Universal fire a hot topic among film archivists

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The recent fire damage to Universal Studios’ video vault underscores the significance of film preservation and archiving, which already been receiving increased industrywide attention.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that organizes the Academy Awards, put the topic front and center with its recent report on the challenges of digital archiving.

Universal executives are still assessing the damage from last Sunday’s spectacular blaze on the studio’s backlot -- believed to have affected 40,000-50,000 episodic TV and feature assets. They believe that all the video and film is replaceable as duplicates were kept elsewhere.

At issue is what assets will be replaced. These decisions will be made based on factors including the title, age of title, existing backup and the condition and quality of backups.

Universal’s situation certainly will be a topic of discussion when preservation experts gather in Hollywood on Friday for the two-day Reel Thing XX Technical Symposium, said conference co-coordinator Grover Crisp.

A key element to the preservation efforts at Hollywood studios is geographic separation, said Crisp, recently named senior vp asset management, film restoration and digital mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment. He said Sony maintains at least three versions of each asset (i.e. negative and two duplicate copies), which are stored in three separate parts of the country. Twentieth Century Fox has a similar policy.

Studios also use various protective methods, such as security, dry piping and temperature and humidity control.

Crisp warned that there is more to preservation than simply making digital copies.

“Just because it is data -- not a physical thing that you hold in your hand -- do you suddenly throw out all your years of conservation?” he asked. “You still want to maintain and hold on to the original, make copies, make sure the copies maintain the integrity of the original data, and store them geographically separate.”

Disney last month started a yearlong initiative to scan everything in its nitrate library, representing an estimated 16 million frames of film. Digital copies, as well as new film negatives, will be created as backup.

The nitrate library includes most of Disney’s titles from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, primarily animation as well as some live action titles.