Safekeeping: Tips On How To Archive Your Films

It’s a scenario that will make any filmmaker wake up in cold sweats. The work you’ve toiled over for years withering away in your basement, or to use today’s parlance, the hard drive you save all your films on has just died. Whether you made a film in the ‘60s or six days ago, archiving is a part of the filmmaking process most don’t think about until it’s too late.

That’s what befell filmmaker Jamie Stuart. He can still recall with bitter vividness when in 2005 the hard drive he shared with his roommate—which had a 30-part web series he recently wrapped on—became infected. Keep in mind, there weren’t many options. Vimeo wasn’t around yet, YouTube was in its infancy and back then owning a hard drive that was just 250 GB was a big expense for a microbudget filmmaker.

Thankfully times have changed. But even though currently hard drives are inexpensive (you can get a 1TB drive for less than $100) and there’s other means like the cloud, doing a casual poll of filmmakers most of them don’t have a tried and true plan for archiving their work. Now to be fair, most filmmakers are struggling to just get their films made and shown than planning how to put them out to pasture; and for the filmmakers who are staying diligent with archiving their work, they constantly feel they are playing catch up as improvements in technology make current methods obsolete within five years (if not sooner in some cases).

So what is the right path to take?

Well, there are a few, and though they are hardly a home run, they are the best way to go forward, regardless if it’s analog you’re trying to salvage or digital. And let me point out that as every filmmaker has different wants and needs, take the below as a good starting point. I encourage you to do your own research and due diligence to find the path that bet suits you. You may not realize it now, but what you’ve created could have more than sentimental value in the decades to come, so you better figure out a good way of keeping it around.

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First let’s start with a pair of legends. Between them D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been making films for over 60 years, so you can imagine they have A LOT of work to keep track of. Outside of keeping prints in their basement and negatives at various posthouses around New York City, there hasn’t been a failsafe method for them to house their work. And that pile in the basement continues to grow as they are still making films, most recently they are in production on the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund-supported Unlocking The Cage.

However, in the ’80s thanks to a tip from the Museum of Modern Art, Pennebaker found a way to transfer a good portion of their work (6,500 boxes, in fact) to a secure, temperature appropriate location: Iron Mountain.

Today Iron Mountain is a storage and information management goliath that’s publically traded and assists 156,000 organizations in 36 countries on five continents. But originally the company was the brainchild of a guy who made his fortune growing and marketing mushrooms. Herman Knaust bought an iron ore mine in Livingston, New York for $9,000 in the late ’30s for his product, by the ’50s, with his mushroom business going south, he decided to switch gears and remodeled the mountain as a giant storage space. Iron Mountain has since expanded, including a site 100 miles north of NYC along the Hudson where Pennebaker and Hegedus’ films are housed. “[The mountain] is hallowed out because they took the salt that was in it to put on the highway during winter storms,” said Pennebaker.

As you can imagine, the price tag for storage at a place like this doesn’t come cheap. According to the filmmakers they pay around $15,000 a year for the storage (funded through Pennebaker’s Living Archives). But they don’t regret it. “It seems to me it’s a worthwhile investment,” said Pennebaker. What has become the challenge is housing the new materials that have suddenly been thrust back into their possession. “A lot of the labs throughout New York City have gone under and have given us all our materials back, so we now have an enormous amount from over the past five years,” said Hegedus.

But when it comes to getting the best life out of your film the filmmakers recommend making 35mm prints. According to Hegedus, though all footage for Unlocking The Cage is currently backed up on hard drives, like the other films they’ve recently made on video—Startup.com and Kings of PastryUnlocking The Cage will one day be on a 35mm print. “Film lasts 100 years or maybe a little less depending on the color fading on different stock,” she said.

For Penebaker and Hegedus it’s not just preserving the finished films but also the outtakes as well, and that’s where a place like Iron Mountain comes in handy; for the stuff that didn’t make the final cut but may be useful to somebody someday. “We have filmed a lot of important people and events,” said Hegedus, “you never know what somebody is going to want; when they’re looking at a piece of film what they are looking for in it and I think it’s worth saving.”

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If the Raiders of the Lost Ark-like archiving method isn’t an option for you, try this on for size.

One organization that has dedicated itself to becoming a safe haven for any independent film that needs it is IndieCollect. Created by Sandra Schulberg (best known for founding IFP), the motivation to get into archiving came during her five-year process restoring Stuart Schulberg’s and Pare Lorentz’s 1948 film Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today. “Along the way it dawned on me that I had not made provision for archiving my own movies and that very few of my indie film colleagues had done so either,” Schulberg said.

