by James Gibbs, Media Technician

Like many people, I’m a big fan of digital technology and the convenience it brings to our lives. I regularly use my phone or digital camera to take photos and videos, edit and send them to people or post on my social media platform of choice (everyone wants to know what I’ve eaten for lunch or see the family pet riding around on a Roomba, don’t they?) In a previous job, I worked as a news camera man and the day we switched to ‘tapeless’ cameras was a revelation. As a Media Technician at The Box, a computer is never far away while I work with the files created from digitising our film and videotape collections.

It’s a bit of a cliché but there can be something rather sterile about this: a disconnect from the medium you’re working with. In a previous blog I wrote about how you can touch film, see the images on it, hear it as it goes through various machines and even smell it. This makes working with older ‘analogue’ formats special – something that’s missing from digital media production but which we’re very fortunate to experience here at The Box. Well, apart from some of the smells! Some of our acetate films produce acetic acid as they decompose (known as vinegar syndrome). This can make your eyes water when opening a film can. Other films create a strong mothball smell. Nice.

Traditionally, film editors physically handled the medium they were working with and cut and stuck it together to make edits. They made copious notes and instructions about the ‘special effects’ they wanted created in laboratories when the final print of the film was made. These were all carried out on complex equipment that allowed, for example, a mix or wipe from one piece of film to another to create an edit. Colour correction was carried out using blends of coloured light to make the final print – timing marks were placed on the film to signal a scene or shot change to automatically adjust the lights to the new grade. Making a film was a highly involved and immersive process that took a lot of time and money (and there was no ‘undo’ button).

In the video clip below, Roger, one of our volunteers, talks about his 50+ year career in the film and television industry and demonstrates working with a film splicer and viewing a film on a Steenbeck film editing table. See if you can spot Roger in the included 1962 footage of Westward Television.

 

It’s not just film that provides a tactile and sensory experience: our video tape recorders (VTRs) make their own distinctive sounds as you operate them. Often a change in these sounds is a clue that something needs adjusting or a part replacing. The sounds of our Betacam SP and Betacam SX VTRs remind me very much of my own career in broadcast television and the countless times of inserting tapes, rewinding them, recording and playing back. My favourite sound at the archive though has to be that made by our one inch VTRs.

One inch was a videotape format used during the late 1970s and 1980s in the broadcast industry, for studio-based recordings and editing. We have a large collection of one inch video tape and the machines to play it on. In the video clip below, my colleague Mike demonstrates lacing, spooling and playing the tape. There’s something about the noise the reels make at speed as they accelerate and brake that really appeals to me.

 

David Howarth, a location camera man for Westward Television and Television South West, reportedly remarked at the change from shooting on film to video tape: ‘when you shoot on film, you’re recording on silver, when you shoot on tape, you’re recording on rust’.

This astute observation (the film base contains silver halide particles and magnetic tape contains iron oxide particles) was his take on a change to what was technically a lower quality format that arguably required less skill to use. It provided many benefits though, not least an overall reduction in time and cost to produce television programmes and news.

These days we’re often recording on silicon and this, as well as other changes in technology, has introduced a number of benefits including a reduction in time and cost. It’s meant that making a ‘film’ is within all our reach. It’s sparked new waves of talent, changed ways of working and redefined what’s possible creatively and technically.

There are still those who choose to shoot their films (and sometimes show them) on film. This may be for nostalgic reasons, because of the ‘look’ of the film, or because working on set brings about a different approach and way of working from the actors and crew.

Whatever the reasons, I’m glad that people are keeping traditional formats and techniques alive as well as embracing and developing new technology. I think there’s a place for both. At The Box it’s the combination of using digital technology alongside analogue that allows us to preserve our film and videotape collections and make them accessible for everyone to enjoy.