Posts Tagged ‘archives’

Chinagirls – by collectors of esoteric film artefacts


Cathy – a chinagirl from Colorfilm, c 1978

I have no idea why, but an unusual Facebook page popped up on my screen recently. It belonged to the North West Chigaco Film Society, and was their Chinagirl/LeaderLady page. It set me to reminiscing – always a dangerous thing!

Lab technicians and film projectionists know about chinagirls, but few others. Two or more frames of a test film consisting of a head and shoulders image – usually of a young woman – and a series of neutral grey squares were routinely cut into the head leader of every reel of film that was printed by the lab. It was used to check and control the colour balance in the print.

Although Kodak supplied rolls of their own version of a chinagirl, many labs created their own, typically featuring an attractive member of the lab staff: possibly the closest she ever got to making it into the movies. But whilst fame and fortune might have eluded them, those chinagirls had a small role in every film that the lab handled – possibly dozens a year, more in many labs.

Placed just before the countdown leader, they should never have been seen in a public screening: but in test screenings, or with careless projectionists, that face – always the same shot, lit the same, with the same expression (or occasionally, caught blnking) would flash subliminally on the screen, impinging deep into the audience’s subconscious.

What I didn’t realise, was that the chinagirl – known in various labs as the lady, or the  ladywedge, the dolly, the Lily, as well as chinagirl – had become such a collectors’ item.

Cinema Paradiso

Cinema Paradiso

In Cinema Paradiso, the old projectionist had to censor his films, and cut out scenes of people kissing. Young Toto was always trying to get hold of the pieces of film. It seems there are many real-live Totos around, collecting -not people kissing- but single frames of the young women whose images once flickered so briefly onto their screens.

Rose - chinagirl

Rose – and more. Music by Sailor.

At Colorfilm, we also shot our own chinagirl. Rose worked in negative assembly, and one day the lab manager Tom stopped her in the corridor and said “Rose, how would you like to be in films?”. Off we went to the old Supreme Studios, and rolled off several hundred feet of Rose, sitting perfectly still on a stool, with a grey card in front of her.

We obviously had time on our hands in those leisured days then – it was back in 1974!. Discovering that we weren’t the only lab to have a chinagirl, my colleague Rick put this reel together for our Christmas goof reel that year

Lily vimeo clip

Another musical clip, for the Lille short film festival. Music: Hang it Up Daddy by Chick Habit

But wait – there’s more here – put together for the Festival du Film Minute de Lilles – (a collection perhaps of Lilies?).

Harvard Film Museum exhibition

Karen Segal and Julie Buck

In fact,  back in 2008, a couple of visual artists at the Harvard Film Museum carefully restored and made frame enlargements of about 70 chinagirls, and mounted an exhibition – once again accompanied by a video clip (after all, these still frames deserve to be seen in motion on the big screen, with a great soundtrack, don’t they!).

Who knew? – that those ephemeral frames are now the subject of exhaustive – and perhaps a trifle obsessive – collections? There’s no real equivalent for these minor works of art in digital cinema – so the chinagirl is just one more symbol of a passing technology, more or less born and died at each end of the twentieth century. But these girls will live on – at least as long as those who have collected them.

More on the subject here.


Where to now for NFSA?

The National Film and Sound Archive desperately needs a sense of direction.

In the past dozen years the organisation has had five directors or CEO’s, two from overseas. It has been moved into the arms of the Australian Film Commission and out again, and undergone several organisational restructures.

Over that time, it has attempted to expand its operations to meet the directives of successive ministers and boards. In particular, since it inherited several touring screening programs (such as Big Screen and Black Screen) as well as the Australian Screen website from the now defunct AFC, it has thrown more emphasis into the “sharing” part of its task. Its collection has veered between a “take anything” curatorial policy to a strictly Australian only one (and selective at that), countered by a determined international (and sometimes esoteric) approach to its screening program at the ARC cinema in Canberra. While centred in Canberra, with only limited operations in Sydney and Melbourne, it has developed a highly respected and influential presence in international archive circles, with staff playing pivotal organisational and training roles in FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) and SEAPAVAA (South East Asia & Pacific Audiovisual Archive Association).  Its popular-style Kookaburra magazine was replaced by an academic journal, and a residential program supporting visiting research scholars was introduced. More recently it has absorbed the Film Australia library which manages a responsive program of supplying stock shot footage and complete programs from its catalogue of a century of government information films (only a couple of years after that operation had been grafted, uncomfortably, onto Screen Australia).

