Providing digital archiving services

Interview with Tim Knapp, SVP, Content & Archive Services

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Tim Knapp interview

Tim Knapp is SVP of Content & Archive Services at LAC Group and holds over 35 years of experience in motion, still film and digital imaging. This article was adapted from an interview by freelance journalist Bob Gibbons.

Q: What’s unique about LAC Group’s digital archiving services?

Tim: We approach digital from a filmmaker’s point of view. I personally spent more than 25 years with Kodak in all aspects of making and marketing film, including working with some of the most talented and demanding cinematographers in the world. We know how much care was taken to make the films preserved in our vaults and sitting on other archivists’ shelves, and we’re committed to putting just as much care in transferring them to digital media.

Q: What archiving services does LAC Group provide?

Tim: The primary service and value we offer our clients is peace of mind. We can handle all aspects of the archiving process, from inspecting and cleaning the film, to scanning it at full resolution, to delivering the highest quality digital archival copies and mezzanine viewing copies in multiple formats. But, rather than focusing on what we have to sell, we like to begin our discussion with customers by talking about what they’re trying to do.

We want them to understand the promise and potential of digital technology in the archiving process, so they can make informed decisions. Once they decide the best solution for their needs, we’re happy to provide it, and that usually involves some mix of high quality digital files in the right formats, responsive service, reasonable turn-around time and protection of materials—all at a competitive cost, and always including whatever education our clients want or need.

Q: Why is education important?

Tim: There’s a realization today that archives are assets, and as such they need to be more easily and fully accessible. This is making the archivist’s job more complex. Archiving is costly, and many archivists are no longer content to just store cans of motion picture film or tapes for the future. Now, they want to know what’s on the reels, so it can be monetized and repurposed for other uses. That requires the transfer to digital media, which comes with its own whole set of questions:

  • What should be transferred, when and how?
  • At what resolution and bit depth?
  • Delivered and stored on what media?

The questions are important, but it’s unreasonable to expect all archivists to become technical experts to answer them. Some are—we are, and we’re happy to deal with all kinds of archivists and explain what they need to know, with as much or as little technical detail as they want.

Q: What do archivists need to know about the digital transformation?

Tim: At the risk of over-simplifying a complex situation, it’s important to remember this: What changes is important, but what stays the same is important also.

  • What’s changing, of course, is the media. It’s increasingly difficult to find film projectors. Viewing copies need to be on drives and disks, even if it’s just so archivists and their supporters can see what they have.
  • What stays the same is the need for a new, high-quality, archival original that is faithful to the film and that can be used to make other copies in the future. Of course, that “new original” needs to be digital, but it also needs to be made with special care so it captures as much of the film’s detail and nuance as possible to allow the original film to be put back into the vault for safekeeping.

Because we come from the film world and support the motion picture industry, we have the technology, the background and the expertise to provide that special care.

Q: Digital technology is evolving so rapidly, shouldn’t I wait to make the digital scan?

Tim: An important part of the digital dilemma is the realization that as digital evolves, archival film continues to deteriorate. Waiting may be an irreversibly poor decision. You could find yourself making a marginally-better digital scan of a vastly worse-quality film.

We have both the technical capability in our scanner and the pedigree in our people to capture the detail that’s in the film today. If the question is, “When is the right time to make the digital archival copy?”, we’d argue that the time is now. Not just for the quality of the scanning technology currently available, but for business reasons.

Consider that even though there may be lists or logs of scenes on the stored cans of films, we’d venture to guess that no one knows their details. The only way to fully know and to begin to recover the value they have as assets is to make them accessible for viewing and sharing or potential licensing and use by others. The best and easiest way to do that is on a digital disk. The sooner the film is scanned, the sooner archivists know exactly what they have.

Q: Have you found that different archivists have different needs?

Tim: Yes. Depending on the facility where they work and the goals of the organization.  Preserving a cultural heritage, accessibility and monetization goals can drive varying methodologies and service needs.

  • Some view their archives as assets to be monetized; others see their libraries as part of a cultural heritage to be maintained.
  • Some archivists are technically knowledgeable, others are not.
  • Some facilities have in-house scanning capability, others do not.

Archivists may come from a different starting point, but in the end, they have a common set of needs: How to preserve and protect what they have, while also making it useful for the future. It’s that third aspect—making everything useful—that’s the most exciting and challenging part of their job and ours.

That’s where LAC Group can provide a total solution, which means the right mix of high quality digital files in the right formats, responsive services, appropriate education, reasonable turn-around time and protection of materials, all at a competitive cost. And we’ve found that we’re helpful even to the most capable archivists because of the attention to detail that we provide.   

LAC film inspection

Q: Has digital scanning become a commodity?

Tim: If the film is in good condition and if the goal is simply to get it into digital form, a number of providers can do that. But film is organic. Over time it can shrink, become brittle, end up with torn perfs and broken splices and numerous other problems.

