The future of video will have most of your work stored on bits of ones and zeros. What you do with that bittage when you store it determines how you’ll find it later.
It is winter, a time to reflect and get organized. That box of tapes sitting in your basement has been waiting for this cold blustery day, waiting for you to blow off the dust and save the memories and images filling thousands of feet of shiny black tape. OK, you say, let’s go buy a stack of DVDs or perhaps that new terabyte hard drive and begin the archiving process! Whoa! Not so fast. Before you do permanent damage to your life’s work, let’s take a hard look at archiving. In this article, we will examine the options you have available for archiving your footage and hopefully dispel any misconceptions you may have about this all-important topic. We will take a look at viable options and steps that will help you maintain your video library for years to come.
In the Beginning There Was Tape
And there still is… for the time being. When you look in your box of tapes, you are most likely going to find a variety of formats that have existed through the years: VHS, 8mm, S-VHS, Hi8 and the recent additions, Mini DV and perhaps DVCAM and DVCPRO. Amazingly enough, the videotapes you shot twenty years ago will still play, if you have a good-quality player and have stored the tapes correctly. However, if you threw them in a box and stuck them in the basement, you may be disappointed when you finally do try to play them.
Now, let’s look at a good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that, if you did store them properly (we’ll go over that in a minute) and you have a clean, reliable player, you will probably be in good shape. The bad news is you still need to do some work to make sure you maintain your collection for years to come.
Then Came the DVDs, Hard Drives and Flash Cards
By now, you are probably getting a little impatient: “Tell us about the cool way to use DVDs and hard drives to archive our footage!” Well, let’s just put it this way… DVDs and hard drives are not reliable ways to archive your footage. The MPEG-2 compression needed to create DVD-Video discs compresses your video so much that you will lose some of the original quality of the raw footage. It may look fine, but when you attempt to edit the footage into a new project, you will find that the quality is not as good as the original.
You might point out that the DVDs you buy with pristine Hollywood movies look really good. Yes, they do. The primary reason is that discs authored by Hollywood studios are compressed with much more human intervention to get the very best quality out of the master footage. Additionally, Hollywood is making such a huge number of copies that they are able to use a process called replication, where the information is exactly the same as the master and the media used is extremely high-quality and very stable. Your recordable DVDs are not replicated; they are burned. This means the discs themselves are prone to chemical decay over time and are not that stable. Do not use DVDs to archive your footage. You may use them as a reference media – meaning a recording of some footage to show a client what you have, but do not use them for long-term archiving.
So what about hard drives? The problem with your hard drive is not if it will fail but when it will fail (see sidebar at the end of this article). Hard drives are for backup, meaning that you use them to back up your footage, not to store it as an archival master.
If a hard drive or DVD fails, you may lose everything on the drive or disc. However, if a tape fails, you usually lose only a small bit of information.
OK then, what about Flash media? Currently, the amount of information that you can store on a Flash drive is very limited. There is hope for this solid-state medium, because it has no moving parts to go bad or vulnerable layers to deteriorate – yet it also uses drastic compression and is as yet an untested archival alternative.
Then There Was Tape (Haven’t We Been Here Already?)
Even with all of today’s amazing technology, the lowly videotape is still the safest option for archiving. The most reliable and sturdy format to use when archiving analog footage is Betacam SP (often abbreviated to Beta SP). This 1/2″ professional format is widely used in the broadcast industry and has a long history of being the standard for analog archiving. However, very few of you will have access to this format. Now what do you do?
When archiving analog footage, if you don’t have access to Betacam SP, the best bet currently is Mini DV or the highest-quality format you can afford. Keep the originals and store them properly in two separate locations.
When archiving standard-definition digital footage, Digital Betacam (often abbreviated to DigiBeta), a digital member of the Betacam format family, is the format of choice. If, however, you cannot afford this format, make a duplicate in the digital format you are currently using and store separately until a more stable archival format becomes available and affordable.
The Archiving Process
Now that you know what media you will use to archive your footage, what process should you use to organize your media? The first step is to catalog your footage. Devise a simple but easily understood labeling system that you and others can easily translate when needed. Keep a comprehensive list of every tape and each project’s naming shortcut. Perhaps you will put all of your wedding footage together and label each set of tapes with the initials of the couple. For example, you might make a series of labels that say “WCS&RS1,” meaning Wedding with Candy and Ralph Snyder Tape 1. Or create an acronym for your production such as BFS 1 – Bahamian Field Station Tape 1. Organize your library into types of projects and sets of tapes. If you have created edit logs of the tapes, keep a file of the logs so that you can access particular shots you may want to use in later projects.