What of its core tasks? Has it been succeeding? While NFSA can point to many achievements, there has been a constant and widespread opinion among film-makers that material is too hard to access and takes too long, and many are reluctant to deposit material with the archive for fear that they will never see it again.

According to its website, “The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia is the nation’s living archive, collecting, preserving and sharing our rich audiovisual heritage.”   This is such a broadly defined function that it’s no wonder it has felt obliged to expand into an ever-wider field of activities. There are no limits, there is little that doesn’t fit somewhere under this umbrella.

It has been an ambitious program. And all this has been at a time when the “film” part of its brief has been undergoing the massive change from physical, analogue reels of film to digital data, threatening to make much of its collection obsolete and unusable, but offering unprecedented opportunities to bring that collection to a wider audience. The NFSA has struggled to balance its task of preserving the past with the challenge of surviving in the future. It has tried to be something for all time and for everyone.

So it’s hardly surprising that the current CEO Michael Loebenstein has conducted a major review of the organisation and has just announced a restructure. Nor is it surprising that there have been howls of protest at the announced changes, which includes 28 jobs cut (one in seven of the total workforce), a cessation of the regular ARC screening program in Canberra and of the various touring programs such as Big Screen, and transfer of its Oral History program from a curatorial division to the Communications brief. More of this later.

A growing business

One unavoidable fact about an Archive collection is that it is a growth business. Every year, more and more is produced. As long as there is any media production at all, the Archive’s collection will inevitably grow if it is to do its job properly. And while conventional feature film production is unlikely ever to regain the “glory times” of the 1970s and 80s, the explosion of digital media, and the consequent ease of production already outstrips those times in sheer physical quantity, leading to what has been called the Digital Deluge. This presents the NFSA with a new challenge: what new formats should it be collecting? Independently produced TV drama? Amateur, unfunded digital features shot on a smartphone? Video games? Websites? User-generated YouTube clips? Mash-ups? Some of these might be dismissed as ephemeral and unworthy: but that is exactly the view taken of cinema a century ago.

The Analogue Avalanche

Furthermore, there is no statutory deposit law covering screen media in Australia, so although there is an expectation that NFSA holds copies of everything that’s been made, that isn’t the case. Much of its collection has been acquired many years after production, when producers’ or lab vaults have been cleared out, and so it’s often in bad condition, incomplete, or in a non-preservation format. In recent years, as production companies have realised that the many thousands of feet of film in their vaults take up a lot of expensive space and have become virtually obsolete, they have presented the material to the NFSA with a simple alternative: take it or we ditch it. Thus the Digital Deluge is now supplemented by an Analogue Avalanche, adding to the already vast backlog of material waiting to be properly catalogued and preserved.

So clearly, after years of an – at best – static annual budget, steadily eroded by the “efficiency dividend” so beloved of Federal Treasurers, something has to give. NFSA can’t go on doing everything.

The CEO’s statement

The current CEO of the NFSA is Michael Loebenstein, a young Austrian film archivist who was appointed in 2011 by a Board which, including its then Chair, has since been entirely replaced. After a number of interim changes and a six-month internal management review, reports emerged earlier this month of significant changes to the organisation. There would be a number of redundancies, and many public programs would cease. The initial press release was minimal in detail, but a statement from the CEO appeared on the NFSA’s website a little later, apparently in response to rumours that the NFSA would become “a mere storage facility”..

Among other points, Loebenstein says:

More than any other collecting institution, transformational digital technology can be used to position us as the ‘archive of the future’. But this means we need to re-focus what we do and how we do it, to allow for re-investment into building capabilities and capacity to operate better in this online environment.

We will be doing many things differently in the future so we are even more effective, innovative and relevant. This means some things will not continue in the way we have traditionally done them.

While existing programs such as the Arc Cinema program, exhibitions, and the touring film festivals will in many cases continue unchanged until the end of the winter season and into spring, they will be gradually replaced by new programs, with an increased focus on online delivery, and activities delivered in collaboration with partners in the cultural sector, the industry and communities.

Under the new structure, we will be taking some hard decisions to reduce our staff numbers. . .

