Archiving Anarchy: No One Will Save Your Film But You

What’s the most important moviemaking step you’re completely forgetting? Maybe it’s saving your film.

If you’re a filmmaker reading this, you’re likely lugging around a day job and a script. Or maybe you’ve finished your film and are applying to the top 10 festivals with markets, hoping to get distribution so you can make another one. In either case, there’s an excellent chance that you’re forgetting something crucial, or maybe you’ve never even considered it in the first place. That often overlooked piece of the moviemaker puzzle is archiving—taking essential steps to preserve your work. Archiving guarantees that you have your work in the proper format for any future delivery and protects your assets so you can profit from them going forward.

A filmmaker’s recurring nightmare used to be opening a can of film to find dust, scratches or a blob of black, glutinous material damaging their project. The equivalent digital nightmare is harder to see. It’s not tangible: It’s a screen full of numbers; it’s the six different versions of your short film you need to sort through to submit to festivals. The deadline is tonight but something is wrong; the file won’t open and you have the niggling feeling this isn’t the ending you picked. You look for the file, you look at the clock. You look for someone to help, but there’s no one. You then look for someone to blame, but there’s only you. You are your own archivist.

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Increasing dependence on digital files comes with an underlying risk. Courtesy of Picjumbo

Archiving is the insurance policy against bad luck and the degradation wrought by time. Karen Chan, executive director of the Asian Film Archive in Singapore, says, “A film reaching an audience in 2015 doesn’t ‘buy time’ for its survival in 2025. Devoting some thought to properly documenting and keeping your film elements gives your film a chance to be seen by future audiences.”

Independent movie-makers supply roughly 75 percent of the films screened in U.S. cinemas and with the digital boom, more movie-makers are creating more product, resulting in far greater competition for distribution. Being a movie-maker in today’s free-for-all market means navigating complex challenges alone—and this includes archiving. No, it doesn’t sound particularly fun or sexy; in fact it probably sounds like something a librarian should be doing, not you. But the reality is that few institutions in the world perform this service. The vaults at Warner Bros, MGM and other studios are catalogued and curated by trained archivists, which could not provide a more blinding contrast to the independent artist working from her garage or home office. Caught in the cross-currents of massive new creative, business and technical waves, movie-makers who are legally able to profit from their work for 95 years (according to U.S. Copyright law) likely have only a fraction of that time. In fact, it often takes so long to monetize new distribution platforms that their work may have degraded to digital dust long before their copyright expires.

Film schools would seem to be a safe haven for their students’ work, but often that’s only the case when the school pays for the film and therefore owns the copyright—as does the University of Southern California, for example. USC has preserved student films from the 1930s, but many schools have no consistent policy on archiving their students’ work, or only an ad hoc “system” that preserves selectively—festival successes, for example, later used to promote the school and sampled in teaching.

Today, the preservation and curation of vast troves of digital content is constantly provoking new issues. At a time when schools are phasing out teaching on film and processing labs are closing, film is easier to preserve than digital files. And because digital is easier to steal, its protection is even more important. But who in the independent world has the time or the energy? DCP (digital cinema package) files are replacing 35mm film cans (although for international distribution the standard is still film, at least for now). And the complexity and expense of DCP files configured for dubbing and subtitling country by country—including legal paperwork and print materials—keeps growing.

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Film, for all its tangibility, is a relatively simple format to archive. Courtesy of Pixabay

The infrastructure of documentary and TV affords a higher chance of preservation, due to the nature of how those works are made, sold and owned. Most independent filmmakers, on the other hand, face multiple small sales for their films, with the responsibility for preserving the work splintered between many parties, none of whom protect their assets as the studio system did. Reality often hits home for the first time when the completed film enters the film festival circuit, and the list of festival and distributor deliverables starts to mount.

An archivist’s first priority is preservation, then curation. Files should be protected from time and digital disintegration by establishing effective workflows with your technical team in the camera department and with your editor during the shoot. Once the production is over, it’s often too late to correct any mistakes made during a faulty or non-existent workflow.

Movie-makers who have the means are now hiring assistants to archive their work in tiptop condition, because their career depends on it. Feature and TV director Dennie Gordon, whose work includes episodes of Party of Five, Ally McBeal and Burn Notice, explains it this way: “It’s critical that all my work is in the highest resolution possible. I have a technician helping to archive it and then create links to share with CAA. A team helps me with this and keeps my website updated with recent work. It’s a seriously important task and a busy director needs to stay on top of this.

“I have a fairly elaborate system to help me keep up to date. All my work is archived and stored on G-RAID hard drives. This includes commercials, TV episodes, and various custom reels for different clients. It’s very, very hard to get HD copies of my episodes from a network—they only provide SD—so we have to wait until the HD copies hit the sales rack. I just updated my website with about $4,000 and a ton of labor, but it’s an essential tool for me and my agents.”

If you don’t have enough cash to hire help, though, a degree of personal diligence will go some way toward better preservation. Being vigilant from pre-production onward is a constant process, says New York-based video artist and director Kit Fitzgerald, who started out when digital images were being recognized as a genuine art form, not just a cheaper alternative to film.

“Continual digital migration is necessary,” Fitzgerald warns. “Formats, storage devices, and operating systems change constantly. You must keep updating your program files or you’ll find you can’t retrieve them. If you haven’t saved the files in three places, they are not saved. Digital preservation is like painting the Golden Gate Bridge—once you finish saving everything, you need to go back and update all the files to a new format.”

All that said, the rapid rate of change in production and distribution is generating new ways of archiving for those outside the safety of the studio system. Berkeley student Tobias Deml created an archive of his and other students’ films, offering it to any official body who could oversee its management—a form of “crowd archiving.” And there are positives signs in the fast-changing landscape of storytelling and archiving models. Multiple iterations of the same story source material will propagate, but properly archived material can be edited in perpetuity to the benefit of the filmmaker. It’s the moviemaker-come-archivist who holds the key to this potential treasure trove. There’s an urgent need for a comprehensive digital preservation plan for the future, because the future is now. So do you know where all your files are? MM

Illustration by Glenn Harvey Aguilar. This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue, on newsstands now. Look for the sequel to this article—a guide to better film and digital preservation—in an upcoming issue of MovieMaker.

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