Always make sure to label the tapes with the date, title, tape number, running time and a designation for the master or archival copy. Place the labels on the tapes and their protective covers. For the best results, use archival labels you can get from a videotape supplier. The gum on the labels will not dry up, thus keeping the labels from falling off or deteriorating.
Add a description of the contents of each tape to the tape list, so that you have a record of the actual contents of that particular tape. For example, on your list you may have BFS 1 thru BFS 10. All well and good as far as keeping them organized in the same place, but what about their individual contents? In this case, it may be BFS 1, Tidal pool shots and a paddle through the mangrove. You may label BFS 2 as SCUBA underwater – Dive 1 – Turtle, schools of fish and shark! The more specific, the easier it is to find the footage later. Of course, if you have logged every shot on the tape, you can also add the reference timecode that matches the code on your tape log.
Once you have organized your footage, then you can begin the process of making copies, labeling and storing.
Always make sure to use high-quality new tapes to create your archival copy. Set up the machine that will play back the original, and attach the video and audio cables to your record deck. There are varying schools of thought on whether you can use a camcorder as a record deck. We say if your camcorder is well-cared for, kept clean and never abused, you shouldn’t encounter any problems. However, dedicated record decks that stay on your desk generally have a more robust tape transport mechanism and will create cleaner copies (but you have to keep record decks maintained too, of course).
Make sure your playback deck or camera is in good working order and that the playback heads are clean. To test the setup, load a known good tape of footage or a completed program into the playback deck, place the new archiving tape into your record deck and start recording. Press Play on your playback deck or camera. Record for about 30 seconds or so, then stop the tapes and rewind both decks. Check to make sure you have a good audio and video recording. It is important that you use a monitor with sound or at least headphones to check the image you are recording and the audio. Once you have checked the system, you should be able to make more recordings without repeating the initial setup check. If you are attempting to archive a two-hour VHS tape onto two 60-minute Mini DV tapes, make sure you overlap the point where you change tapes, so that you duplicate a small portion of the original, preventing any holes in the archival footage. As soon as the recording is over, rewind the recorded tapes and do a spot check for quality. Do not rewind the original.
When storing your tapes, always store them so that they are wound on the takeup reel. This will force you to rewind them before being able to play them back. Always use a deck to rewind the tapes, never a rewind machine. The purpose of this procedure is to even out the tension on the stored tape, as well as to knock any loose magnetic particles from the tapes. Once rewound, they are ready to use again. When done, fast-forward them and put them back in storage.
Make sure you store the tapes on their edge, not lying flat. You also want to make sure the storage area is cool (50-68 degrees) and has a low humidity range (20-50%, with the highest humidity range good only for low-temperature storage). Use fans to circulate the air and, if needed, a dehumidifier, especially during hot, humid summer months.
You should optimally keep three copies of your tapes: the original earliest-generation tape, an archival master used to make other copies if needed and a reference copy for use if you need to loan the footage out to anyone. All three copies should be kept in separate places, so that, if you have a fire or some other disaster, a copy will survive.
Always make sure that you either remove or open the record tab to prevent accidental erasure. Make sure you have clearly labeled and catalogued each copy. And finally, if you do have to examine the tape using the rewind, pause and fast-forward functions a lot, use the reference tape, not the master or original. This will prevent wear and tear on your archival tapes.
Hopefully, we will reach a point where the technology will exist that provides a sturdy, reliable archival storage medium that is inexpensive and readily available. There is some hope for the new solid-state technologies, but they have a long way to go before they reach a point of usefulness. Until then, it is a good practice to set up a program to cycle through your media, creating new master tapes using the latest technology and starting with the oldest and most important tapes in your collection. If you store and use them properly, your tape masters can last for decades. If you are careful and cycle your oldest footage through the process every decade, you will be able to enjoy the fruits of your labor for some years to come.
Contributing editor Robert G. Nulph, Ph.D. teaches video and film production at the college level and is an independent video/film director.
Side Bar: Warning: The following tale is both harrowing and instructive.
We are all enamored with technology. We love the newest gadgets that are bigger and faster, with more bells and whistles. However, when it comes to hard drives, bigger is definitely not better. Recently I had the unfortunate experience of watching my terabyte drive with over 850GB of photo and document footage sit there and spin with absolutely no recognition from the computer. Three months of editing, digitizing and organizing down the drain.
Yes, I might be able to retrieve the data, because the most likely culprit is the card that helps the computer talk to the hard drive, but have you seen the prices they are charging for data retrieval – especially when it is almost a terabyte of information? Thousands! I’m glad I still have the original tapes and photo cards.
So what lesson have I learned? Don’t rely on hard drives, and especially don’t put all your materials in one place (kind of sounds like the old words of wisdom about not putting all of your eggs in one basket!). Smaller hard drives spread the risk and will be used less often. Organize and label them wisely and remember: they are absolutely not an archival option.