A passion for film

Video digitisation

Reading old tapes at The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum.


Tom De Smet has been the manager of the Film Department at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision in Hilversum since 1 January 2010. Prior to that, he was the project manager for film conservation tendering projects as part of Images for the Future. Who better to explain the ins and outs of film preservation and digitisation?

The Sound and Vision collection consists of more than 700,000 hours of images and sound. How much of that is film?

“The estimates are based on the number of canisters of film and vary between 25,000 and 35,000 hours of film material. The broadcasting collection alone includes more than 20,000 hours of film. We do not have an accurate figure because it is not known how much film is in many of the canisters or even what they contain – the process of finding this out and recording it is one of the key objectives of Images for the Future. There is likely to be a lot of duplication and unusable film. In the past, the records kept of materials coming into Sound and Vision were not as accurate as they are now. We are currently in the process of converting dozens of different databases and registration systems from different archives into a single, easy-to-use database (iMMix). Until everything has been sorted out, the precise number of hours of film remains anyone’s guess.”

Where are the films stored?

"There are three different locations. All the nitrate film stock is kept in the bunker in Scheveningen, because it is highly flammable. It is a Second World War bunker originally used for recreational purposes by German soldiers, but now redeployed to store our cultural heritage. All the black-and-white film stock on acetate and all the perforated acetate sound film is kept here in Hilversum. The colour film stock is in Rijswijk. It is best to store colour film at low temperatures (-5 to 5 degrees Celsius), but black-and-white film is slightly more stable. Sound and Vision also stores film stock from other institutes or archives in the nitrate bunker because it has now become almost impossible to obtain a licence to store nitrate.”

Both EYE and Sound and Vision preserve and digitise film. What is the main difference between the two organisations?

“Historically, EYE has always focused on film as an art form, whereas Sound and Vision manages film as a source of information. Most of the materials here are from television, TV documentaries, newsreels and other collections of an informative and educational nature. EYE primarily manages, preserves and digitises Dutch and foreign films (feature films, arthouse and experimental films) starting from the very early days of cinema up to the present day."

Is there a constant supply of new film stock?

“With a few exceptions, film is a medium which actually dried up in 1989 as far as the broadcasting collection is concerned. Occasionally, a film-maker who worked in broadcasting may pass away and it turns out that they had their own broadcasting archive stored in the attic. If it is of interest and still missing from our own collection, we may decide to include it. The same applies to amateur collections and corporate films. Usually, it does not involve individual films, but entire collections. Of course, we do not accept everything, but we do view everything we are offered. The acquisition process is actually handled by a different department that not only deals with film stock, but also other audiovisual media. From 1989/1990 onwards, the broadcasting companies started recording all their programmes on video instead of film. All the video materials are also part of the Sound and Vision collection.”

“It is the duty of an archive to ensure no materials are lost.”

How much film is being digitised?

“As part of the Images for the Future project, Sound and Vision is supposed to be digitising 17,510 hours of film. We know that we have even more film stocks and are aiming to digitise the entire film collection if possible. It is actually more time-consuming and expensive to view and select all the films than it is to digitise everything. It is the duty of an archive to ensure that no material is lost and the most effective way of doing this is to store it in digital format. We have already digitised 4500 hours of film and have four and a half years left to do the rest. There is currently a tendering process for the digitisation of a selection of news programmes from 1952 onwards, recorded on 16 mm film. It involves 1750 hours of film that will be transferred via telecine onto digibeta format in SD quality (Standard Definition). These digibeta versions serve as digital masters which we then encode onto MXF D10 50 (broadcasting standard), which can be requested digitally, without a physical medium, by broadcasting companies and other clients. The UK’s Ascent Media has taken on the job. This is no easy task, because news broadcasts are made up of short items that need to be individually spotted (determining the start and the end) and colour-corrected.”

“I often take a look in iMMix to see what's been added to the database.”

“Because of the complexity and painstaking nature of the working process, it takes three to six months after we have delivered the film to the UK before it is encoded, checked and accessible via iMMix. Only then is it completely digitally available – for clients, but also for such services as ED*IT.”

These editing suites are used to synchronise the sound and images on the film.

How do you decide the quality in which the materials will be preserved?

“For news broadcasts, we opt for SD quality rather than HD, because the original quality of the broadcasts was not very high and it was shot in volatile conditions. Besides, most of it is reversal stock that is actually a direct positive. Using this technique, you record as if there were negative film in the camera, but a special developing process allows you to create a direct positive that can be immediately displayed. It is a practical and inexpensive solution for news broadcasts and other TV materials, but less effective in terms of quality. Just as with the telerecording of films and amateur movies (primarily on 8 mm), the original quality often does not justify transfer in HD quality. It becomes a case of scanning between the pixels, which can be a waste of effort.”

“Scanning between the pixels can be a waste of effort”

Are there any other tenders ongoing?

“In addition to the news broadcast SD tender, there are two other preservation projects. One of these is for 16 mm black-and-white acetate film that is being preserved by transferring it from a black-and-white reverse positive to a duplicate negative on polyester film. The material in question has been granted A status, which means it is considered to be important in terms of Dutch history. Another project involves the preservation of perforated acetate sound film, where we hope to transfer all the sound film onto perforated polyester. This year will also see the announcement of a tender for all the nitrate film stock from the bunker that has not yet been preserved. In addition, starting in the summer of 2010, 8000 hours of film will be digitised in HD quality. This involves 3.5 petabytes (3500 terabytes) which will initially be stored on LTOs (Linear Tapes - Open) and later in a tape robot. This original data will then be encoded in order to enable digital access.”

