Archiving Old Material

What to do with footage after it has been edited and used for whatever it was shot for – whether it be a diary of a holiday, a travelogue, major event such as a wedding, birthday or engagement, or even a short film or documentary – is a perennial, and often underestimated issue.

How many of us have shoe boxes or similar full of tapes, VHS cartridges, Betacam footage or even SD cards tucked away, gathering dust possibly never again to see the light of day? I admit to similar, except in my case they are 8mm and MiniDV tapes and they are at least sealed in an airtight Tupperware box and out of sunlight.

James Paterson

But the conundrum of archiving did grab my fancy, so I asked expert James Paterson who has a business dedicated to this aspect of filmmaking his thoughts on it.

What is the single biggest reason people should archive?

Quite simply because time is running out – we are at a critical point in time where the older magnetic storage formats such as videotape are now reaching their use-by date.  Videotape was never invented for long time storage and the materials it is made from inevitably become unstable in time, making the contents unable to be recovered without specialised treatment.

There is also a critical shortage of working playback equipment needed to recover and digitise the video material. Worldwide there is a general agreement that we have a window of perhaps 5- 6 years left to digitise before much material is lost forever.  Videotape heads (which read the signal from the tape) have a limited life and wear down gradually with use. As videotapes age they tend to become more abrasive increasing the rate of that wear. This means as even less hours can be digitised.

For some of the older broadcast formats it is already at the stage that there are likely more hours of content awaiting to be digitised than there are head hours left in existence to digitise with.  It’s also becoming apparent that  important mechanical parts inside equipment are breaking down in ways we never anticipated (such as die-cast metal) resulting in further challenges keeping the machines alive.   Ultimately when it comes to digitising your content, it really is a matter of: “don’t leave it too late, film and videotape won’t wait!”.

What are the most common formats people archive from?

For the home users, the most common format would be the humble VHS cassette, followed by the short-lived Betamax format.  Video Camera formats such as HI8, VHS-C, as well as Mini DV are common.     For the broadcast market, it’s the larger open reel formats such as 1” type C open reel videotape & 2”  followed by cassette based formats such as ¾” Umatic and BetacamSP.


What is the best format to archive to?

That depends on what you intend to do with it! Each file format has its strengths and weakness.  For long term preservation I usually lean toward having it digitised to an uncompressed “master” file format and storing that safely. (think of it like your “negatives” in the old days of film).

As new file formats come along you can always go back to that “master” file and create a new one without any quality loss.  I always advise against converting from a compressed format such as DVD, MPEG4 etc to another compressed format, as just like in the days of VHS to VHS copying, the picture will suffer due to re-compression over successive generations.  Always refer back to your uncompressed master!  This best will best ensure your footage lasts in its original form into the future!

What does it cost?

As many factors vary on each job cost is generally quoted on demand and will take into account factors such as the age of the format the footage is stored on, its condition and to what level you want it recovered and digitised.   Older tapes with damage, mould/fungal issues or signs of breakdown will naturally need extra time and resources dedicated to it to recover the contents and can add to the costs.

How secure is it?

We use end to end encryption when delivering video files to clients online.

How do people get the material to you? What options are there?

They can send material via their choice of courier or other delivery service and we accept material from anywhere in the world.

How long does a secure format last?

Well that’s the big unknown!  It’s very hard to predict where future technology will take us.

Who uses your services.?

We provide digitisation services not only to clients in Australia but also worldwide.   The types of clients range from private individuals wanting to preserve their home video collections, to a range of other sectors such as production houses, tv networks, as well as government or educational institutions wishing to preserve large amounts of content for the future.

What formats can you support?

Just about every broadcast or domestic videotape format as well as 16mm film.

How do people contact you?

For a quick reply, they can contact me directly via email at:

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