- Editor’s Foreword
Permanence is an illusion. Archivists have spent decades if not centuries pursuing the Holy Grail of permanence, trying to maintain their collections through various means. For manuscripts and other print material, that quest has included conservation treatments of deacidification and paper strengthening; environmental controls; copying technologies such as microfilming, photocopying, and digitization; and dispersion of a multitude of copies in many places (most commonly, through the publication of important primary documents).1 In the moving image archiving field, our narrative is similarly full of seemingly Sisyphean attempts to perpetuate films and videos—the copying of decaying nitrate to acetate, the migration from obsolete to newer formats, the various chemical “treatments” meant to prolong life of prints, the move of materials to cold storage, and the concept of geographic separation of preprint material and masters to ensure that a work could be reconstituted if one element or generation was lost.
Motion picture film, magnetic media, optical discs—no matter what the medium, the nature of moving images as a human product made of fragile organic material often defies our best attempts to preserve it. No one solution is enough to ensure its longevity. Ultimately, we rely on a combination of safeguards to reduce risk of loss, but it is impossible to control for every risk factor. Part of the challenge is to identify all factors in the first place; although we may have the ability to control risk through our own actions, we have no control over the actions of others or providence. The recent disastrous fires at Universal Studios in June 2008 reminded us that natural and human-made disasters can strike at any time and wreak havoc on collections, even when precautions are taken. [End Page vi]
Although it is comforting to know that the film and television programs destroyed at Universal were not unique copies, and that the titles themselves were protected (geographic separation ensuring that preprint material was safely held elsewhere), ultimately access as we once knew it to the complete body of work held in those fire-damaged vaults may be compromised. At the time of this writing, it is uncertain whether Universal will make new viewing prints of everything that was destroyed, making the future availability of some material uncertain.2 The director of the Cleveland Cinematheque, John Ewing, recently related his problems in confirming the booking of some prints from Universal for his screening schedule and expressed his concern about whether the studio would expend extra resources to make new projection prints of material that was more obscure or which required additional work beyond straightforward duplication:
Cynic that I am, I thought, “Sure, they’ll make new copies of Frankenstein and Psycho and Touch of Evil and Jaws, but will they really replace the Don Knotts comedy The Love God? . . . or even a little-known gem by a major director like [Milos Forman’s] Taking Off?” It was reported in the media that a new print costs $5,000, and that the lost films were insured. But what about something like Abel Gance’s four-hour silent epic Napoleon, which I had booked for the Cinematheque’s 22nd anniversary in August and had to cancel? Robert Harris, the man who helped restore the movie over 25 years ago, told me that Universal’s Napoleon negative would require $40,000 worth of work before another print could be struck from it. Given the current economic environment, with [End Page vii] digital projection of movies looming on the horizon, is that an investment any cost-conscious corporate executive is going to make?3
As Ewing notes, the technological and economic framework within which moving images are embedded makes a full recovery from a disaster such as the Universal Studios fire particularly challenging.
In theory, the more valuable we find cultural heritage to be, the greater the efforts will be to sustain it and to reduce risk of its loss from outside forces: deteriorating films and videos may be copied or reformatted to new media; storage facilities are built to the appropriate standards to protect materials from fires, floods, and temperature and humidity fluctuations; and security systems are installed to...