Filmmaker guidelines for preservation of your film & video collections
Ever since the days when cavemen carved drawings onto stone walls, mankind has struggled to preserve some of their cultural heritage.  When you consider that caveman drawings etched in stone have lasted for thousands of years, those ancients did picked some very good technology for preserving their legacy.  Most of our moving image preservation technology looks feeble in comparison, as we now deal with digital technology systems that seem to go obsolete within a couple decades.  Filmmaker's desperately need to develop some good preservation plans if they are to beat the caveman in leaving some of their artistry for future generations to enjoy.  
The development of the moving image is a rather new technology.  Since the development of motion picture film in the 1880s, mankind has been able to preserve a moving image history of our world.  Motion picture film still remains the gold standard for long-term preservation of the moving image.  When motion picture film is stored under good conditions, it can easily last 100 years or more.  Film also benefits from its simplicity, as you only need to project light through the film to be able to reproduce the image.  Much like the caveman and his rocks, simplicity of technology has its advantages.  If you can afford the costs of using motion picture film as your long-term archival format, then its an excellent option to consider.  
For the majority of filmmakers today, the era of motion picture film has morphed into the new technology of digital video and the hardware / software that supports these digital video formats.  These digital bits and bytes have a different set of preservation challenges compared with motion picture film.  Digital video technology has a big downside, its long-term preservation needs to be carefully managed for it to survive beyond 10 or 20 years.  Also the rapid evolution of digital video formats and video codecs raises serious compatibility issues about what video formats will be supported in the future.  How many digital Betacam machines will there be in 30 years?  Today's technology marvel is tomorrow's museum piece.  Keeping our moving images alive will take a bit more work.
The nasty truth is that there really is no digital storage platform that will effective guarantee long-term preservation of digital video.  Most of the current preservation strategies provide only a 20 or 30 year timeframe for the safeguarding of digital video content.  For example, hard drives typically last less than 5 years, videotape may last for 10 or 20 years and LTO tape is roughly rated for 20 to 30 years.  Thus it looks like filmmakers will need to transcode their digital video files to a new storage platform every 10 or 20 years, depending upon the rate of change in storage technology.  Technological obsolesce is one of the biggest hazards for any digital video collection, since this data requires both a hardware and software platform to access the video files.  So what can a filmmaker do?
--- 5 steps for the preservation of digital video collections ---
1.  A messy, disorganized digital video collection will probably become a lost collection in the future.  A well organized collection will greatly increase the odds that it can be cost effectively managed and preserved.  The first step is to develop a database system that provides detailed metadata of the entire collection.  A good database will allow the filmmaker to quickly locate any video file by using a simple keyword or title search.  Check out our Reports and Archive webpage sections for additonal details on creating a database for media collections. 
2.  If a fire or other catastrophic event hits your office or home your entire collection could be destroyed.  Therefore it is mandatory to create at least 3 backup copies of your digital video data and then store those backups in different geographical locations.  The more backups, the better. 
3.  Today, most digital video data gets pushed onto hard drives.  Hard drives are a very cost effective, short-term storage solution for digital video data.  But hard drives can fail at any moment and thus should only be used as a temporary storage platform.  Since the failure of a hard drive is unpredictable, it is best to create at least 3 clone hard drive backup copies of your master data.  Then as quickly as possible, it is important for filmmakers to move their media collection to a more stable digital storage platform.  One possible medium-term storage option (20 - 30 years) is LTO tape.  The latest generation of LTO storage technology supports up to 2.5 terabytes of data storage per tape.  While LTO tape does seem to be an excellent option for the moment, it is important to sound a note of caution here.  Like all tape based storage formats, LTO tape may have an uncertain future as we have seen with so many videotape formats over the years.  Thus filmmakers will need to periodically review future technology storage trends and consider moving their data to another storage platform if LTO tape starts to slip into obsolesce. 
4.  Another very important decision for filmmakers to consider is what video format should be selected for long-term compatibility of their digital video files.  Most archival experts advise keeping backup copies of the native video codec files generated from the camera.  In addition, another good idea is to transcode those digital video files to a different video codec that may be more favorably positioned for long-term compatibility.  A good example would be the Photo-JPEG video codec, which is likely to remain compatible with future video editing systems.  Another possible option is the JPEG 2000 video codec, which is used by some Hollywood film studios for the long-term preservation of their films.  
5.  Your moving image collection has value, both financial and historical.  It is intellectual property that should be preserved much like a house.  Copyright terms in the United States and the European Union now exceeds 70+ years of protection (term of author's life + 70 years).  Some filmmaker strategies may involve donating / selling their collection to an archival focused institution while still maintaining their copyrights and cash-flow revenue proceeds from their intellectual property.  This allows the collection to be preserved for its long-term historical value with the help of a skilled in-house preservation team attached to a university, museum, national archive or commercial enterprise.  There are many options in this area for a filmmaker to explore, depending upon their goals and objectives and the quality of their collection.
The 5 steps listed above are a very brief introduction to some of the issues filmmakers need to consider as they develop their preservation plans for their collection.  But the biggest threat to the vast majority of collections is the human tendency of procrastination.  If a collection is not actively managed with the goal of long-term preservation, then there is a very good chance that it will be forever lost, mis-managed or even abandoned.  After all, if a filmmaker does not value their collection enough to keep it organized and maintained, it is unlikely others will do it for them.
A few years ago I walked into a large studio of a production company that had been in business for over 30 years.  Stacked high on the cement floor were piles of motion picture film cans and videotapes that represented millions of dollars of production value.  The problem with this vast array of intellectual property was that it was a totally unorganized mess.  The management of the production company had finally decided that it was better to dump this huge pile of film and video into a dumpster, rather than using precious financial resources to organize at least some of the collection for preservation.  Unfortunately, this is the probable destiny for many moving image collections.  While much of that pile that was thrown into the dumpster was probably junk, I am also pretty sure that there were many visual gems that were forever lost.  The problem that day all started long ago with procrastination.  This was an unorganized collection that never had a plan for the future, except for the landfill.
The best practices of moving image preservation is an evolving one.  Within our website's "Reports" section are links to research papers, articles and reports that provide more in-depth information about moving image preservation.  In addition, our "Website Links" section provides a large selection of companies and organizations that offer services, information and technologies that can be useful to filmmakers.  Finally, please reach out to us with your comments and expertise so that we can continue to share information and resources about moving image preservation to filmmakers worldwide.
Craig McCourry
American Film Archive

Twitter updates

website links