Videotape archiving is not "something you do" - it is a "strategy you have to plan"

Friday 26 June 2020

Archiving films is something I have been doing for many years. Back in the late 80s, I was transferring 8mm & 16mm cine film to VHS - the height of tech-modernity in those days - a pain-in-the-ass too. At the millennium, it was VHS to DVD as I ventured into the world of running my own business. But now I can’t remember the last project I worked on that required a DVD as the final format. YouTube or a client website has become the destination of choice for all my video productions. But despite this ongoing change in the world of media distribution, one thing still surprises me - that there are still many, many videotape collections to be found in homes, businesses and institutions, all gathering dust in dark, dusty corners.

Now I’m not talking about a wedding video and a few Cornwall caravan holiday films here, (although those memories are so very important to someone) I am talking about collections of video that represent many years of research, work, teaching, discoveries or events that played a part in history. I live in Oxford, surrounded by numerous, famous institutions that have all made historic contributions to medicine, physics, politics, engineering... the list is endless. Most of those institutions will have amassed a large collection of media recording their work throughout the age of videotape. And that applies to hundreds of places across the country.

In a previous blog, I wrote about how, contrary to general opinion, videotapes can actually be very good long-term storage platforms, even when stored in less than optimal conditions, but it is the availability of machinery on which to play the tapes that is the true threat to their longevity. So it remains very important that these collections of valuable information are transferred to a more future-proof format to ensure their contents are not lost to future generations.

Put simply - the archiving process involves the conversion of analogue signals into digital data. We live in an age where the management of data is of great importance simply because there is so much of it being generated. One hour of standard-definition PAL video when converted to Quicktime ProRes HQ will generate around 28 gigabytes of data. If you simply decide to copy every minute of every video tape in one chunk into a digital file, you will need to invest in massive quantities of hard disks - just to store a lot of pointless data. The resultant files will be far too large to send via most file-transfer facilities thereby requiring you to physically move the hard-disk around - this is hardly the most convenient way to liberate your old data. So it is important to assess firstly, what exactly do you need to digitise and how do you want to work with it? Let’s look at an example.

In 2017, I received a delivery of 16, 3-hour VHS tapes. These were medical 'grand-rounds' from a teaching hospital, recorded in the 2001 academic year. Once a fortnight, these meetings for students and clinicians from all disciplines would discuss 1 or sometimes 2 recent patient cases. The idea was to learn from each case what could have been done better or differently. What went wrong? What took them by surprise? Often, it was a chance to put students on the spot by asking them "what would you do in this instance?".

The meetings were recorded on 1 camera which the AV technician would start about 5 to 10 minutes ahead of the introduction - he/she then went to the projection room to oversee other things. After the meeting ended, it could be another 5 or 10 minutes before he/she stopped the recording. So each tape contained between 1 hour 40 minutes and 1 hour 50 minutes, but only 1 hour 30 minutes was of interest, sometimes slightly less. So straight away, you can see that between 10% & 20% of the each recording was of no use. Additionally, 6 of the meetings involved 2 case discussions and a further 2 involved the same patient, but across re-admissions to hospital.

My brief was to digitise only the 90 minutes of interest from each tape to a ProRes HQ file with an H264 (MP4) file for review. At the same time, the 16 recordings needed to be separated into individual case files. The H264 file was to include an on-screen timer for reference purposes. The ProRes file was of higher quality to allow for possible future editing if an educational resource was to be produced. H264/MP4 is the most common file format used today across all platforms and the file sizes are far smaller than ProRes HQ. Technically, they are of a lower quality, although still very good. Additionally, I was to produce a spreadsheet detailing the names of the presenting clinician, the patient name and the condition(s) for which they were being treated. This is known as 'metadata' so would make cataloguing the files on a searchable database possible.

If I had just digitised everything on each tape, it would have generated around 800 gigabytes of data for the ProRes files and about 80 for the H264 files. The review files were small enough for me to send to the client via their FTP facility. Following the review of each H264 file, the client was able to identify some areas of concern regarding patient confidentiality and was able to give me information to anonymise images and to 'bleep-out' audio where needed on the ProRes files. On completion of the work, I delivered all the files on a client-supplied hard disk which they then chose to back-up to their own system.

So, 16 difficult to use VHS tapes with no information beyond a recording date hand-written on their label became 24 separate files totalling 672 gigabytes of ProRes and 51 gigabytes of H264.

The files are now part of a teaching curriculum accessible by anyone with access to the hospital's intranet, viewable on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, at work, at home, on the bus or at the patient bedside.

Between 120 and 150 gigabytes of unnecessary digital data was saved by this selective transfer process. Of course, it is initially a more expensive process, but the time and hardware (therefore, money) that is saved in the long run made it good value for money.

As for those wedding videos and Cornwall caravan park tapes... I have transferred enough of those in my time to know that they too include a wealth of material that is not watchable. If you intend to send a digital copy of those to friends and family all over the world, then file size matters. So they too would become far more user-friendly by being more selective about what is digitised.

So if you are sitting at work, or at home, staring at a cupboard full of history, give me a call on 07952 478010 and we can talk about condensing that cupboard down to something the size of... well, a hard disk.