Members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists support a collaborative approach to the preservation and restoration of motion pictures.

When the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) was formed 13 years ago, the operative buzzword was “triage,” according to Milt Shefter, an ASC associate member and current president of AMIA. “There was not enough time, money and effort to save everything, so we had to ask ourselves, ‘What do we save?’ It was a matter of prioritizing. That has not changed, but what has changed is that we now have digital tools to do some of the restoration and preservation work, and a better awareness of the value of preservation. After all, these films, videos, newsreels and other visual media are a major component of our cultural heritage.”

A non-profit educational organization, AMIA originated with fewer than 70 members and today comprises more than 800 individual and institutional members representing academia, film studios, professional archival businesses, museums and other public and private institutions. With a mission to share information and resources, the group publishes a quarterly newsletter and a semi-annual scholarly journal (The Moving Image) and hosts an annual conference. (This year’s conference will be held next month in Minneapolis, Minnesota; see sidebar on page 72.)

One of the challenges moving-image archivists are faced with is determining the role that digital technology can best play in restoration and preservation. AMIA does not direct restoration efforts, but rather disseminates information to its members, many of who are involved in this rapidly evolving technology. “Within the association, there is an incredible array of experts in all fields related to archiving moving images, encompassing both traditional and digital technologies,” says Shefter. “Certain [digital] technologies can be used for restoration and are better in some cases than the traditional photochemical processes. For example, digital technology allows you to change color within a frame, whereas traditional systems require you to change the whole frame. But digital technologies do not yet have a fixed technical standard, which is the major concern for archivists in terms of long-term protection and accessibility.”

Shefter points out that the rapid pace of innovation in the digital realm, compounded by competing proprietary systems, makes digital media a risky proposition over the long term. “With digital capture, there is some workflow advantage in the post process if it’s handled right. But what do you do then? If you haven’t captured all of the information that you currently can obtain in a frame of 35mm film, you have no guarantee that you’ll be able to share that content in the future. There is no standard today that says, ‘Down the line, we’re going to need X number of pixels and X amount of line resolution and this kind of contrast ratio.’ That whole area of universal standardization is not in place yet, and it’s a major concern.”

How AMIA can be of assistance regarding such issues is currently being explored by a joint AMIA-ASC initiative. Its AMIA members include Rick Utley, vice president of Kodak’s Pro-Tek Media Preservation Services; Schawn Belston, vice president of asset management for 20th Century Fox; and Grover Crisp, vice president of asset management and film restoration at Sony Pictures and an ASC associate member. Explains Shefter, “In this new digital environment, everyone, including cinematographers, should be more aware of the potential impact of the technology on preserving their images. That was never a concern in the past because it never had to be. But it does matter today because some ASC members are now endorsing digital capture, which represents a major change in the industry.”

Through its Technology Committee, chaired by Curtis Clark, ASC, the ASC is responding to the challenges of the new digital era. A subcommittee on digital preservation, co-chaired by Crisp and fellow ASC associate member Garrett Smith, vice president of digital-mastering operations at Paramount Pictures, is researching and testing new ways of addressing preservation, with an initial emphasis on technical issues resulting from the digital-intermediate (DI) workflow. The subcommittee’s key goals include ensuring that digital files of the DI are capturing all of the data required to replicate the process again, should it be necessary, and determining which means are best for preserving and retrieving the data. The results of the work it has done so far have already been presented to ASC members and industry executives.

Crisp, a founding member of AMIA who served many years on its board of directors, says he first realized the value of collaborating with cinematographers in preserving their own films about 10 years ago, when he worked with Laszlo Kovacs, ASC on the restoration of Easy Rider. “Laszlo came to us because he wanted to screen Easy Rider [at a special event], and we weren’t able to provide a good print, so I asked him if he’d like to be involved in restoring the film,” recalls Crisp. “It was wonderful, because he was able to provide definitive answers to questions we’d been guessing at, like whether to make a specific scene darker or brighter. Both approaches might have looked fine onscreen, but without Laszlo’s help, we wouldn’t have known which way it was supposed to look.

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.