Monday, August 31, 2015

Nuclear bunker where films are preserved

Technology is doing amazing things these days.

And when it's not doing those things, it's preserving films in a bunker designed to withstand a nuclear assault.

I snark, I snark. When I first read the headline in Wired, I came under the false assumption that those being preserved involved titles such as Deuce Bigelow or Britney Spears' Crossroads. The Library of Congress’ Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation is more concerned with film rarities in need of preservation.

The library houses and restores over 1.4 film, television, and video recordings. Among the more rare films are older specimens that were recorded on combustible nitrate celluloid. These need to be kept in 124 different cold storage units down a hallway described thusly by one of the staff: "They kind of remind me of the solitary confinement in Papillon."

I wonder if they all communicate in filmspeak?

So what all is there? Well, besides 19th Century early examples of the medium, such as a silent film made by Thomas Edison about Frankenstein, "...the Packard holdings includes the original video cassette of Spike Lee’s 1983 NYU student master’s thesis film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads, the first recorded television color broadcast (also the oldest videotape in the collection), as well as the first attempted digital cinema package (basically, a hard drive) sent to the Library to be registered for copyright: Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never. (Attempted because the hard drive is encrypted and the Library can’t preserve encrypted digital material. Sorry, Biebs).
"That’s not to say that Packard scrapes the bottom the preservation barrel. As Mashon [Mike Mashon, head of the Library's Moving Image section] is quick to point out, they’ve worked on Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Suspicion, Foreign Correspondent and Saboteur, Best Picture winners like All Quiet on the Western Front and It Happened One Night, and a slew of National Film Registry titles ranging from Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein to Yankee Doodle Dandy."

There is also a B-movie vault from Columbia Pictures, which I admittedly would love to roll around in.

As far as the technology involved, most older films are preserved chemically. If this is not possible, then the film's negative or fine-grain master is scanned and the digital file becomes the archival copy. There are even protocols for handling audio files, such as recordings of old radio programs.

"Mashon says most of the audio files the Library has digitized are immediately available because they’re so small. Video files are larger so Packard uses a cache system. That’s actually what the busy robotic arm is up to—grabbing various tapes where Quicktime files reside, moving them into a drive, and sending the file over to the spinning disk server. Once there, it travels through the fiber optic cable and lands in a cache up there where the researcher alerted it arrival.

"Total wait time? Three minutes."

Most interesting to me is the actual location of the collection. The "Packard campus" as it is called, is inside Mount Pony in Culpeper, Virginia. The facility was originally intended to be a "money bunker" in the event of a nuclear war. The Federal Reserve stored billions of dollars in vaults at the installation, vaults that were built to withstand both the blasts and the radiation of nuclear weapons. Once the dust settled, the money could be taken from the bunker and the U.S. economy spurred back into action (hopefully). When the Cold War came to an end and the need for such an installation (thankfully) ended with it, private investors took up the property and donated it to the Library of Congress.

It's not tough for me to imagine Bernard in this campus/bunker/film library, waiting for nuclear war to be his best friend. As the (presumably) Russian warheads rained down on the nation and mushroom clouds and firestorm helixes sweep across the land, he would skip gleefully to the vault, procuring the digitally-preserved copy of Tank, starring James Garner. Maybe even Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet. Oh why stop there? Deep in the cool, cool bunker, there would be no one to disturb his viewing. Dare I say? ALL seasons of The A-Team? In one sitting? It would be a full film buffet.

Until he finds out that the EMP wave from all the nukes rendered the playback devices inoperable.

"That's not fair. That's not fair at all. There was time now..."

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