In our experience with different archives, we’ve found that up to 20-25% of the collection is either somewhat or greatly deteriorated. And when parts of a film are shrunk to a different degree, that can add further complications. Put one of those in a scanner with a sprocket drive or a stress-inducing film path, and you can do even more damage to an already-distressed film. That’s why we have a Lasergraphics Director 10K scanner that’s sprocketless and extremely steady, so we can scan films that others can’t.

Even if the original is in good condition, it should only be run through a scanner once, at the highest quality, so the digital archival copy that’s generated can be used to make all subsequent viewing copies.

Our philosophy is to do it right the first time, and it won’t have to be done again.

Q: How important are the people involved in the digital process?

Tim: The scanner is the brains of our process, but knowledgeable, trained operators are the heart. We’re not a transfer mill. Our role is not just to load film or tape and deliver digital media; we consider ourselves to be members of the archiving team, to care as much about their materials as they do. That’s why we always offer to do a test. We ask for a few hundred feet of their typical film; usually they send us their worst stuff, and are so amazed at how good it looks that all our customer tests end with us getting the work.

Q: Typically, what do you receive and what do you provide?

Tim: We have the ability to scan all formats—35mm, 16mm, and Super 16mm.  When we finish, we provide files with up to 10K resolution with simultaneous output of image and soundtrack to DPX Masters and also provide mezzanine files in the formats the customer needs. We also offer post-scanning digital file-cleaning to transparently remove digital artifacts.  The files can be delivered on portable drives, hard media such as LTO tapes or Blu-Rays, or directly to a cloud provider via our secure Fiber network.

Q: What about pricing?

Tim: We’re really selling a package customized for what customers have and what they need. We always start with an understanding of goals and needs, which always involves a discussion of different options. All include high-quality scanning and an uncompressed file on a hard drive, but beyond that, variables that can affect pricing include the format of the original, the frame rate, output resolution, amount of hand-work like cleaning, staple removal and re-splicing, the number of different file formats, and so forth. We’re much less concerned with how many feet we scan than we are with the quality of service we provide. We always include a written estimate of the services we provide, so there’s no surprises, and our prices are competitive. So far, our clients have been happy to continue to send their work to us.

Q: Since work is done on your premises, customers need to send their materials to you. How reliable is that?

Tim: We understand and appreciate that some archives have a policy of never sending their originals offsite. But the major shippers have very reliable and proven shipping processes in place, with sophisticated tracking systems. We regularly receive and return work across the country with no problems.

Once the materials are on site, we have systems in place to monitor and protect them physically and to maintain the confidentiality of their content and their owners. We keep our customers informed, knowing we’ve been entrusted with valuable materials, and we do everything we can to maintain that trust.

Q: What footage have you worked with and what customer experiences have you had?

Tim: We serve a diverse clientele, including Hollywood’s leading motion picture film studios, Fortune 500 corporations, content streaming services, major broadcasters, federal government agencies, museums, university library systems and public and private archives of all kinds. No matter how large or small, when we take you on as a client, we become your archiving partner and team member, treating all materials with care and attention.

LAC expert inspects film

Q: What are the key issues archivists face in the digital arena?

Tim: The intersection of old and new means change, and change presents challenges and issues in any process. The process of taking invaluable, preserved assets and making them usable, viewable and accessible is the challenge and all the while this has to be done in a climate controlled, clean and secure environment for film or tape originals.

Issues such as resolution, file formats, storage media and storage conditions all impact the process and should be tied to the predetermined goals of the project and the archive overall.  

There’s a great cross-section of archivists, but in all cases, technology is painting them into a corner. Sooner or later, they need to get their assets in usable, viewable, accessible form. For that to happen, they need to understand their options. Today they may require a high-quality master, but migration will be important in the future, and the right provider should be able to help them with both.

Also, I believe an increasingly important challenge for archivists will be to get beyond subsidies, to more fully market the content they have in their archives in order to be self-supporting. That will require viewing copies in different formats.

Q: Why should an archivist or collection owner choose LAC Group?

Tim: We help minimize and eliminate the challenges and the issues outlined above.  Our experience gained over the past 25 years is unparalleled. Our people, our tools and our facilities set the bar for the content managed services industry.  In the end, it’s not just about technology, it’s about responsiveness, trust and exemplary customer service delivered by a company who cares as much about the content as the archivists and collection owners themselves.

If you would like more information or have any inquiries about LAC Group’s content & archiving services please contact me.

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp

Tim Knapp is EVP of Media & Archive services at LAC Group. He brings more than 30 years of experience in motion and still imaging – first in film, and most recently in digital. Tim has an extensive and wide-ranging understanding of the capabilities and challenges of film and video, including the issues and opportunities it presents for archivists as they face aging media libraries and an increasingly digital future.

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