There may be a lot of good in this reshuffle: but it’s not visible in this statement, nor in the snippets of information that are emerging from NFSA staff. Sadly, in the present political environment, where cuts in public spending and activities are being announced on a daily basis, even the slightest hint that “some things will not continue . . .”, and the absence of specific detail of new activities will, inevitably, be taken badly. News that several of the highest profile staff members, representing unparalleled expertise in film history and culture and knowledge of the local industry are among the staff casualties can only lead to confusion about the CEO’s plans, even though inside sources suggest that the staff cuts are across all sections – administrative as well as specialised – and at all levels.


Like any Public Service organisation, NFSA is, inevitably, a bureaucracy. It has a very traditional management and reporting structure imposed on it by the norms of the APS. With around 200 staff, though, it is a small organisation, arguably [proportionally overburdened by these structures, committees and processes. It requires many arcane set procedures to be followed for even straightforward tasks – unlike the film and television production community it serves, whose operations tend to be much more outcome-driven (shoot first, ask questions later!). It may well be that Loebenstein’s changes will address some of these obstacles, although they will, necessarily, be limited by APS requirements, and by a firmly entrenched culture in the NFSA. After all an archive, of all possible institutions, can be expected to preserve its own culture.

Preservation and digitisation

Of the many tasks facing the NFSA, perhaps the most fundamental one is its core one: that of preserving its vast holdings of film and tape. Archivists around the world agree that, under proper conditions, film itself is the best medium for long-term preservation. Formats are settled, and the images are easily retrievable. Ideally, copies should be made on modern polyester film and preserved in controlled temperature and humidity.

By comparison, digital has yet to prove itself as a long-term preservation prospect, with ever-changing formats, not always back-compatible, and the possibility of not gradual decay but sudden and total loss of recoverable data. You can’t transfer, shelve the tape, and forget it: the data needs constant maintenance. And data volumes are huge: while a DVD copy of a feature is just a few Megabytes, the uncompressed, full resolution version of the same film is measured in Gigabytes – a thousand times as much. Digital storage presents a not inconsiderable cost.

But digital versions are now the best way to make images available: via the internet, on DVDs or as high-resolution cinema versions.

It’s a fundamental archival principle to continue to preserve the original material – typically the original negative or a printed intermediate copy (a projection print isn’t suitable). So like archives around the world, NFSA faces a dilemma: how to best preserve – and share – its massive collection of film – amounting, at the latest count, to nearly 130 million feet. Not unsurprisingly, it has a huge backlog of material to be catalogued, transferred onto polyester base film, or digitised.

While NFSA can provide “broadcast quality” transfers of items in its collection, it still lacks the equipment for full-resolution scanning of 35mm film. Even with the required equipment, scanning is a slow process, and only one of many steps needed to digitise 35mm film – preparation and repair beforehand, quality checking and copying afterwards, all require resources.

The archive struggles to provide a reasonable turn-around time for material requested by producers or researchers. At its current level of resources, even with the equipment required, it’s doubtful if it would ever catch up with cataloguing, digitising and preserving the backlog of additions to its collection.

Estimates of the cost of digitising and preserving the film collection vary widely, but could be between $25million and $50million, and it would take many years to complete. With an annual operational budget of around $25million for all of NFSA’s activities, clearly this operation is presently unfunded.


But to focus its resources exclusively on the preservation task is clearly far short of Michael Loebenstein’s vision for the NFSA. In a recent seminar he emphasised the “sharing” part of NFSA’s vision, saying that audiences are embracing the notion of collective ownership of their national estate. “Availability in our current environment is characterised by our users’ expectations of being part of a two-way exchange. Instead of ‘granting access’ we are expected to ‘share’ our collections. We live in a ‘transactional’ environment.”

This draws attention to another challenge for the NFSA. Unlike the archives of the major film studios or newsreels, NFSA only owns copyright in about five per cent of its collection. Negotiating rights and obtaining clearance to use or screen (and, in many cases, even to copy for preservation or any other internal application) any of the material is complex, time-consuming and expensive. Currently, copyright clearance isn’t handled by NFSA Access staff; it’s up to whoever hopes to use the material. NFSA has been pressing for simplification of copyright law: there’s no doubt that this complexity needs to be resolved.

But where’s the money to come from?

Even with considerable staff cuts and a pruning of programs, NFSA will struggle to meet its commitments under the present level of government funding. It is hard to imagine that the Federal Government is about to increase funding. So where is the organisation to turn?

By comparison with many archives, especially in the SE Asian region, the NFSA is well funded and resourced. But it is almost unique among Australian and international cultural and collecting institutions in that it receives virtually no philanthropic support.

