Going digital


Well folks, the Bioscope is on its travels once more. I’m heading off to speak at a symposium with the heady title of “Film Archives and Their Users in the ‘Second Century’ – Risks and Benefits of the Transition to Digital“. The event is being held to mark the launch of the European Film Gateway, a major undertaking which I’ll be reporting on in detail on my return.

The event is taking place in Bologna, Italy, alongside the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival of archive films. The symposium is looking at

the consequences of the transition from analogue to digital by looking at the self-perception of the archives, their relationship with their users as well as the implications of this paradigm shift for their daily work.

In other words, whither the film archives now that the digital world is upon us? My talk may be familiar if there’s anyone in the audience who read the Bioscope, because it is going to be based on an old post here, Alice – random but cool, an analysis of the remarkable popularity of the 1903 film Alice in Wonderland when the BFI issued it on YouTube in February 2010 – since which time it has gained over one million views and a fascinating array of comments. Well, they’re my words, and they say what I want to say, so why not re-use them?

There is a good line-up of speakers, including Nicola Mazzanti, Thomas Christensen (Danish Film Institute), Manuela Padoan (Gaumont-Pathé Archives) and Georg Eckes (Deutsches Filminstitut and the European Film Gateway). What I am going to try to do is report on the symposium while I’m there, through a mixture of tweets (using my personal @lukemckernan address) and live aditions to this blog post – if the technology will let me do so this time. If it all fails, then no matter because I’ll just report in the regular way when I get back. The symposium takes place 30 June-1 July.

29 June 2011
OK, we’re here in Bologna, finding tweeting a bit of a problem, but hopefully we can produce a live symposium report by adding to the blog post. The symposium starts tomorrow, close by the Cinema Lumiere, where the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival is running. I’ve been down there to say hello to a few folks – it’s eighteen years since I was last here. A great festival, but it’s too darn hot for this pale Englishman. Two days will be enough.

30 June 2011
09.45 – So here I am, seated in a blessedly cool auditorium, headphone translation at the ready, all to learn about where film archives think they are going in a digital age. Hope my talk is provocative enough. But how will it come over in translation? Some of the YouTube teenspeak I’ll be citing is tough enough in English …

11.15 – A couple of high-powered presentations to kick things off. Giovanna Fossati from EYE Film Institute on new models film archiving – the freezer for all things analogue, the cloud for digital preservation, the virtual Steenbeck for the ‘haptic’ online film experience, curatorship by curators and the crowd.

She emphasized that film as a medium is on its way out, something stressed strongly by Nicola Mazzanti, with headlines from a forthcoming EU report (‘Digital Agenda for European Film Heritage’). Cinema is digital now, film will cease to be an exhibition medium within a year, scanners for film-to-digital are on their way out so we have to digitise now. If no action is taken we will lose the analogue past and have no means to preserve the digital future. The cost for the 1,100 features and 1,400 shorts made in Europe per year? 290M euros per year, approx the same as the annual budget of a large European opera house.

11.45 – Also Mazzanti pointed out necessity of legal deposit and said only Netherlands and UK among the member states don’t have it. Hmm, I detect pressure about to be applied …

12.00 – Thomas Christensen from the Danish Film Institute suggests fewer F-15 fighters rather than opera houses would be preferable. Analogue film collections to be a unique, treasured resource to be digitised on demand. Scholars don’t much go to film archives any more – they’ll seek out what they find online. Archives must make authentic digital cinema quality elements, especially for orphan and out-of-copyright films.

So much emphasis on ‘film’ heritage and the film experience when film itself is disappearing. But what about TV, nonfiction film, web video? Why this fixation on the feature film? The culture is changing, not just the medium.

13.45 – Sitting in the shade at lunchtime. Hot but not too hot, after thunderstorms last night. I’m on at 14.00, talking about users – largely absent from the discussions so far. Why do we leave our users out of the equation so often? Do they want us to preserve everything? How much do we film archivists know? But equally how dangerous will things be if we leave it all to the crowd?

14.35 – Well that shook them up a bit.

[Update: the text is available on my personal site, here]

16.45 – Some papers on use of archive content for TV and research projects given in Italian, then David Walsh from the Imperial War Museum speaking drolly on the theme “Digitise your film, sell it online, make lots of money – simple isn’t it?” Unfortunately he’s not able to tell us if it is making money for them, yet. They have been making 750,000 euros in footage sales p.a. by the traditional route. But what happens if even an archive like the IWM, which has the rights to 80% of its collection, can’t make money online?

