All posts by Alex Marsh

Star Wars: The Fans Strike Back

At the recent Association of Moving Image Archivists conference in Portland, Oregon, I saw a lot of great presentations related to film and video preservation. As a Star Wars fan, I found one session particularly interesting. It was presented by Jimi Jones, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and is the result of his research into the world of fan edits.

This is a fairly modern phenomenon, whereby fans of a particular film, music recording or television show, often frustrated by the unavailability of that work on modern media, take it upon themselves to make it available, irrespective of copyright and/or the original creator’s wishes. Some fan edits appropriate the work, and alter it significantly, to make their own unique version. Neither Jimi Jones nor AMIA is advocating for fan edits, but merely exploring the sociological and technological implications they may have in the world of film and video digitization and preservation.

An example is the original 1977 theatrical release of “Star Wars” (later retitled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope), a movie I spent my entire 1977 summer allowance on as a child, because I was so awestruck that I went back to my local theater to see it again and again. The version that I saw then, free of more recently superimposed CGI elements like Jabba The Hut, and the version in which Han Solo shoots Greedo in the Mos Eisley Cantina, before Greedo can shoot Solo, is not commercially available today via any modern high definition media such as Blu-Ray DVD or HD streaming.

The last time most fans saw the original, unaltered Star Wars Trilogy, it was likely on VHS tape (as shown above). George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, insists that his more recent “Special Editions” of the Star Wars Trilogy, with the added CGI and the more politically-correct, less trigger-happy Han Solo, are the “definitive” versions. Thus Lucas has refused to allow any other version to be legally distributed for at least the past decade. Many Star Wars fans, however, find this unacceptable, and they are striking back.

Armed with sophisticated video digitization and editing software, a network of Star Wars fans have collaborated to create “Star Wars: Despecialized Edition,” a composite of assorted pre-existing elements that accurately presents the 1977-1983 theatrical versions of the original Star Wars Trilogy in high definition for the first time. The project is led by an English teacher in Czechoslovakia, who goes by the name of “Harmy” online and is referred to as a “guerilla restorationist.” Using BitTorrent, and other peer-to-peer networks, fans can now download “Despecialized,” burn it to Blu-Ray, print out high-quality cover art, and watch it on their modern widescreen TV sets in high definition.

The fans, rightly or wrongly, claim these are the versions of the films they grew up with, and they have a right to see them, regardless of what George Lucas thinks. Personally, I never liked the changes Lucas later made to the original trilogy, and I agree that “Han Shot First,” or to paraphrase Johnny Cash, “I shot a man named Greedo, just to watch him die.” We all know Greedo was a scumbag who was about to kill Solo anyway, so Han’s preemptive shot in the original Star Wars makes perfect sense. I’m not endorsing piracy, but, as a fan, I certainly understand the pent-up demand for “Star Wars: Despecialized Edition.”

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The psychology of nostalgia is interesting,  particularly when fans desire something so intensely, they will go to great lengths, technologically, and otherwise, to satiate that need. Absence makes the heart, or fan, grow stronger. This is not unique to Star Wars. For instance, Neil Young, one of the best songwriters of his generation, released a major-label record in 1973 called “Time Fades Away,” which, to this day, has never been released on compact disc.

The album, recorded on tour while his biggest hit single, “Heart of Gold,” was topping the charts, is an abrupt shift in mood and approach, and the beginning of a darker, more desolate string of albums that fans refer to as “The Ditch Trilogy.” Regarding this period, Neil said: “Heart of Gold put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore, so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.” Many fans, myself included, regard the three records that comprise the ditch trilogy as his greatest achievement, due to their brutal honesty, and Neil’s absolute refusal to play it safe by coasting on his recent mainstream success. But for Neil, Time Fades Away brings up so many bad memories, particularly regarding the death of his guitarist, Danny Whitten, that he has long refused to release it on CD.