Art Galleries at National, State and Regional level, State Libraries and the National Museum among many others large and small have all attracted significant funds from wealthy benefactors, amounting in some cases to many millions of dollars annually. Many less wealthy Australians also make regular donations. A glance at the website of any of these organisations reveals a page listing principal supporters, and providing facilities for contributions. There is no such information on NFSA’s website. In the past it has benefited – in kind – from sponsorships such as the Kodak/Atlab and Deluxe/Kodak collections, providing prints and preservation copies of 75 of Australia’s greatest feature films: but currently there appear to be no sponsored programs, and no patrons, or preservation foundations or supporters’ plans of the sort to be found elsewhere.

It might be argued that Fine Art has an aura of wealth and privilege about it that a popular form cannot match. But overseas, for just one example, the billionaire J Paul Getty was a key supporter of the British Film Institute.  Cinema in the twentieth century has traded in glamour; it has created some of the wealthiest people on the planet; and it can appeal to national sentiment in a way that no other creative form can compete with. More directly, many thousands of people have a connection with filmmaking – or recorded sound – in some way that they would like to recognise. There is, surely, a rich vein of support waiting to be tapped here. .

Australia is a country with film production dating back to within a year of the first public screening of a film anywhere in the world. Australia’s feature film industry led the world 100 years ago, and experienced an impressive resurgence 40 years ago. It has a documentary and newsreel tradition second to none, and a fine reputation for technical innovation and excellence. It is among the wealthiest countries in the world, with, for many years, one of the highest cinema attendances in the world. By these standards, the nation’s film and sound history of the past and the present deserves more support than it gets.

And what a time it was

 “Once you get a disk drive, you’ll see the difference. You won’t go back.”

TRS-80 model 1 computer

TRS-80 model 1 computer

It was about 1980. An industry colleague had just graduated to an Apple IIc computer. It included a built in floppy disk drive with a dizzying capacity of 760Kb of data. Enough for programs, heaps of documents, spreadsheets and who knows what else.

But I was still working with my Tandy Radio Shack TRS-80. As it was my employer’s money, I’d chosen the bigger one – it had 16Kb of RAM, instead of the standard 4Kb. I supposed the extra would probably come in handy, though I wasn’t sure how, at first.

Ah yes, the old Trash-80. It hooked up to a conventional portable audio cassette recorder to save data, which it did at a speed that would have earned derision from a competent Morse code operator. My friend with the Apple offered kindly sympathy, but I was stuck with the cassette recorder. Still, if you wrote a program (in BASIC), you could save that on the cassette, provided you allowed enough time. At first, there were very few programs around – games, text editors – mainly for sale at weekend flea markets: but if you wanted to do anything else, you wrote your own software.

I wrote a computer game for it.

You must understand that there were effectively no graphics on the black and green display, and text appeared on the screen at about the speed you could type. So it was a very particular sort of game.

I called it “Fame and Fortune in the Film Industry”.

The year was 1979, and the company I worked for had booked a stand at a film and television technology exhibition. Whatever the rest of our stand showed – our services – got some attention, but I took along the computer – and it turned out to be the big crowd-puller. Almost no-one else had one on their stand, and certainly no-one else had anything so unusual as a computer game.

The program set you up as a film producer, and presented you with a series of obstacles in your project of getting a feature film made and distributed. (There were plenty.) Every decision you made would earn you fame points and fortune points, until you either made a million dollars or went bankrupt.

The challenges were all drawn from real incidents. We were in the exciting first flush of the Australian film renaissance, making period dramas like My Brilliant Career, the Australian Identity ones like Newsfront, the Not Quite Hollywood ones like The Man from Hong Kong and Patrick; and a whole lot in between: The Irishman; Mad Dog Morgan and Mad Max, to name just a few.

Films of 1979-81

We were the lab that processed the rushes for most of these films, so we got to witness all the upsets, the disruptions, the calamities and the miracles. With names changed (to avoid being sued) these incidents made great material for my game. For example:

  • The star of your action drama breaks his leg three weeks into the shoot. Do you (a) re-cast and start again; (b) use a double for the wide shots, and just do the static close-ups with the real actor; or (c) rework the script to explain the leg plaster and crutches?
  • There’s an emulsion-side camera scratch on the exploding helicopter shot. Do you (a) get another helicopter and reshoot; (b) use the takes from the B and C units (if you were thorough enough to have had B & C units); get the lab to rotoscope out the scratch on the master shot, frame by frame (it’ll take a month)?

