April 16, 2010

Live Taping

If the New York Times does indeed veer back towards a subscription fee or micro-payment model for their online content, I’m starting to feel more and more like I’m going to have to pay up — or at least maybe see if there’s a micro-subscription option for receiving the articles I want (movie reviews, articles about running, mentions of taxonomies, and anything about salt or chocolate — I’m a man of simple tastes). One of the hooks has been the overall fantastic, innovative work the paper does with interactive and media content, but I also think that a number of their critics are at the top of their games right now. I’ve referenced A.O. Scott several times in other posts, so I’m obviously a fan of his, and I’m always struck by the approach that Technology Columnist David Pogue takes. His review of the iPad was smart, fun, and even-handed, but two recent pieces have been especially pertinent to the work of media archivists. A blog post of his from February on reformatting his MiniDV home videos (“Why We Make Home Videos”) nicely expresses the importance of recorded media in our personal lives and provides some advocacy points for why preservation matters (and why it needs to be tackled sooner than later).

He even says “videos” instead of “movies”! [swoon]

A follow up column on the experience of migrating his MiniDV content (“Moving Taped Past to Hard-Drive Future”) takes a more technical than emotional bent on the process (though it does end with a stirring call-to-arms for everyone to start similar projects). I hope you read the article, but, in short, Pogue ran into some roadblocks with his first plan and had to go back and revise his strategy. I think it’s telling about the challenges involved in audiovisual preservation, especially as we move more into the digital realm, that what seems like a simple process (stick the tape in and let the machines do their work) brought some consternation to a tech expert (and one who gets personal emails from Steve Jobs, none the less). Yes, people should start working on reformatting their personal media collections, but there are a number of avenues, and branches of options off of those avenues, in deciding how to best do it, and not everyone has the resources at hand to help in those decisions.

I guess this is the point, then, where I should bring up some resources for people to consult about the reformatting of DVCam and MiniDV tape. They are touchy formats due to their small size and the makeup of the tape and binder, and it’s true that the formats are trending towards obsolescence, but there’s a lot of unique content out there shot on DV that’s going to need taking care of. David Rice has written a great piece about the ins and outs of migrating DV tapes, expressing the importance of capturing it as a data stream rather than as a video signal (“Digital Tape Preservation Strategy: Preserving Data or Video?”). Additionally, our free and open source DV Analyzer application is a simple tool that anyone can use to review the metadata in the DV data stream that’s carried over during a Firewire migration of DVCam or MiniDV.

(Allow me one geek moment here in response to Pogue’s article: Final Cut Pro can carry over the date and time metadata, but only if the captured stream is not re-transcoded during within the process. This may be accomplished by selecting File>Export or pulling the file from the Capture Scratch directory instead of using the Export>Using Quicktime Conversion option.)

The DV Analyzer tool also identifies and lists error codes in the DV stream that occur during playback. The garbbled video that Pogue mentions is likely a result of error concealment performed by the playback device — most typically misread data in frame being patched up with data from the previous frame — and DV Analyzer would provide the error detection code for those sections that could then be analyzed to see if it can be determined what the cause of the error was. Sometimes this is due to degradation, but often enough these errors are caused by the touchy nature of DV tapes. Many times the same errors will not appear if played through the deck again or run through another deck. Further information can be found at or under the Case Studies section on the DV Analyzer main page

A final important point from the article is how Pogue’s experience underscores how much we have to monitor and advocate for the tech companies to better understand and maintain the capabilities that enable preservation and access. The idea that professional film and television editors don’t need to know the date of when something was shot is fairly ludicrous. I doubt a news program would feel all right using footage for a story they can’t properly identify, or that film editors wouldn’t want to be able to find content from a certain date of shooting. Outside of this, the date stamp, timecode, and other metadata are absolutely necessary for the authenticity of archival materials, especially in matters of research or, increasingly, in legal matters (see this Times article about metadata as evidence). It’s maybe a tad idealistic to think we can always have an effect on corporate decisions, but a positive point is that a little vocal activity did do some good in getting Firewire ports back after Apple decided to remove them. Sure Firewire dependent devices were severely decreasing in manufacture, but there is so much out there that has been produced on those devices, and the future ability to access or capture that content for preservation extends well beyond the end of manufacturing.

Joshua Ranger

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