In 2005, Neil Young fans began gathering at least 14,000 petition signatures to get the album released on compact disc, but that yielded no results. So many took it upon themselves, using modern technology, to meticulously transfer mint-condition vinyl copies of “Time Fades Away” from their turntable to desktop computer using widely available professional audio software, and then burn the album to CD. Fans also scanned the original cover art from the vinyl record, and made compact disc covers and labels that closely approximate what it would look like if the CD had been officially released.

Other fans, using peer-to-peer networks, were able to locate a digital “test pressing” of the audio for a future CD release that was nixed by Neil before it went into production. Combining that test pressing audio, free of vinyl static, with professional artwork, the fans were essentially able to produce what Neil refused to allow, a pristine-sounding, and professionally-looking version of Time Fades Away on compact disc. Perhaps in response, Neil, has, just in the last year, allowed Time Fades Away to be released in digital form via his high-resolution 192.0kHz/24bit music service, Pono Music.

It’s clear that the main intent of the fans of Star Wars, Time Fades Away and other works of art is not to profit off their hybrid creations, or to anger the original creators. It’s merely to finally have access to what they are so nostalgic about. Ironically, if it wasn’t for the unavailability of these works, a lot of this community, creativity, software mastery and “guerrilla restoration” would not be taking place. There’s something about the fact that certain works are missing from the marketplace, that makes fans hunger for them, talk about them, obsess about them, and then find creative ways of acquiring or reproducing them.

This is the same impulse that fuels the fire of toy collectors, book collectors, garage-sale hunters and eBay bidders. It’s this feeling that you had something, or experienced something magical when you were younger, and no one has the right to alter it, or take access to it away from you, not even the person who created it. If you can just find it again, watch it, listen to it and hold it in your hands, you can recapture that youthful feeling, share it with others, and protect the work from oblivion. It seems like just yesterday that I was watching Han Solo shoot Greedo first on the big screen, but that was almost 40 years ago. “’Cause you know how time fades away.”

Lichens, Bryophytes and Climate Change

As 2015 winds down, the Digital Production Center is wrapping up a four-year collaboration with the Duke Herbarium to digitize their lichen and bryophyte specimens. The project is funded by the National Science Foundation, and the ultimate goal is to digitize over 2 million specimens from more than 60 collections across the nation. Lichens and bryophytes (mosses and their relatives) are important indicators of climate change. After the images from the participating institutions are uploaded to one central portal, called iDigBio, large-scale distribution mapping will be used to identify regions where environmental changes are taking place, allowing scientists to study the patterns and effects of these changes.

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The specimens are first transported from the Duke Herbarium to Perkins Library on a scheduled timeline. Then, we photograph the specimen labels using our Phase One overhead camera. Some of the specimens are very bulky, but our camera’s depth of field is broad enough to keep them in focus. To be clear, what the project is utilizing is not photos of the actual plant specimens themselves, but rather images of the typed and hand-written scientific metadata adorning the envelopes which house the specimens. After we photograph them, the images are uploaded to the national database, where they are available for online research, along with other specimen labels uploaded from universities across the United States. Optical character recognition is used to digest and organize the scientific metadata in the images.

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Over the past four years, the Digital Production Center has digitized approximately 100,000 lichen and bryophyte specimens. Many are from the Duke Herbarium, but some other institutions have also asked us to digitize some of their specimens, such as UNC-Chapel Hill, SUNY-Binghamton, Towson University and the University of Richmond. The Duke Herbarium is the second-largest herbarium of all U.S. private universities, next to Harvard. It was started in 1921, and it contains more than 800,000 specimens of vascular plants, bryophytes, algae, lichens, and fungi, some of which were collected as far back as the 1800s. Several specimens have unintentionally humorous names, like the following, which wants to be funky, but isn’t fooling anyone. Ok, maybe only I find that funny.

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The project has been extensive, but enjoyable, thanks to the leadership of Duke Herbarium Data Manager Blanka Shaw. Dr. Shaw has personally collected bryophytes on many continents, and has brought a wealth of knowledge, energy and good humor to the collaboration with the Digital Production Center. The Duke Herbarium is open for visitors, and citizen scientists are also needed to volunteer for transcription and georeferencing of the extensive metadata collected in the national database.