Your decision had a certain effect on your costs, and on the box-office takings and critical success of the film, which added to (or took away from) your fame and fortune scores.

The program had been simple enough to write, and after the popular success at the trade show, I carried on adding more incidents to the library in the program, to add to the variety. The program effectively shuffled a pack of cards at the start of every game, so that the incidents came up in a random order: but it needed quite a few to ensure that players didn’t become familiar with them all after only a few sessions.

At first it would take something like five minutes for the program to load – and a little longer to save it each time after I’d added new material. Before long it had blown out to ten or twelve minutes. But it was becoming a rich vein of drama, suspense and agonising decision-making.

Then one day I set the tape to load, and after about ten minutes, the computer announced that the program was too big to load.

Computer wizards may assure me that it would have been simple to buy extra RAM for the machine: but at the time that didn’t seem possible, nor could I justify it. The computer was really for managing the sensitometric control of the film processing systems in the lab, and the programs I’d written to do that seemed to manage quite happily with the existing memory. So I was stuck, with, it seemed, no way of recovering the program.

I never saw it again. Those same computer wizards may now point me to TRS-80 emulators that will run in a microscopic portion of a modern computer, and some device that would remodulate the morse-code-like signal from a cassette player and pump it into a USB port.

But it’s all too late. I kept the cassette for some years, but where? I think it finally got trashed as a lost cause. I suspect the data would be corrupt by now even if I could track it down.

A few months ago I was interviewed in an oral history project about the film industry, and especially those magical times, when it seemed we had the world at our feet. I could remember so much, but so little. I wished I still had the tape: it’s probably a unique archive of some of those stories. Wouldn’t I have printed the program out from time to time (an even longer process than saving it on tape)? Yes, undoubtedly: but I recall that the printouts were on a strange-looking strip of heat-sensitive metallic paper, about as wide as a toilet roll. Even if I’d kept them, they would have faded many years ago.

Perhaps if I’d got an Apple and a disk drive at the time, I’d have had a better chance of recovering everything. But hindsight, the antithesis of memory, comes too late – and memories, however they are saved, go too soon.

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

(Simon & Garfunkel, 1967)

The View from Berlin

ImageI was recently in Berlin, but at quite the wrong time for the Berlin Film Festival. Undaunted, I headed for the Berlin Film Museum, located centrally in Berlin in the ultra-modern Sony Centre, a striking edifice of glass and steel. Filmhaus, the part of the centre housing the museum, its Arsenal cinemas and the German Film & TV School is right opposite the Cinestar and Event cinemas, part of Germany’s largest cinema chain, operated by none other than Australia’s Amalgamated Holdings (Greater Union).

The museum therefore, by its geography and architecture, corresponds more closely with ACMI in Melbourne than it does with NFSA’s sleepy art deco presence just too far off the main drag in Canberra. But its focus, like NFSA’s, is on the entire century of filmmaking in Germany, and this invites a comparison of the exhibits, the industries and the histories of the two countries. (This isn’t as absurd as it sounds.)

It’s been said that Australia’s history as a Federation is also that of its film industry, which was born at around the same time. It’s not so very different in Germany, which was only a couple of decades old as a country when film was first seen by the German public. The Skladanowsky brothers screened moving pictures at the Berlin Wintergarden on their Bioscope projector in November 1895, apparently weeks before the Lumière brothers did in Paris. (What is it about brothers in film? Pathé, Coen, Wachowsky, anyone?)

As in Australia, but for largely quite different reasons, the German film industry has struggled throughout the twentieth century. And just as in Australia (reassuringly for film theorists and social historians), the ebb and flow of cinema mirrors very precisely the preoccupations of the country at the time.

ImageThere is only one way through the museum (like shopping at Ikea, though there the resemblance ends). Entering the first section, the floor, walls and ceiling disappear and you are immediately swept into an infinite world of cinema images. Silent film stars in close-up; a screen kiss; marching troops; there’s Peter Lorre in M, there’s a young Marlene Dietrich. It’s all done with mirrors, and you spot glimpses of yourself over there, and there – and isn’t that the iconic shot in Nosferatu? – and where is the floor? can I step this way or that? So far this is no ordinary museum, but a brilliant and disorienting celebration of disembodied, timeless images from across the last century: in other words – cinema!  Somehow, that is exactly what the German Expressionists of the 1920s were concerned with, in a way more than any other national cinema was.

As you emerge from this first chamber, you see an early, hand-cranked camera, apparently cranking itself, demonstrating the intermittent movement that is central to cinematography. In the next display is a moving projector. The early years of cinema were full of technicians solving problems in their own way, and Germany’s Oskar Messter is one of several people in different countries who are claimed as inventors of the Maltese Cross or Geneva movement for projectors at around the same time. Next, a large model shows the studio and sets that were built to make The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920).

From then on, the museum settles down to deal with the distinct periods of German cinema and history (the early years, the Weimar republic years, the Nazi years, and the bleak postwar years) by focussing mainly on three “Ms”: FW Murnau (Nosferatu), Metropolis (Fritz Lang), and Marlene Dietrich; and of course Leni Riefenstahl, and only briefly touching on the later resurgence led by directors such as Fassbinder, Wenders and Herzog.

So how would this compare with the story of Australian cinema, if it were told in the same way? Is it a fair or worthwhile comparison? For those who proudly point to Australia’s production of the world’s first feature film in 1906, its prolific production burst for the subsequent decade before Hollywood took over, and the disproportionate international successes of our cinematographers in recent years, yes, we should ask the questions.

Australia’s early cinema was led by showmen such as the Tait brothers (there goes the ‘brothers’ thing again), but the Taits were theatrical entrepreneurs rather than creatives or artists. In Germany, FW Murnau also came from the stage, but he was an actor when war broke out, having studied philosophy (reportedly reading Schopenhauer and Nietsche at the age of 12). He wrote his first film screenplay while interred in neutral Switzerland where his plane had crashed. Australian silent films, more focussed on gaining an audience than being artistic expressions tended to have straightforward themes and be realist in style: such popular appeal films were also made in Germany, but Murnau and others were part of the broader expressionist movement dominating the arts in Europe at the time, and made films with pioneering camera and editing techniques and more philosophical themes.

Nosferatu ImageMade here at the same time as Murnau’s Nosferatu (really Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as the copyright court found), The Sentimental Bloke is sometimes hailed as Australia’s best silent film (and like many other great silent films from both countries it suffered the fate of savage and bad cutting for US release and failed). A setting of the CJ Dennis verses, it is a simple narrative of ordinary people, which can stand up to critical analysis of the way it portrays post WW1 social values in urban Australia. But even if Australia were not half a world away, it would never have made the impact on world cinema that German pictures of the time did.

For the Term of his Natural Lifege MetropolisFor the Term of his Natural Life, made in the same year as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, shows traces of the German film’s visual expressionist style in a story that deals with social justice and revenge as powerfully as Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables. But in 1927 it is entirely backward looking, innovative neither in style nor message. Moreover, although an Australian story and production, the director Norman Dawn was an American.

While Australian silent cinema suffered from a lack of protection from imported US and UK productions, the tragedy of early German cinema is that all the creative giants of the twenties moved over to Hollywood: at first to escape the hyper-inflation of the German economy, and later to escape the Nazi regime. Both Fritz Lang and FW Murnau made the journey, as did Marlene Dietrich (whose extensive collection of costumes is shown alongside clips of the films she wore them in).

As a result, much of the film museum’s exhibit for this mid-century period deals not with German cinema but with the work of émigré filmmakers, mostly in Hollywood. There is a display that deals with Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia and Triumph des Willens, but, ironically, in another corner of the same room a clip is playing from Casablanca (1942). The clip, (of course), is the scene where the German soldiers’ singing is drowned out by the band and patrons of Rick’s café singing The Marseillaise. Casablanca was directed by the Hungarian émigré Mihaly Kertész, (Michael Curtiz) who had worked in Vienna and then briefly in Germany with Lang and Murnau before being invited to Hollywood in 1923.

Set against this display of creative expression and propaganda, what could a visit to the NFSA’s small exhibition in Canberra tell us about our own industry? After the silent era, our story is one of an industry that struggled for half a century, relieved by newsreels and documentaries (no shortage of propaganda there, but perhaps less blatantly so), and the consistently successful Cinesound features of Ken G Hall. Hall never pretended to be a great auteur filmmaker: he was of the tradition of the Taits, originally a publicity man for a cinema chain. As it happens, his break came in 1926 when he was asked by his employer to recut a German silent film (bought sight-unseen) called Unsere Emden: a German WW1 story of the famous battleship sunk by HMAS Sydney in Australia’s first WW1 naval action. More than recutting the film, Hall re-shot half of it, with the cooperation of the Australian Navy, to convert it from a blatantly pro-German propaganda film to one that told a heroic story of the Australian action.