IndieCollect became a reality in 2010 when DuArt Film and Video shut down its film processing division. Nuremberg was one of the last projects at the posthouse. “At that time there were 60,000 cans of films stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling throughout the building, including the basement,” said Schulberg. In 2013, with DuArt’s blessing, IndieCollect orchestrated a massive outreach and rescue effort enlisting the help of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, MoMA, George Eastman House, Library of Congress and archivists, film librarians, curators and advocates. They collectively went through the vaults to help identify titles, which were eventually distributed to archives or back to the filmmakers.

Now the mission for IndieCollect is clear: to identify, document and find homes for independent films, video or digital works made by U.S. filmmakers. And their focus isn’t just on the past. They will provide a streaming platform for a film if requested and they ensure that if any revenue is to be generated that the majority of the income will go to the creator. “As an independent film producer myself, I know just how hard it is to survive making indie films, and also how hard it is to insure that they find a place in the culture,” Schulberg said. “Scholars and critics will never be able to take the measure of our contribution to society and to the art of cinema if we don’t take steps to codify and protect these works now.” 

Schulberg admits that the biggest challenge has been digital preservation. “The protocols for preserving film are well established, and new film stocks, if stored in cold temperatures from the outset, can last far longer than any digital storage device currently in use,” she said. “I’d love to have the funds to pay for a ‘film out’ preservation master for every indie work that originates in a digital medium, but that is out of the question.”

But IndieCollect is launching a pilot program with Downtown Community Television and is seeking funds to do a collection assessment of 2,000 DCTV videotapes created on various formats that have been stored in horrible conditions. “Through this project, IndieCollect and DCTV will share information with the wider indie community about the best practices for restoring, transferring, and preserving work that originates in a video format,” she said.

To learn more about IndieCollect and how they can assist in your archiving, go to indiecollect.org.

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When it comes to online archiving one of the biggest stakeholders is Rick Prelinger. His Prelinger Archives is a project he’s been working on since 1983 when he began collecting “ephemeral” films (advertising, educational, industrial and amateur). In 1999, after collecting films and publishing anthologies in VHS, laserdisc and CD-ROM forms, he met Brewster Kahle, founder of Internet Archive, who suggested he put his archive online. “I was startled, as this was a new kind of thinking for me,” Prelinger recalls. “But I realized he was right, and I started to. By the end of 2000 we had a functioning site that soon contained 1,001 fully downloadable and reusable archive films. Now there are over 6,000, and they have been viewed, downloaded and reused tens of millions of times.” In 2002 his collection was acquired by the Library of Congress, since 1993 Getty Images has represented it for stock footage.

Though today his archive, which is a for-profit based in San Francisco, mostly looks to collect home movies, he suggests filmmakers look into Internet Archive as a place to house their work. “IA offers storage and hosting services to makers and custodians of moving images for free in perpetuity,” notes Prelinger, who is on the board of Internet Archive. “One can upload any format one chooses. As a non-profit organization dedicated to collecting, preserving and providing access to moving image material, IA's objective is to collect broadly and make its collections available forever. It is not the only solution on the planet, but it's working hard to be a long-term, robust digital repository, and it is unlikely to go out of business or undergo a massive change in direction, as we've seen many commercial enterprises do.”

He also suggests checking out the Library of Congress’ site for links to other archives.

But Prelinger implores all filmmakers to live by this simple formula when archiving: L.O.C.K.S.S. (“Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe”). “Make many copies, put them in different places,” he suggests. “Document what your files are and when they are updated. At this point there is no magic solution except to make many copies, store them in different places and refresh the copies regularly.”

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If all else fails, at the end of the day going with a hard drive still is your best bet. Jamie Stuart has learned from his 2005 hard drive crash—for starters, he’s not sharing drives with anyone anymore. He says all of his important work is on a hard drive specifically dedicated for his maters, and every two years he’ll transfer content onto another one, “even though it’s probably fine on the existing one,” he said. Though some filmmakers also put their work up on a cloud, Stuart says for him that option isn’t possible as his Internet is too slow. “I learned the hard way; archive everything,” he said. “You can buy a cheap USB drive at this point solely for this purpose.”

Moral of the story: whether it’s a professional storage space or a thumb drive you keep in a drawer, spend some time this weekend to take the steps needed to back up the work you deem important.

[GIF: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark]