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I'm Andrew. I write about the past and future of tech, music, media, culture, art, and activism. This is my blog.

Preserving old film

Posted: December 3, 2019

I make no secret of the fact that preserving old media is pretty important to me. Most of my efforts thus far have focussed on cataloging and adding metadata to the items that others have preserved, and finding the best available versions of those items. Recently, though, it has come to my attention that there is more I can do. As such, I’m undertaking a Preservation Project.

Over the next year (or more!) I’ll be working with collectors and archivists around the world to digitize and document lots of films that are either entirely unavailable commercially, or only available at low quality. While I don’t have the budget, the equipment, or the access to private studio vaults that it would take to produce the Definitive versions of these films, I can at least ensure that we get better versions than what are currently in circulation.

There is a time element to this. Most film stock is succeptable to something called vinegar syndrome, and those films that are succeptable to it are likely already at or swiftly approaching the tipping point, after which they will be too damaged to preserve. There is also an interest element. Lots of films are reltively common on film, but rare or non-existent in high quality digital copies. My goal is to shine a light on these filmes.

Queue

At the moment, I have the following reels of film in my queue:

Public Domain

  • 10 episodes of Space Patrol currently only available as low quality VHS transfers
  • The Phantom Empire (1935 SciFi Western Musical Serial) currently only available in a reasonably high quality transfer from the VHS era, and a much lower quality, more recent transfer
  • A Christmas short from the 30s
  • Dick Tracey Vs Cueball
  • Various TV shows including episodes of Cavalcade of America and several other early TV anthology programs

Unsure

  • The Private Life of Don Juan
  • Escape in the Desert
  • The Big Fix
  • Various TV show episodes, including episodes of Mike Hammer, The Adventures of the Scarlet Pimpernel, Sword of Freedom and a few others.
  • 2 Dick Tracy cartoons (currently unavailable on DVD)
  • Monster from the Ocean Floor (currently only available as a mediocre DVD)

I feel that it’s important to note that I will be archiving films that may be under copyright, and that this is protected under US law as format shifting. As far as the US is concerned, making a digital copy of a film is no different than ripping a CD to mp3.

And then what?

All films I digitize that are not currently under copyright will be made available via my Peertube Channel, and placed on archive.org.

For films the copyright status of which are currently inconclusive, I’ll do my research and work with the fine folks at the internet archive to determine what can and can’t be publicly shared. Everything that I can share will be made available.

Goals

My primary goal is to preserve and share as much public domain material as I can, before the film on which it currently resides decays past the point of no return, to preserve it at the highest possible quality, and to share it as widely as I can.

A secondary goal is to preserve any films that I can find that are not currently available digitally, or are only available in low quality or low resolution transfers. These things are also worth saving, even if the current copyright holder is unwilling or unable to do so themselves.

A tertiary goal may eventually be to seek out the current copyright holders of copyrighted but out of print works, and work with them to do new, high quality releases. That, however, is a distant inkling after my primary goals.

I need help!

There are four primary ways that I need your help:

Finding Films

Outside of eBay and the occasional lucky find at an antique store, it is exceptionally difficult to find 16mm and 35mm prints of anything, much less of an item that I am actively seeking.

If you have films in your collection that you are interested in having preserved, reach out to me and lets see if we can work together. If come across kinescopes or commercial releases in the wild, Let Me Know.

Funding Preservation efforts

There are three main expenses in this project.

1) Acquiring the films. 2) The equipment to digitize. 3) Bandwidth and storage.

Mostly, I’m buying films on eBay and from a couple of small private collections. I’ve also had some folks donate films to the cause, or lend me films to preserve. I’m using a mid-range telecine rig right now, and I’d like to upgrade to something that will let me capture in 4k. I’m depending on other people to host the video files that I’m digitizing right now, and I’d like to be able to move that on to servers I control. Any funds that I rase will go directly to one of these three items.

I’m raising money via Patreon to cover these expenses. I’m also selling merchandise, and eventually I will offer DVDs, AVCHD DVDs, and possibly bluray discs of the films I have preserved.

Digital cleanup

Some of the prints in my collection are kind of rough! Some of them are VERY rough. While my initial plan is to preserve them exactly as is, it would be really nice to be able to clean some of them up, and make them look a little nicer.

Some of this work I might be able to do myself, but I’d love to partner with someone who is better at it. If that’s you,I’d love to hear from you.

Spreading the word

There’s not much word spreading to be done yet, as this is all in the early stages, but as we get a little further along, it would be super helpful if you could tell people about the work that we’re doing, and where to find and enjoy it.

Every person we tell about our efforts is another person that will have a chance to experience these otherwise lost films. Additionally, we increase the chances finding someone out in the world that has a cool lost film to share.

And if you know anyone that wants to help fund these efforts, that’d be cool too!

Where do we go from here?

Well, to peertube, archive.org, or patreon I hope.

But more seriously, watch my blog or my mailing list for an announcement of the first batch of films I’m digitizing. I should have some never before digitized stuff to share with the world before the end of the year!


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Check out the other stuff I do: Retro Social (Mastodon Instance), Analog Revolution, Space Age Ideas, Of Many Trades. If you want to help me keep making stuff, check out the rewards available from my Patreon.


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