252: Digital Asset Symposium

Archival Spaces 252

DAS – Digital Asset Symposium (Online)

Uploaded  25 September 2020

The Digital Asset Symposium – DAS – , originally scheduled for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June, finally took place online on September 16-17, 2020. Organized by the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and sponsored by a host of vendors from the archival field, it was the tenth meeting of digital film/media specialists since 2007, the last four at MOMA. I had not attended DAS since 2012 when it was held in Los Angeles (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2012/11/08/das-2012-lifecycle-digital-asset).  Given the East-West coast time difference for a virtual event, the symposium was limited to four hours of programming each day, beginning at 1 PM EST/10 AM PST.

After AMIA President Dennis Doros welcomed everyone, moderator Nick Gold introduced Ant Rawston of Microsoft Research, who discussed “Project Silica,” an initiative to utilize glass as a long term storage medium for digital media. Unlike hard drives or even clouds, which have a limited lifespan, fused silica promises to remain stable for storage over ten thousand years and is not subject to environmental decay, whether by heat, humidity, or cold (unlike any other known media carrier). So far, Microsoft has proven the concept, but both write and read speeds of data are apparently not yet viable for commercial exploitation. Another issue: once written, data is baked in and can’t be written over, unlike all plastic media. While Rawston gave no indication of when archivists will be able to purchase the silica medium, he indicated that its sale is only a matter of time.

Example of Microsoft’s Silica digital storage media

Next, Kyle Evans from Tape Ark/Seagate, discussed “Digital Data Preservation Across Industries – A Shared Experience,” focusing on the energy sector’s data. Unfortunately, other than noting that analog tape should be transferred to digital, the talk offered little to archivists who have been dealing with decaying audio and videotape for decades. More interesting was Sally Hubbard, Maureen Harlow, and Athena Livano-Propst’s discussion of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s efforts to combine semantic and machine learning technology to create richer metadata sets for non-textual content, while employing standards-based cataloging procedures. Semantic technology is text-based, for example, Google searches, in contrast to machine learning technology which is image-based. Google Images searches work by searching text around images. Combining the technologies will eventually allow for complete searches of text and images, giving researchers the ability, e.g., to find an image of Elmo eating vegetables.

The final presentation of the day saw Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York, introduce the Museum, in particular, its massive digitization efforts over the past several years. Few people know that the jazz trumpeter and singer, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), spent his free time in the last twenty years of his life, personally archiving all his recordings, film and television shows, tapes, scrapbooks, and even trumpets in a house he purchased in 1951 for his wife, Lucille. In 1986, the Collection was transferred to Queens College and in subsequent years a professional archivist was hired, the collection opened to researchers (1994), and the house refurbished as an historic landmark (2003). With a $2.2 million grant from Robert Smith’s Fund II Foundation in 2016, the Armstrong House hired Deluxe and other vendors to digitize the entire collection, creating more than 60,000 digital assets. Since the 2019 COVID Pandemic shut down the house temporarily, Riccardi has created numerous online exhibits on various topics, where visitors can experience media by simply registering. In 2021 a new research center is scheduled to open across the street from the House.    

Louis Armstrong at home in Queens

Thursday began with another museum intervention, the Museum of Modern Art Film Department’s presentation of their new exhibit, “Private Lives – Public Images,” which for the first time explores the Museum’s amateur and home movies.  That collection goes back to the days of Iris Barry (1930s), when the Museum accepted the home movies of Biograph Film Co. executives, as well as those of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, while later collections came from artists and others donating their work. Curated by Ron Magliozzi, Katie Trainor, Brittany Shaw, and Ashley Swinnerton, the exhibition attempts to find an adequate presentation form for moving images, beyond the usual screenings in theaters. The question they asked themselves was how to differentiate various kinds of film images, so they don’t all look the same? After searching cataloging records, the curators viewed over 600 films, before selecting more than one hundred, viewable on different-sized, custom-made monitors (digitally) and in analog film projections. The exhibition is open to the public through 21 February 2021.

“Private Lives – Public Images,” Museum of Modern Art Exhibition

Next, Chris Lacinak, President of AVP, presented “Bursting the Inverse Bubble: Audio and Video in the Information Economy,” which picked up the earlier thread on creating new search mechanisms for audiovisual information.  Noting that full-text searches, which became possible 25 years ago have revolutionized our lives as much as anything in the net, Lacinak decried the still inadequate tools for searching audio and video, given that the amount of such data on the web alone (as well as in archives) is staggering. Challenges to creating such search engines include 1. The private nature of many collections, 2. Lack of interoperability, 3. Closed-loop systems, 4. Lack of democracy. AVP is currently developing a search machine (Audiovisual Metadata Platform) that will search metadata, e.g. transcripts of podcasts, to make the search on non-text material easier.

Decomposed analog videotape.

Next, Kelly Pribble, Studio Engineer at Iron Mountain, and Gregory Maratea, the Company’s Director of Global Client Solutions, discussed Iron Mountain’s workflow, policies, and procedures for the storage of physical and digital assets. In particular, they discussed decay, stabilization and digitization of analog tape formats, then presented their preservation work on the Tupac Shakur Collection, which includes non-media and media assets. Finally, Mike Castro and Randal Luckow, VP of the HBO Archive and Director, Archives and Asset Management, respectively, discussed the monumental task of collecting, archiving, and preserving literally everything associated with the eight seasons of the hit television show, Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Once the show was a success, HBO management decided to collect everything, in order to have material for various fan experiences, including exhibitions and a studio tour. Apart from 3,707 hours of actual footage, they collected sets, props, costumes, photos, designs, other material from 18 different departments. In their workflow, they were careful to follow standard archival practice regarding diplomatics, respect de fonds, provenance, and original order. They are presently building a new archive facility outside Belfast and a studio tour will hopefully open there in Summer 2021.

Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-2019)

Overall, this abbreviated DAS was extremely interesting for moving image archivists and librarians. Interestingly, five of eight presentations came from private industry, rather than archivists at non-profit institutions. This is a profound change in the archival field over the past twenty years, indicating the degree to which private industry has adopted scientifically based archival practice. On the other hand,  organizers should consider how they can differentiate themselves better from AMIA’s own annual conference and “the Reel Thing,” since several DAS presentations were firmly entrenched in analog archival practice with only brief nods to digital asset management. 

DAS in the age of COVID

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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