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Today is the World Day for Audiovisual Heritage.

Never heard of it? That’s not terribly surprising. It was a huge deal at my old workplace, yet I had forgotten about it entirely until the hugely talented and interesting Elizabeth Klinck tweeted a link this morning.

Why is this a big deal? In the era of YouTube, it seems like every single thing is at our fingertips, movie and tv history-wise. Sure, we’ve got everything from Birth of a Nation to commercials for Jem and the Holograms dolls to, well, pretty much everything that isn’t copyrighted (and many things that are).

That’s not entirely true, obviously. For all the copies of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, we’ve lost billions of hours of other footage, aural and visual, because of lack of know-how, inclination, or, in some cases, just plain luck.

Because people have taken the time and energy to save these things and to convert them to a format that can be viewed in a tiny box on our computer screens, society, in general, doesn’t think it’s a big deal to document our audiovisual past. It’s one thing to find an old episode of Hercules on a VHS tape in your mum’s basement and make it semi-watchable online, but that’s almost the easiest kind of old footage to make available.

Have you ever been to a screening, or watched a DVD/blu-ray put out by Criterion, of a restored Fritz Lang or Truffaut or [insert name of eminent director] film? It is astounding and almost magical how much effort has been put into making an available commercial film even more authentic and true to the director’s original vision. It requires hundreds of hours of research, painstaking restoration, and the patience of several saints to complete a project like that. And generally, these projects do not make a huge amount of money.

Do you remember a couple of years ago when they the oldest ever audio recording of the human voice made the news? The actual recording had been in an archive since 1861, but after its rediscovery, it took years to figure out how to play it. Do you have any idea what kind of digital file we should be saving old recordings as to ensure maximum clarity, resolution, etc. and yet still be playable on the technologies of the future?

I took a workshop a few years ago on footage research and two reps from Portuguese tv station proudly said that their station was converting all their Digibeta stuff to MP4 format. The person leading the workshop nearly tutted right at them. What about degradation? What about compression and data loss? What about [insert technological problem I don’t fully understand]?

And even then, pristine, well-protected, masters are only one key to keeping the past (literally) locked-up and available to future generations. Making them available to those who want to use them, assigning them well-researched meaning is crucial. Facts without context drive me crazy – the why can be forgotten when historians aren’t included in the archival process – because a photo with just a date on it is virtually meaningless, except perhaps aesthetically, without knowing any background about it. Those thousand words need some nudging from a handful more.

I had no intention of writing this much today – this was just going to be a wee shout-out to UNESCO and Ms Klinck, with some links to neat online audiovisual projects and instead y’all got an ill-researched, half-remembered babble – so, yes, conclusion. Do I have one?

Kinda. Mostly, I just want to remind people that audiovisual archiving isn’t hucking stuff online, hoping your family movies on Super 8 don’t get lost in a flood, or saving things in boxes without any instructions or documentation (I have inherited family photos aplenty of people I do not recognize, and nor will anyone else who is still alive). Back things up, do your research into how to do these best, but leave messages for those who might be enjoying your spoils in future so they don’t go ‘WTF is this nonsense?’ and ignore it and/or throw it out. Thank the weird great-aunts who are documenting your family’s history if you are not inclined to do so yourself. Don’t take the efforts of audiovisual conservators for granted. Their work is difficult and exhilarating and important, and, largely, ill-paid and underfunded.

For those who aren’t concerned much with the above and just want to see some cool old shit, check these links out:

Now pardon me while I try to figure out how to live on air for the foreseeable future so that I finally enroll in this after years of talking about it.

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