The Beauty of Auto Crop

One of the most tedious and time-consuming tasks we do in the Digital Production Center is cropping and straightening still image files. Hired students spend hours sitting at our computers, meticulously straightening and cropping extraneous background space out of hundreds of thousands of photographed images, using Adobe Photoshop. This process is neccessary in order to present a clean, concise image for our digital collections, but it causes delays in the completion of our projects, and requires a lot of student labor. Auto cropping software has long been sought after in digital imaging, but few developers have been able to make it work efficiently, for all materials. The Digital Production Center’s Zeutschel overhead scanner utilizes auto cropping software, but the scanner can only be used with completely flat media, due to its limited depth of field. Thicker and more fragile materials must be photographed using our Phase One digital camera system, shown above.

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Capture One’s Cultural Heritage software includes the auto crop feature.

Recently, Digital Transitions, who is the supplier of Phase One and it’s accompanying Capture One software, announced an update to the software which includes an auto crop and straightening feature. The new software is called Capture One Cultural Heritage, and is specifically designed for use in libraries and archival institutions. The auto crop feature, previously unavailable in Capture One, is a real breakthrough, and there are several options for how to use it.

First of all, the user can choose to auto crop “On Capture” or “On Crop.” That is, the software can auto crop instantly, right after a photograph has been taken (On Capture), or it can be applied to the image, or batch of images, at a later time (On Crop). You can also choose between auto cropping at a fixed size, or by the edge of the material. For instance, if you are photographing a collection of posters that are all sized 18” x 24,” you would choose “Fixed Size” and set the primary crop to “18 x 24,” or slightly larger if you want your images to have an outer border. The software recognizes the rectangular shape, and applies the crop. If you are photographing a collection of materials that are a variety of different sizes, you would choose “Generic,” which tells the software to crop wherever it sees a difference between the edge of the material and the background. “Padding” can be used to give those images a border.

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The Digital Production Center’s Phase One camera system.

Because Capture One utilizes raw files, the auto crops are non-destructive edits. One benefit of this is that if your background color is close to the color of your material, you can temporarily adjust the contrast of the photograph in order to darken the edges of the object, thus enhancing the delineation between object and background.  Next apply the auto crop, which will be more successful due to it’s ability to recognize the newly-defined edges of the material. After the crops are applied, you can reverse the contrast adjustment, thus returning the images to their original state, while still keeping the newly-generated crops.

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Temporarily increasing the contrast of your images can help the auto crop feature find the edges of the object.

Like a lot of technological advances, reliable auto cropping seemed like a fantasy just a few years ago, but is now a reality. It doesn’t work perfectly every time, and quality control is still necessary to uncover errors, but it’s a big step forward. The only thing disconcerting is the larger question facing our society. How long will it be before our work is completely automated, and humans are left behind?

The Pros and Cons of FFV1

One of the greatest challenges to digitizing moving image content isn’t the actual digitization. It’s the enormous file sizes that result, and the high costs associated with storing and maintaining those files for long-term preservation. Most cultural heritage institutions consider 10-bit uncompressed to be the preservation standard for moving image content. 10-bit uncompressed uses no file compression, as the name states, and is considered the safest, and most reliable format for moving image preservation at this time. It delivers the highest image resolution, color quality, and sharpness, while avoiding motion compensation and compression artifacts.

Unfortunately, one hour of 10-bit uncompressed video can produce a 100 gigabyte file. That’s at least 50 times larger than an audio preservation file of the same duration, and about 1000 times larger than most still image preservation files. In physical media terms, it would take 21 DVDs, or 142 CDs, to store one hour of 10-bit uncompressed video. That’s a lot of data!

Recently, the FFV1 codec has gained in popularity as an alternative to 10-bit uncompressed. FFV1 uses lossless compression to store digitized moving image content at reduced file sizes, without data loss. FFV1 is part of the free, open-source FFmpeg project, and has been in existence since 2003. FFV1 uses entropy encoding to deliver mathematically lossless intra-frame compression, which produces substantially smaller file sizes when compared to uncompressed 10-bit moving image digitization.

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Because commercial video digitization hardware does not natively support the FFV1 codec, operation must be conducted via CPU terminal command-line prompts.

 

Testing in the Digital Production Center showed that files encoded with the FFV1 codec produced files almost 1/3 the size of their 10-bit uncompressed counterparts. Both formats can be carried in a variety of wrappers, or container files, such as AVI (Microsoft) or MOV (Apple), or MKV (open source). The encoded video and audio streams are wrapped together in the container with other data streams that include technical metadata. The type and variety of data that a container can hold are specific to that container format.

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Within the terminal command line window, incoming video image and waveform readouts are displayed, while the content is compressed to FFV1.

 

The reduced file sizes produced via FFV1 are exciting, but there are some downsides. Although FFV1 is open-source, the files will not play using standard video software on Mac and Windows, nor can FFV1 be utilized within commercially-available digitization hardware and software (only via terminal command). This is because no major company (Apple, Microsoft, Adobe, Blackmagic, etc.) has adopted the codec, or announced plans to do so. Any file format that does not eventually achieve widespread adoption and universal playback capability within the broadcasting and filmmaking communities, has a higher risk of long-term obsolescence, and lack of engineering support.

The concept of “lossless compression” is mysterious, and seemingly a paradox. How can it make a file smaller, without eliminating or irreversibly altering any data? In testing, it is difficult to verify that a file converted (compressed) to FFV1 and then converted back (decompressed) is an identical file to its original state. Although the specs may be the same, the before and after file-sizes are not identical. So, “lossless” and “reversible” may not be synonymous, although ideally, they should be. In addition to the software and hardware compatibility issues of FFV1, it is challenging to accurately validate the integrity of a file that incorporates lossless compression.

Indiana Jones and The Greek Manuscripts

One of my favorite movies as a youngster was Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” It’s non-stop action as the adventurous Indiana Jones criss-crosses the globe in an exciting yet dangerous race against the Nazis for possession of the Ark of the Covenant. According to the Book of Exodus, the Ark is a golden chest which contains the original stone tablets on which the Ten Commandments are inscribed, the moral foundation for both Judiasm and Christianity. The Ark is so powerful that it single-handedly destroys the Nazis and then turns Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford into billionaires. Countless sequels, TV shows, theme-park rides and merchandise follow.

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Greek manuscript 94, binding consists of heavily decorated repoussé silver over leather.

Fast-forward several decades, and I am asked to digitize Duke Libraries’ Kenneth Willis Clark Collection of Greek Manuscripts. Although not quite as old as the Ten Commandments, this is an amazing collection of biblical texts dating all the way back to the 9th century. These are weighty volumes, hand-written using ancient inks, often on animal-skin parchment. The bindings are characterized as Byzantine, and often covered in leathers like goatskin, sometimes with additional metal ornamentation. Although I have not had to run from giant boulders, or navigate a pit of snakes, I do feel a bit like Indiana Jones when holding one of these rare, ancient texts in my hands. I’m sure one of these books must house a secret code that can bestow fame and fortune, in addition to the obvious eternal salvation.

Before digitization, Senior Conservator Erin Hammeke evaluates the condition of each Greek manuscript, and rules out any that are deemed too fragile to digitize. Some are considered sturdy enough, but still need repairs, so Erin makes the necessary fixes. Once a manuscript is given the green light for digitization, I carefully place it in our book cradle so that it cannot be opened beyond a 90-degree angle. This helps protect our fragile bound materials from unnecessary stress on the binding. Next, the aperture, exposure, and focus are carefully adjusted on our Phase One P65+ digital camera so that the numerical values of our X-rite color calibration target, placed on top of the manuscript, match the numerical readings shown on our calibrated monitors.

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Greek manuscript 101, with X-Rite color calibration target, secured in book cradle.

As the photography begins, each page of the manuscript is carefully turned by hand, so that a new image can be made of the following page. This is a tedious process, but requires careful concentration so the pages are consistently captured throughout each volume. Right-hand (recto) pages are captured first, in succession. Then the volume is turned over, so that the left-hand (verso) pages can be captured. I can’t read Greek, but it’s fascinating to see the beauty of the calligraphy, and view the occasional illustrations that appear on some pages. Sometimes, I discover that moths, beetles or termites have bored through the pages over time. It’s interesting to speculate as to which century this invasive destruction may have occurred. Perhaps the Nazis from the Indiana Jones movies traveled back in time, and placed the insects there?

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Greek manuscript 101, showing insect damage.

Once the photography is complete, the recto and verso images are processed and then interleaved to recreate the left-right page order of the original manuscript. Next, the images go through a quality-control process in which any extraneous background area is cropped out, and each page is checked for clarity and consistent color and illumination. After that, another round of quality control insures that no pages are missing, or out of order. Finally, the images are converted to Pyramid TIFF files, which allow our web site users to zoom out and see all the pages at once, or zoom in to see maximum detail of any selected page. 38 Greek manuscripts are ready for online viewing now, and many more are coming soon. Stay tuned for the exciting sequel: “Indiana Jones and Even More Greek Manuscripts.”

Midnight in the Garden of Film and Video

A few weeks ago, archivists, engineers, students and vendors from across the globe arrived in the historic city of Savannah, GA for AMIA 2014. The annual conference for The Association of Moving Image Archivists is a gathering of professionals who deal with the challenge of preserving motion picture film and videotape content for future generations. Since today is Halloween, I must also point out that Savannah is a really funky city that is haunted! The downtown area is filled with weeping willow trees, well-preserved 19th century architecture and creepy cemeteries dating back to the U.S. Civil and Revolutionary wars. Savannah is almost as scary as a library budget meeting.

The bad moon rises over Savannah City Hall.
The bad moon rises over Savannah City Hall.

Since many different cultural heritage institutions are digitizing their collections for preservation and online access, it’s beneficial to develop universal file standards and best practices. For example, organizations like NARA and FADGI have contributed to the universal adoption of the 8-bit uncompressed TIFF file format for (non-transmissive) still image preservation. Likewise, for audio digitization, 24-bit uncompressed WAV has been universally adopted as the preservation standard. In other words, when it comes to still image and audio digitization, everyone is driving down the same highway. However, at AMIA 2014, it was apparent there are still many different roads being taken in regards to moving image preservation, with some potential traffic jams ahead. Are you frightened yet? You should be!

The smallest known film gauge: 3mm. Was it designed by ancient druids?
The smallest known film gauge: 3mm. Was it built by ancient druids?

Up until now, two file formats have been competing for dominance for moving image preservation: 10-bit uncompressed (.mov or .avi wrapper) vs. Motion JPEG2000 (MXF wrapper). The disadvantage of uncompressed has always been its enormous file size. Motion JPEG2000 incorporates lossless compression, which can reduce file sizes by 50%, but it’s expensive to implement, and has limited interoperability with most video software and players. At AMIA 2014, some were championing the use of a newer format, FFV1, a lossless codec that has compression ratios similar to JPEG2000, but is open source, and thus more widely adoptable. It is part of the FFmpeg software project. Adoption of FFV1 is growing, but many institutions are still heavily invested in 10-bit uncompressed or Motion JPEG2000. Which format will become the preservation standard, and which will become ghosts that haunt us forever?!?

Another emerging need is for content management systems that can store and provide public access to digitized video. The Hydra repository solution is being adopted by many institutions for managing preservation video files. In conjunction with Hydra, many are also adopting Avalon to provide public access for online viewing of video content. Like FFmpeg, both Hydra and Avalon are open source, which is part of their appeal. Others are building their own systems, catered specifically to their own needs, like The Museum of Modern Art. There are also competing metadata standards. For example, PBCore has been adopted by many public television stations, but is generally disliked by libraries. In fact, they find it really creepy!

A new print of Peter Pan was shown at AMIA 2014
A new print of Peter Pan was shown at AMIA 2014. That movie gave me nightmares as a child.

Finally, there is the thorny issue of copyright. Once file formats are chosen and delivery systems are in place, methods must be implemented to control access by only those intended, to protect copyright and hinder piracy. The Avalon Media System enables rights and access control to video content via guest passwords. The Library of Congress works around some of these these issues another way, by setting up remote viewing rooms in Washington, DC, which are connected via fiber-optic cable to their Audio-Visual Conservation Center in Culpeper, Va. Others, with more limited budgets, like Dino Everett at USC Cinematic Arts, watermark their video, upload it to sites like Vimeo, and implement temporary password protection, canceling the passwords manually after a few weeks. I mean, is there anything more frightening than a copyright lawsuit? Happy Halloween!

Digitization Details: Thunderbolts, Waveforms & Black Magic

The technology for digitizing analog videotape is continually evolving. Thanks to increases in data transfer-rates and hard drive write-speeds, as well as the availability of more powerful computer processors at cheaper price-points, the Digital Production Center recently decided to upgrade its video digitization system. Funding for the improved technology was procured by Winston Atkins, Duke Libraries Preservation Officer. Of all the materials we work with in the Digital Production Center, analog videotape has one of the shortest lifespans. Thus, it is high on the list of the Library’s priorities for long-term digital preservation. Thanks, Winston!

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Thunderbolt is leaving USB in the dust.

Due to innovative design, ease of use, and dominance within the video and filmmaking communities, we decided to go with a combination of products designed by Apple Inc., and Blackmagic Design. A new computer hardware interface recently adopted by Apple and Blackmagic, called Thunderbolt, allows the the two companies’ products to work seamlessly together at an unprecedented data-transfer speed of 10 Gigabits per second, per channel. This is much faster than previously available interfaces such as Firewire and USB. Because video content incorporates an enormous amount of data, the improved data-transfer speed allows the computer to capture the video signal in real time, without interruption or dropped frames.

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Blackmagic design converts the analog video signal to SDI (serial digital interface).

Our new data stream works as follows. Once a tape is playing on an analog videotape deck, the output signal travels through an Analog to SDI (serial digital interface) converter. This converts the content from analog to digital. Next, the digital signal travels via SDI cable through a Blackmagic SmartScope monitor, which allows for monitoring via waveform and vectorscope readouts. A veteran television engineer I know will talk to you for days regarding the physics of this, but, in layperson terms, these readouts let you verify the integrity of the color signal, and make sure your video levels are not too high (blown-out highlights) or too low (crushed shadows). If there is a problem, adjustments can be made via analog video signal processor or time-base corrector to bring the video signal within acceptable limits.

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Blackmagic’s SmartScope allows for monitoring of the video’s waveform. The signal must stay between 0 and 700 (left side) or clipping will occur, which means you need to get that videotape to the emergency room, STAT!

Next, the video content travels via SDI cable to a Blackmagic Ultrastudio interface, which converts the signal from SDI to Thunderbolt, so it can now be recognized by a computer. The content then travels via Thunderbolt cable to a 27″ Apple iMac utilizing a 3.5 GHz Quad-core processor and NVIDIA GeForce graphics processor. Blackmagic’s Media Express software writes the data, via Thunderbolt cable, to a G-Drive Pro external storage system as a 10-bit, uncompressed preservation master file. After capture, editing can be done using Apple’s Final Cut Pro or QuickTime Pro. Compressed Mp4 access derivatives are then batch-processed using Apple’s Compressor software, or other utilities such as MPEG-Streamclip. Finally, the preservation master files are uploaded to Duke’s servers for long-term storage. Unless there are copyright restrictions, the access derivatives will be published online.