This comparison is not to dismiss Australia’s film history as somehow less worthy than a European one. Rather, it is to note that Berlin spent the twentieth century in turmoil – first artistic, then financial, then political, military and political again – and its cinema reflects exactly that, whether it flourished in Germany itself or in exile. By contrast, Australia’s twentieth century was one of less sophisticated issues: building a new country far away from the northern hemisphere’s traditional conflicts; learning to survive a tough climate and an economy affected by the rest of the world but with little influence over it; involvement in other people’s far distant wars; and more recently, belatedly creating the cinematic literature of our national myths. In both countries, the cinema precisely reflects those times and preoccupations.

ImagePerhaps everyone needs to travel away to get a perspective on such matters: and my visit to the Berlin Film Museum will certainly send me back to Canberra to revisit the display at NFSA and learn more from it. Perhaps its modest and traditional design reflects the substance of the culture it displays: perhaps in a small way that might even reinforce those modest ideas of cinema.  But how breathtakingly magnificent it would be to see a display that, like the one in Berlin, so completely transports the visitor and immerses him in a uniquely cinematic world.

This was first published in Screenhub in November 2012

Digital computing – swallows film up 30 years after first taste? Not quite.

An early 1980s computer-aided densitometry system at Colorfilm

I’ve been attending SMPTE conferences for 30 years this year, and giving papers for just as long. My first one was in Los Angeles where, as a young upstart, I spoke about the computer we had just installed in the film laboratory I worked for. We used it for managing the quality control system in the lab — the chemical analysis and the colour measurements — and we stored the data (and the program itself) on audio cassette tapes (remember those?).

Images and computers had little to do with each other in 1981, although I was lucky enough to visit Walt Disney Studios where they were making the first version of Tron, one of the first films to attempt computer animation. While my computer -– a Tandy TRS-80 — boasted 16 kilobytes of RAM, the supercomputer at Disney had access to 2 Mbytes, which is about what we can expect in a mobile phone within the next year or two. I guess we were seeing the first glimmerings of the digital era.

Thirty years on, computers and digital data have all but swallowed up that photochemical film world. At this year’s SMPTE Australia conference (Darling Harbour, July 18-22) my paper was about the problems of a rapidly disappearing film technology. Over the century or more of film production, archives like NFSA have learnt a lot about how to preserve films for the future. Unfortunately, the film industry is, at long last, going digital, and many cinemas can no longer run film. Film stock manufacture and processing facilities can’t be too far behind, so the future usefulness of the film we preserve so carefully is becoming a little problematical. Perhaps we should digitise it all, but there is, as yet, no certainty about how long we can expect to keep digital data.

A low-resolution display for the computed results in an early film  lab system

It was back in 1956 that Hollywood’s Variety newspaper greeted Ampex’s first video tape recorder with the headline ‘Film is Dead’. In 2011, film isn’t dead yet, but may be moving into a retirement home. Meanwhile, video is all but lost in a cluttered graveyard of formats. At last month’s conference, another presenter showed off his collection of old video equipment, especially obsolete storage media (one-inch reel-to-reel videotape, Betamax tape cassettes, laser disks etc), most of which flourished just for a decade or two before being replaced. As for digital technology, it is certainly burning bright right now: but perhaps we should keep in mind my current favourite tagline:

‘Keep your analogue copies – they may be all that’s left after the digital era is over.’

Billions of Bytes

digital dataAlmost all modern films go through several digital processes. Some are captured using digital cameras, most are edited in a digital format, when visual effects are added and colour corrections are also applied. Increasingly, they are being screened in cinemas on digital projectors, and of course distributed to the home on DVDs or by downloading.

Almost every one of these changes has been met with enthusiasm from some practitioners, and some degree of resistance from others. On the one hand, digital formats are usually a much more convenient technology for many purposes. On the other hand, there are questions about the quality of the image: the resolution, the tonal range and colour depth. Not all digital formats are the same, nor is one format suitable for all purposes: capturing, editing, manipulating, distributing, screening and preserving the image.

The best TV drama is still shot on film and benefits from that high image quality, but in fact there is even more data on the original camera negative than can ever be shown, even on digital HDTV. Video-originated material economically delivers acceptable results on a small screen even though the system is only capable of a limited definition and range of tones and colours.

