The art and science of descriptive metadata

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Digital cataloging with solid metadata is a vital part of the film preservation and archiving process.

The larger the collection size, the more critical this process becomes—yet often it’s overlooked and undervalued by collection owners.

For those of you not quite familiar with metadata, it’s defined as data that describes data. Metadata are the underlying summaries of basic information needed for easy identification and discovery throughout the content’s lifecycle.

Even if you have limited knowledge of the art and science of metadata, it’s become part of daily life for most of us:

  • Spotify, Amazon and numerous other ecommerce sites and services use metadata for recommendations based on your interests.
  • Wikipedia and Google’s Knowledge Graph rely on metadata for enhanced search and other information management and sharing capabilities.
  • You create metadata whenever you “like” something or create friend lists in Facebook and participate in other social media networks.

Without metadata, our ability to find and use content or maintain an accurate record of it would be impossible in the digital world.

Metadata types

Metadata are used to describe structure and facilitate administrative tasks:

  • Descriptive metadata are used to describe various aspects. For media assets, like a moving or still film image, they describe the content the item contains.
  • Administrative metadata are used for management purposes, such as preservation policies and copyright and other IP information.
  • Structural metadata are used to define relationships in compound objects, such as how pages are ordered into chapters.
  • Markup languages integrate metadata and content for additional structural or semantic understanding.

The science of metadata

metadata-stock-imageThe purpose of metadata is to bring order to content – but what about bringing order to metadata? That’s where metadata standards come into play. Without a cohesive, common structure, metadata would be useless to anybody outside the original intentions and development.

A number of metadata standards have been created over the years for the wide range of content formats and types. For example, AES (Audio Engineering Society) Core Audio defines standards for audio objects. DACS (Describing Archives Content Standard) was developed by the Society of American Archivists, primarily for personal papers and institutional records. The Library of Congress has developed and maintains metadata standards for digital libraries of all kinds.

As providers to the motion picture and entertainment industry, the metadata standards we have become very familiar with at PRO-TEK are the standards used in the stock image industry. Getty Images, for example, has twelve fields in the metadata schema as part of their overall image submission requirements.

In addition, many major motion picture studios and other large collection holders develop and maintain their own metadata standards. The number of fields in the metadata schema are variable and can be determined by a few factors, like the software used to house the data and the intended use of the image.

The science behind metadata standards involves coding and highly structured information management principles. But what runs under the hood is not as important to collection owners. For them, it’s what users see and how easy it is to find what they need. That aspect of metadata requires human understanding of the content.

The art of metadata

metadata-film-artSkilled human intervention is a necessity in defining descriptive metadata. One of the reasons the motion picture film industry chooses PRO-TEK is because of our extensive knowledge of cinematic history. We are able to identify people, places, locations and background context of media assets, including situations that were an unknown puzzle to the collection owners themselves.

For example, while working on a nitrate negative, we recognized the image of Jackie Coogan, one of the first and biggest child stars of the 1920’s. But the man standing next to him was a mystery, until one of our technicians and film historians identified the man as director / producer / composer / screenwriter Victor Schertzinger, who had produced both of Jackie’s Metro pictures.

Descriptive metadata for creative works also includes information like the work’s title, the name of the author or creator and the date it was created.

Other descriptive metadata for motion pictures:

Genre – There are several categories for movie genre, such as Action, Children’s, Comedy, Documentary and Thriller.

Rating – The ratings category, which includes the familiar US film ratings of G, PG, R and so on, has become quite complex. International differences apply across countries, as well as media differences for television, film, videogames and so on.

For a sense of just how large this one category has become, and how complex metadata can be, view the Content Rating Encoding summary on the MovieLabs website. (MovieLabs is a jointly run tech lab that enables digital distribution for the entertainment industry.)

Cross-Platform Extras – CPEs are a new standard for digital media, used for features like dynamic content, viewer interaction and social engagement.

As a professional film preservation and archiving business, we often talk about our specialized vaults, holding hundreds of thousands of reels of 35mm and 70mm film for collections large and small, commercial and industrial. Yet another valuable service we provide is cataloging, applying accepted metadata standards and comprehensive descriptions. At PRO-TEK, we follow whatever descriptive metadata standards our clients prefer, or we can offer guidance based on the content owner’s goals and requirements.

Without metadata, those media collections would be well-preserved but not easily accessible for whatever purpose the content owner has in mind.

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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