17.05 – Talk on the Charlie Chaplin Archive, a database with documents you can only access at Bologna. All very interesting, but this symposium is supposed to be about discussing the issues for film archives at a time of great change. A bit too much of archives reporting on their projects. Archivist aren’t necessarily the right people to talk about archives. Discuss.

18.40 – OK, that’s it for today. Interesting presentation on Italian home movies archive which seems to have done everything right. Not sure if the organisers have quite got the debate they hoped for. But we get the European Film Gateway presentations tomorrow, which may open up more. The full Bioscope guide will follow in due course.

See you tomorrow, same place.

1 July 2011
Day two dawns in sultry Bologna. It’s the European Film Gateway presentations, so we can expect enthusiasm and idealism a-plenty. There will be introductions to the project overall, then archives from individual member states will talk about their contributions – Italy, Austria, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Czech Republic, Lithuania … with the conspicuous absence of eurosceptic UK.

10.05 – Film archivists, like policemen, are looking so much younger nowadays.

10.25 – Georg Eckes introduces the EFG. Funded by the EC, 16 archives plus 5 partners contributing. A digital showcase. Mostly nonfiction film. Users are 10 times more likely to click on a video item than a text item. But still only 2% of Europeana objects are audiovisual.

80% of EFG is images, 10% video, 10% text. Strong emphasis on early (out of copyright) film. Plea for archives to be consistent with metadata to make the work of gateways easier. Interesting power games underpin some of this. If your data isn’t harvestable it stays under your control.

Uses film metaphor, showing delightful Danish film of aviator Ellehammer in 1907 only just getting off the ground. Early days for EFG before it truly flies.

10.45 – Europeana presentation. Single, direct and multilingual access poin to European cultural heritage. Reflecting the diversity of Europe. 1500+ participating institutions. 90 direct providers. 16M items so far, aiming for 30M by 2015. 22,000 visits a day. That’s not terribly impressive. Does anyone care that much about Europe and its diversity?

11.20 – Europeana chap explains that it has been marketed more to providers than users so far, and that the individual sites get many more views than that. Fair enough, but this may be more about power politics than users. Europeana is biding its time. This is all so heartening really – all of these institutions competing to bring us more and more stuff in ever easier and more useful ways. How nice of them.

11.40 – Archivio Luce says that its footage sales figures are double those revealed by the IWM. 4000 hours of content. They own 99% of their collection. No 1 contributor to EFG. Touch of machismo here.

12.10 – Audience wakes up for presentation on silent erotic films made by Saturn films in Austria. Some tasteful nude bathing in 1906.

12.20 – Now products of association of amateur Swiss filmmakers. Presenters declines to show low res EFG versions and says he’d rather show 16mm!

12.50 – Fairly joyless presentation on Lithuanian documentaries topped by 5 mins clip of sand dunes. Norwegian polar films coming up, rather more to my taste. Amundsen heads out for the South Pole once again. It’ll be available on the EFG from August.

13.00 – Denmark’s first filmmaker, Peter Elfelt. Majority of his 250 films survive, 60 or so available via EFG. 700 Danish films + 1000 clips + 50000 stills on EFG, with no onscreen spoiler. Despite the great variety, the most sought after content remains sex films. It could be a bit depressing to be a Danish film archivist.

Interesting questions afterwards raising difference between EFG and commercial services like Netflix. But the public archives are never going to be able to win that game. They complement it.

13.35 – We finish with Czech film censorship documents, the Collate repository. Covers documents from CZ, Austria and Germany for 20s and 30s. Looks interesting. To be explored, later.

14.45 – Chatted afterwards with EFG’s Georg Eckes. More content is on its way, but thereafter EFG ticks along – on surprisingly little money – with care of the content in the hands of the archives. Not all moving image content on Europeana has to be filtered via EFG or its TV sidekick EU Screen.

And now it’s homeward bound. A worthwhile two days, some of it to do with silents, and hopefully the rest isn’t without interest. It all connects.

I’ve been blogging by phone while not being able to see how the results look. Hope they’re credible, legible and don’t leave me liable.

See you back in Blighty.

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