Q&A: Talking Digital with Nancy Goldman

Peter Cavagnaro


Nancy Goldman, Head of the PFA Library & Film Study Center, went to the 66th Congress of the International Federation of Film Archives /Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF) in Oslo, Norway earlier this year, where she attended the Digital Challenges and Opportunities in Audiovisual Archiving symposium. Several critical issues, including making digital content available on the web, best methods in protecting digital files for the long-term, and teaching digital preservation were discussed over the course of the 3-day symposium. While BAM/PFA will always be committed to preserving and screening all film and video formats, we remain keenly interested in following all of the industry debates about digital formats and distribution.

What are some of the biggest dilemmas that film archivists face in the digital age that were discussed at the symposium?

There are many, but one that I think is particularly challenging is how we will work with the film industry to preserve films that are released as Digital Cinema Packages, or DCPs - very high resolution files that will be uploaded to theaters for digital projection. As the film industry moves towards an all-digital workflow, celluloid film prints will eventually be replaced by DCPs. DCPs will generally be encrypted with Digital Rights Management software that restricts how many times it can be shown and where it can be shown. While this is vital in the short-term to protect a DCP from copyright violation, it will hamper long-term preservation of works.

Beyond merely storing and cataloging digital files, what are some of the other issues that institutions have to face when considering digital archiving?

The most serious issue is long-term digital preservation. With old-fashioned analog film, what is termed “passive preservation” - or simply storing film with appropriate climate control and archival storage conditions, can extend the life of celluloid to well over 100 years. Newly struck polyester film, properly stored, will last up to 500 years, according to the Image Permanence Institute. However, digital files have a much different outlook regarding longevity. Digital files need to be regularly migrated to new storage media, and they need emulation software to read them. Because of the speed of technological change, we are talking about years, not decades, in terms of digital file longevity without any intervention. For example, how would you go about retrieving data today from a 5 ¼” floppy disk from the eighties encoded using Wordstar? But you could easily hold analog film up to the light to see what is on it centuries from now, as long as it had been properly stored.

Are there any issues with digital film files degrading over time?

Yes and no. It’s a different kind of degradation over time - they don’t slowly degrade with little blemishes, like you have with celluloid. With digital, it is all or nothing - a few data bits mixed up will prevent you from viewing the whole work. Because of that, as well as file format and software obsolescence, digital files need to be regularly migrated; at least every 5 - 10 years or more frequently. And this of course takes time and money.

Every few years it seems a new file format is introduced that is preferable to ones that preceded it. What sort of advice do you have for film lovers and filmmakers to plan for these inevitable changes so that their collections don’t become obsolete?

First, I think you should always try and save analog work on its original format, as your options for transferring it will improve over time. For example, I have my Dad’s super-8mm films, which he transferred to VHS videotape in the 1980s; at that time I asked him not to throw them out, but to give them to me. Now I’ll be able to transfer them to a digital format in the future that will look much better starting from the super 8 than if I started with the VHS - I’m waiting till the technology gets even better and more stable though. If your moving images were shot digitally - known as “born digital” - I’d suggest keeping multiple copies on different drives, so if one crashes or gets corrupted you have backups, and migrate them to new technologies every few years.

How does one convert rare film into a digital format? And what types of organizations are engaged in this type of work?

There are a number of film labs that make film prints for theaters that also work with film archives to make digital access copies from 16mm and 35mm film. There are also many smaller companies that will convert your home movies but you need to be very careful to pick a company that has a good reputation for making high-quality transfers, as well as experience in safely handling older film, which otherwise can easily be damaged. There is an organization called the Center for Home Movies that promotes Home Movie Day each year, and has a website - homemovieday.com - with lots of information on getting home movies transferred, including lists of reputable transfer companies and questions you might ask them. As in the past, BAM/PFA is one of the sites hosting Home Movie Day, which is on October 16 this year, and offers anyone an opportunity to show your original films, have films inspected, and get film transfer tips.