And it’s here that we find the reason why digital preservation of films continues to be such a difficult issue. The quality of the film image comes at a cost: the cost of massive amounts of data. To match the resolution and colour depth of the image on an original 35mm camera negative, a digital version takes up over 50 Megabytes (Mb) for each frame. With film running at 24fps (frames per second), that’s 1.2 Gigabytes (Gb) for every second. To put it in perspective, an 80Gb iPod could store just over one minute of film at that resolution, and one complete feature film might need over 10 Terabytes (Tb).

It’s true that compression technologies can reduce that data dramatically, so that a complete feature can be put onto a DVD that carries no more than 4.7Gbs. It may be tempting to discard six or seven bulky reels of a film print in favour of a single digital disk, but while a DVD looks great on a TV screen, it doesn’t cut it if you want to fill a cinema screen. Even the Digital Cinema Prints (DCPs) that are distributed to digital cinemas on removable hard drives use a certain amount of data compression. And such compressed images are quite unsuitable for any sort of editing or other image treatment, let alone long term preservation.

For archivists, the overriding rule for preserving any sort of image is that none of the original image detail should be lost. There are ‘lossless’ compression formats such as JPEG2000: but they are pussycats when it comes to reducing data, reducing the file size only to about half if all data is to be preserved. (In comparison, a feature film on DVD is compressed by about 2,000:1).

While many archives are moving to digitise their video collections into an on-line storage system, the sheer amount of data still presents a huge obstacle to any wholesale digitisation of a photochemical film collection. The longevity of digital media is still questioned too, but that’s a discussion for another day.

The cost of storage has been shrinking rapidly for several decades following Gordon Moore’s prophetic law (halving every 18 months), but the demand for it has been escalating almost as quickly. Film archives now count their storage in Petabytes (a million Gbs), but while the cost may be shrinking, the cost of electricity needed to run and cool these massive data banks will far outweigh the cost of the memory itself.

This was first published in NFSA’s blog on 18 March 2011.

Continue reading

Are we losing the picture?

film projection

Cinema Paradiso

Three years ago I wrote “ask most cinema-goers how the images they are watching get onto the screen, and they will probably suggest some kind of industrial-grade DVD on a digital projector. They are astonished at the truth, which is that even now, the majority of movies they see are projected from 35mm film – yes, the same technology that’s been in use for over a century. The truth is that digital projectors capable of filling a screen as big as a bus are seriously expensive, and there’s been little reason for cinema owners to abandon their tried and tested film projectors”.

But at last, nearly a decade after the first few digital projectors were installed to screen Star Wars Episode 2, the change to digital is gathering speed very rapidly indeed. Driven by the success of digital 3D movies such as Avatar, cinemas in the USA are installing digital systems as fast as manufacturers can supply them. After a hesitant start, the same is happening in Australia, where the switch to digital also means that independent regional cinemas will at last be able to screen features at the same time as the metropolitan chains. Across Europe, the change is almost complete.

And so here is the dilemma: film archives around the world have developed expertise in preserving film : many expect their collections to last for 400 years or more, stored in carefully-controlled conditions. The old problems of inflammable nitrate film, of shrinking and decomposing acetate film, of fading colour dyes, are all understood and controlled. But how will we screen these prints in the future? And when will that future arrive?

Sooner than we suspect: A correspondent writes: “all screens in Belgium will be digital by the end of the month. No more film prints. They have dismantled the film projectors from the booths. They plan to keep perhaps one per multiplex, just in case, for one year or so.” In Australia, nearly all cinemas will be digital in 3 to 5 years, and few of them will still be able to project film.

attack of the D movies

attack of the D movies

So why don’t we simply digitize everything? There are so many answers to this question.

For a start, no-one knows how long digital data can be preserved, or how much more it will cost. Best estimates for most digital formats are around ten years, while a couple of years ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Academy Awards or Oscars) in its seminal report The Digital Dilemma estimated that long-term, secure digital preservation would cost about twelve times as much as conventional film preservation.

And do we trust the technology? All you need to see a film image is a light source. Once the equipment to retrieve a digital image is lost, the image is lost too. Then there is the question of security . Digital copies of commercial feature films are encrypted so that they can only be shown on specific projectors at specific times, in an effort to reduce illegal copying. Who knows when or where an archival copy will be required for screening?

And then the moral dilemma: we we want to see films the way their makers meant them to be seen. An archive needs to preserve film as film, even if we make digital copies as well. So what are we to do? Film? Digital? Both?

More later.

This blog was also published on the NFSA website on 2nd January 2011.