How durable are these digitised films?

“The debate about the durability of digital media is highly controversial. One thing is for certain: investment in storage and migration of the digital files will continue to be necessary even after Images for the Future. For many original films, not only are the original film and a digital version being stored, but also a physical, analogue version. I have no doubts about the durability of the material on which we store the analogue versions (polyester film), but I do question the durability of the equipment we can use to play, scan and/or process the material. If Fuji and/or Kodak decided tomorrow to halt production of negative film materials, the whole film industry would switch over to digital film. In that case, there would not be a single facility film company with a working film scanner and the archives would have to rely on the knowledge of niche companies or, preferably, the knowledge they have built up themselves over the years.”

If I’m looking for a specific film fragment, how can I find it?

“As a registered and professional client, you can use iMMix-Extern to search the archive and click on the fragment you want, specifying the format, for example MXF D10 50. Until Images for the Future is complete, clients can still request the analogue film and have it scanned. However, we hope in the near future only to offer digital media, primarily in order to preserve the film. Of course, the main clients are the broadcasting companies, but libraries and universities will also be considered. Private individuals can make requests at the desk, if they have an appointment.”

What is a typical working week like for you?

“My work as project manager for Images for the Future involved setting up the workflow of the various tendering projects. I am now the manager of the Film Department of Sound and Vision. My work now largely involves coordinating the workflow within the department, with other departments and of course also with external suppliers. For example, we decide what criteria need to be met. What will we reject? How can you quantify these choices and ensure that they are objective? How do you monitor the quality of the preservation process? Within the various Sound and Vision Collections, the Film Department is actually in a class of its own. All the other departments focus primarily on production processes (depository, acquisition, registration, stocktaking), whereas film is the only medium-related department. The complexity and medium-specific knowledge demanded by film digitisation and preservation within Images for the Future do however justify the department’s separate status.”

“Within the various Sound and Vision Collections, the Film Department is actually in a class of its own.”

“A total of around 50 people work in the Film Department. Some of these are self-employed entrepreneurs, mainly former NOS editors, who ensure that the films can be scanned. They match the image with the sound and repair any bad splices. The Film Department consists of four different groups: planning and control, scan preparation, quality control/film scanning and postproduction. The latter department is the only one that is not involved in Images for the Future on a full-time basis.”

“We actually aim to digitise a third of the films ourselves as part of the Images for the Future project. For this, we plan to purchase a film scanner, NLE systems (also for quality control) and an encoding farm in the spring. The intention is also for us to encode all the materials that have been digitised externally. Quality control is one of the most important aspects in the entire process. The more work we do in-house, for example by scanning the highest quality material from the collection ourselves, the more control and greater guarantee of quality we have. The idea behind this purchase is also that after 2014, when the Images for the Future project has been completed, we can digitise the remaining materials and any new items ourselves using the knowledge we have acquired during the project.”

How did you become the manager of the Film Department?

“I actually started out as a business psychologist. Between my Bachelor's degree and my Master’s, I went to Venice where I became involved in a range of small jobs for the Film Festival and caught the film bug. After completing my Master’s in London, I immediately returned to Italy. Through my network, I was then approached to help produce a major festival focusing on the archive world (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). This festival only showed silent films with a live orchestra and piano music. I was then approached by Haghefilm to take on major digitisation and restoration projects. It was this experience that ultimately brought me to Sound and Vision.”

Do you have to be a film aficionado to do this job?

“It certainly helps. Especially during the years I worked on the archive film festival, I developed a great affinity with the medium of film and especially with film as a material. That’s my real passion, the grain, the nostalgia… The fact that, in terms of content, most of the films at Sound and Vision do not directly interest me (as a Belgian, certain television programmes mean little to me) actually enables me to focus on the objective quality of the material itself. The content of individual programmes is of less relevance. What interests me are the choices that we need to make in terms of preservation, but especially in terms of digitising the materials. Should we use SD, HD or 2K? Of course, considerations of content are important and are a factor in the decision-making process, but can never be predominant in a project as large as Images for the Future.”

“Should we use SD, HD or 2K?”

Do you share the knowledge you acquire with other archives?

“At FIAT conferences and other events, the various experts in digitisation share a lot of information. These occasions can be present an excellent opportunity to compare notes and find out whether or not everyone is reinventing the wheel. Many archives are currently looking to Images for the Future in order to learn from our findings and from the choices we make about resolutions, formats, compression and storage solutions. We share our knowledge at symposiums and conferences and include the results of successful and less successful pilots in white papers, so that other archives can also learn from them.”

What significance does the Images for the Future project have for you?

“In our department, 95% of people are working directly on Images for the Future. This means that we are preoccupied all day long with the project in one way or another. It affects the institute at every level. It is almost inevitable that one should feel extremely involved in the project. For me, it's an absolutely amazing project, unique in the world. In my home country of Belgium, they are light years behind us. Partly thanks to Images for the Future, we are way out in front as a television archive and especially in terms of digitisation.”

Marcel Oosterwijk

For more information on film preservation, media, types of materials and formats, visit the Sound and Vision portal (only available in Dutch)