even more potent in archive facilities than most locations. The materials are often highly flammable and extremely tightly packed, as well as being highly susceptible to many methods of fire suppression. The facilities are also often underground, which can limit the fire protection and suppression methods you can deploy in the archives.

This requires careful planning and maintenance of the facility, as well as the storage units. Master switches for electrical circuits must be kept outside of storage areas, and cables should be encased to keep them clear of other materials. The archives should be fitted with fireproof walls, ceilings, and floors, such as our Durasteel passive fire protection system, and windows and doors should have as high a fire rating as possible.

Archives also require advanced fire detection and suppression systems. Very early smoke detection systems (VESDA), most commonly used in large, high density racking projects, are a vital aspect of archive protection, as they allow for the quickest possible response. As water suppression is not a possibility, foam or gas suppression is preferred, although the latter in particular requires that the archives are carefully segmented, and that personnel are quickly evacuated; this is not always possible with actively serving archives such as the BBC’s.

Movie storage and preservation shouldn’t just be the preserve of historians and obsessives. Everything from blockbuster movies to daytime soaps and home video footage is a glimpse into our past, and a unique resource for understanding different cultures, whether they are from other countries or our own. These archives are a living history of the past 130 years of humankind, and we’re proud to play a role in protecting them for the future.

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