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Video digitization happens in real time. A one-hour tape is digitized in, well, one hour, which is more than enough Bob Hope jokes for anyone.

Digitization Details: Bringing Duke Living History Into Your Future

Recently, I digitized 123 videotapes from the Duke University Living History Program. Beginning in the early 1970’s, Duke University faculty members conducted interviews with prominent world leaders, politicians and activists. The first interviews were videotaped in Perkins Library at a time when video was groundbreaking technology, almost a decade before consumer-grade VCRs starting showing up in people’s living rooms. Some of the interviews begin with a visionary introduction by Jay Rutherfurd, who championed the program:

“At the W. R. Perkins library, in Duke University, we now commit this exciting experiment in electronic journalism into your future. May it illuminate well, educate wisely, and relate meaningfully, for future generations.”

Clearly, the “future” that Mr. Rutherfurd envisioned has arrived. Thanks to modern technology, we can now create digital surrogates of these videotaped interviews for long-term preservation and access. The subjects featured in this collection span a variety of generations, nationalities, occupations and political leanings. Interviewees include Les Aspin, Ellsworth Bunker, Dr. Samuel DuBois Cook, Joseph Banks Rhine, Jesse Jackson, Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, King Mihai of Romania, Terry Sanford, Judy Woodruff, Angier Biddle Duke and many more. The collection also includes videotapes of speeches given on the Duke campus by Ronald Reagan, Abbie Hoffman, Bob Dole, Julian Bond and Elie Wiesel.

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Residue wiped off the head of a U-matic playback deck, the result of sticky-shed syndrome.

Many of the interviews were recorded on 3/4″ videotape, also called “U-matic.” Invented by Sony in 1969, the U-matic format was the first videotape to be housed inside a plastic cassette for portability, and would soon replace film as the primary television news-gathering format. Unfortunately, most U-matic tapes have not aged well. After decades in storage, many of the videotapes in our collection now have sticky-shed syndrome, a condition in which the oxide that holds the visual content is literally flaking off the polyester tape base, and is gummy in texture. When a videotape has sticky-shed, not only will it not play correctly, the residue can also clog up the tape heads in the U-matic playback deck, then transfer the contaminant to other tapes played afterwards in the same deck. A U-matic videotape player in good working order is now an obsolete collector’s item, and our tapes are fragile, so we came up with a solution: throw those tapes in the oven!

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After baking, the cookies (I mean U-matic videotapes) are ready for digitization!

At first that may sound reckless, but baking audio and videotapes at relatively low temperatures for an extended period of time is a well-tested method for minimizing the effects of sticky-shed syndrome. The Digital Production Center recently acquired a scientific oven, and after initial testing, we baked each Duke Living History U-matic videotape at 52 celsius (125 fahrenheit) for about 10 hours. Baking the videotapes temporarily removed the moisture that had accumulated in the binder, and made them playable for digitization. About 90% of our U-matic tapes played well after baking. Many of them were unplayable beforehand.

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The Digital Production Center’s video rack and routing system.

After giving the videotapes time to cool down, we digitize each tape, in real time, as an uncompressed  file (.mov) for long-term preservation. Afterwards, we make a smaller, compressed version (.mp4) of the same recording, which is our access copy. Our U-matic decks are housed in an efficiently-designed rack system, which also includes other obsolete videotape formats like VHS, Betacam and Hi8. Centralized audio and video routers allow us to quickly switch between formats while ensuring a clean, balanced and accurate conversion from analog to digital. Combining the art of analog tape baking with modern video digitization, the Digital Production Center is able to rescue the content from the videotapes, before the magnetic tape ages and degrades any further. While the U-matic tapes are nearing the end of their life-span, the digital surrogates will potentially last for centuries to come. We are able to benefit from Mr. Rutherfurd’s exciting experiment into our future, and carry it forward… into your future. May it illuminate well, educate wisely, and relate meaningfully, for future generations.

 

Post contributed by Alex Marsh