Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Film or Video?

Motion picture film enthusiasts can revel in more than a century of people and places, the artistry of Bergman or Hitchcock, the shimmering beauty of nitrate prints, all preserved on film, which boasted a golden age before videotape was born. Hollywood's film industry was an actor's dream and a tourist's destination before tape existed. Early TV shows were preserved not on tape but on film taken by pointing a motion picture camera at a television screen. Movies offered a brief escape from the Great Depression; television is now derided as the opiate of the masses. But if you associate video with television, videotape may win the numbers game with film because American homes hold so many TV sets. Yet it seems that film has the edge.

But I'm thinking labels (again). The archives relies on labels to identify the content of audiovisual materials. A vague or incorrect label--or even worse, no label at all--lowers the preservation priority of the item to which it is affixed. When we've got thousands of sound and moving-image materials identified with good labels, the poorly identified ones inevitably fall to the bottom of the work plan--unless we can play them back.

Playback can be problematic. We can only play an item if we've got the right equipment, which is often lacking. In addition, in our efforts to preserve the material, we play archival sound recordings and moving images only once, during the reformatting process.

That leaves the simplest operation: carefully unwinding the reel and eyeballing the content. Videotape is magnetic, existing as particles on a tape base. It looks black, undeveloped, opaque. You can't discern anything when it has been unwound. Film is optical, a sequence of photographs. Look at it with a light box, and you can see the images, overcoming the obstacle of a missing or damaged label. Score one for film!

Frames from film of German Day ceremonies held in Hindenburg Park, Los Angeles, 1936, Warren Olney motion picture film, Hoover Institution Archives

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