A Digital Dark Age for Independent Documentaries?

All independent documentary fans interested in the long-term availability of the medium should be concerned by a recent report from the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The report—called the Digital Dilemma 2 (DD2)—extensively investigates the preservation practices of independent filmmakers and documentarians. The results indicate that many films—both born-digital works and those produced on analog formats such as film—face a series of challenges that may diminish their future accessibility. This blog post will highlight some of these challenges, and offer some thoughts on how the field can move forward.

What becomes apparent from reading DD2 is that there are a variety of formats used to store master copies of documentaries, and an equally varied way of handling these masters. For example, a survey of AMPAS members (the Documentary Branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) revealed that member masters are stored on analog formats (film, VHS video tape, among others), as well as on digital media (hard drives, mini DVs, DVDs, among others). Only 7% of AMPAS members have worked to migrate all their masters from older formats to newer formats (48% have done some migration). 23% have thought about migration and decided it is a financial undertaking they cannot afford.

DD2 provides solid data that both digital and analog masters are not getting preserved in a way that would support their long-term sustainability. Let us examine the issue of analog masters first, many of which are stored on magnetic tape. Magnetic tape is prone to a problem known as sticky-shed syndrome, which occurs when the adhesive (or glue) that holds the metallic particles to the plastic tape absorbs the water in the environment (through a process known as hydrolysis), leaving a gooey substance behind when handled. Media with a bad case of sticky shed syndrome can be rendered unplayable. Fortunately, this process can be forestalled by keeping magnetic tape in cool and dry climate-controlled environments, such as available in non-profit and government audiovisual archives like the Packard Campus of the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, 47% of AMPAS member masters receive no climate control, and only 9% receive both temperature and humidity control.

Perhaps more pressing than the problems posed by analog formats are those problems posed by digital formats. Digital archivists agree that focusing on environmental conditions for digital materials is insufficient. Rather, the best way to preserve born-digital material is through an active management approach as files in a trusted digital repository. A trusted digital repository is like any other digital repository, except that is buttressed by specific commitments to technology, resources and organization. For example, the storage technology should be geographically redundant, backed-up regularly, and continually checked for errors. In terms of organization, the repository owner should have a succession plan in the case of financial catastrophe (Center for Research Libraries, 2007). There are dozens of other criteria a repository must meet before it can be a trusted digital repository. This might seem a bit extreme at first glance; however, if you consider that digital assets risk loss even if neglected for a few years, you realize that enacting practices that ensure active management of assets is essential.

If digital archivists know how to preserve born-digital assets, then why is so little being done to preserve born-digital documentaries? There are a number of non-profit audiovisual archives, such as the Anthology Film Archives in New York; however, many filmmakers only donate their materials long after they have been created, making them “repositories of last resort” (DD2, p. 40). And although these archives can be very helpful for analog materials, such as through providing climate controlled shelving and monitoring, many of them have not created or apart of any trustworthy digital repositories. Hence, they are unlikely to store these digital assets as files in the kind of repositories that can ensure their long-term survival. Rather, they are more likely to hold such assets as physical media on shelves, or use repositories that are not trusted.

DD2 includes a number of solutions to solving the long-term preservation challenges of documentaries, such as organizing cooperatives to share technical infrastructure and facilitating collaboration among representative organizations. This is indeed good advice: it is not necessary that every audiovisual archive have their own trusted digital repository. However, there does need to be a least a few available globally that could satisfy the needs of at-risk documentaries. For the institutions that can afford to create their own trusted digital repository, they have tended to create it simply for their own materials and have not worked out ways to share such capacity with smaller, less equipped organizations (e.g., Columbia University and New York University have such repositories, but it mainly for preserving their own digital collections). Smaller nonprofit archives—both in the audiovisual area and outside—could collaborate to create a shared trusted digital repository and begin to enact the practices that digital archivists know are needed to preserve born digital assets.

The burden of preservation does not only lie with nonprofit archives. It is also essential that filmmakers begin to talk to audiovisual archivists about preserving their work, preferably before they reach retirement and realize their masters are not in ideal condition. In many cases, archives will work with a contributor to put restrictions on the use of their material so as not to conflict with commitments related to distribution. In doing so, they will help us all avoid a digital dark age for independent documentaries.


Center for Research Libraries. (2007). Trustworthy Repositories Audit and Certification checklist (TRAC). Retrieved from http://www.crl.edu/sites/default/files/attachments/pages/trac_0.pdf

Cornell University Library. (2007). Digital Preservation Management: Implementing Short-term Strategies for Long-term Problems. Retrieved from http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/dpm/dpm-eng/eng_index.html

Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (2012). The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives from Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives. Retrieved from http://www.oscars.org/science-technology/council/projects/digitaldilemma2/

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