We transferred some footage recently from Hi-8. Actually, I’m guessing the “master” was actually a sub-master from another Hi-8… or worse… (please don’t say it) a VHS master! The footage was absolutely loaded with blurry video noise. It was really important footage for an educational project and the footage was in really bad shape.
Then the thought dawned on me that our culture is losing so many valuable tapes everyday due to video disintegration and poor storage.
Back in 1980’s, movie film ended it’s century long reign as the archiving/mastering format of choice. Producers and studio vice presidents decided that video was here to stay (not to mention 10 times cheaper) and hundreds of thousands of television programs were mastered on 1″ reel-to-reel tape. Often times, the original film negatives were literally tossed in the trash to make room on the vault shelves for the shiny new videotape masters. Giant post houses across Hollywood were churning out telecine film transfers to tape at a break-neck pace. And the footage actually looked amazing. Plus it was so fun and easy to manipulate, adding color saturation and playing with contrast and compositing all with a couple keystrokes on a computer.
Cut to 25 years later. Every time we transfer one of those 1″ masters to a current format, it makes me almost want to cry because the image has become so soft and noisy. People worked so hard to make the original program, and much of this footage is valuable to our cultural history and entertainment. But the beautiful 1″ tapes just didn’t hold up to the test of time. It’s like a kind of extinction, the extinction of a whole era of visual gems.
So maybe I wasn’t so surprised to see the hi-8 footage also looking so badly after all these years. But it makes me wonder if we are on the right course with all this digital media and everything on hard drives. Consider an event like Hurricane Katrina. If your masters were there on a hard drive and flooded with water, that would be that. However, if it were backed up on film, it could be salvageable.
The loss of this part of our culture really strikes a sad chord with me. One of my favorite documentaries of all time “One Foot”, a 1979 PBS program produced by San Francisco’s KQED is gone forever. Nobody can every see it. That’s that.
Moral of the story… it makes a lot of sense to have redundant masters in different formats and locations. In other words, store a set of important masters in your mom’s attic and another entirely different format in your own closet.