Recently I had to copy a film from an outdated format to DVD, and it reminded me of the dilemma facilities face when archiving media. It's a common problem in outfits that have a library of existing material on older analog formats. In the past decade I've used 1", 3/4", 8 mm, and Hi-8, all of which are no longer supported by any manufacturer. In addition, all of the VHS (S-VHS, VHS-C, and VHS) formats look like they will be entering that category rather quickly. Nowadays there are very few people who choose to lay off to VHS instead of DVD. Analog formats in general are going by the wayside, but that doesn't mean the legacy content stored in these formats isn't valuable, and we need to find the best method for preserving this existing footage.
It's especially challenging at an academic or research institution where material remains relevant for many years. Academic video may remain relevant as educational material or for historic and/or documentation purposes.
So what's a production facility to do when it needs to archive from an older format (pick any of the five mentioned above) into a format that will be around for a while? Anthony Burokas touched on this in his June column, In Defense of Tape. It would be great if we could pick any format, preserve the footage that we wanted to keep, and presume that it would be usable for years to come. But this would be foolhardy.
Through the years, I've acquired quite a collection of media and devices that are virtually unusable or unreadable in today's computer environment. EZQuest drives, Jaz and Zip disks, and DLTs are all gathering dust in my office. Five years ago, any of these formats would have seemed an acceptable way to digitally archive your media. But today, the drives that read them are increasingly scarce.
Even archiving to hard drive storage is loaded with challenges. Which codec should you use? How should it be stored—removable HD or large-array? Assuming that you are able to answer the first two questions confidently, you are still left with the reality that you will probably need to migrate your material to newer technology every 4-6 years. Economics starts to become a real consideration.
Burokas's suggestion of using DV tape is still probably the best and most prudent approach. But as we've seen with magnetic tapes, their lifespans are getting shorter every year. Which tape format is best? By "best" I am not necessarily referring to the highest quality, the largest capacity, or the most widely used, but rather asking what format will have the longest life span as an archiving medium. The answer to that question requires the foresight to know which manufacturers are going to be making decks 10-20 years from now. Where's a crystal ball when you need one? When you're thinking about archiving a video collection of thousands of tapes, you'll naturally want to maximize every year of usage that you can when you convert to a new format.
You're assuming some risk with any decision that you make when it comes to preserving footage for future use. At this time, it might seem inconceivable that DV tape wouldn't be around in 10-15 years. Thus DV tape would seem a strong choice for long-term archiving.
A second choice would be DVDs. Opinions vary on the robustness of the format, but you can get access to the material again with some additional software as long as you have a player or read-drive handy. For more information on this option, see my review of Miraizon Cinematize 2.0.
Not surprisingly, there are some potential pitfalls. Even though the DVD format was the most quickly accepted technology in consumer history, it is already starting to show its age. Most of the "mega-manufacturers" are getting out of the production business in part because the profit margin for DVD players has dwindled considerably. Additionally, as HD displays become more popular in the home setting, Blu-ray or HD DVD players will be in the majority of homes within the next 5-8 years; these are all supposed to support DVD playback, but if you think DVD player manufacturers have done a poor job of ensuring playback with the full range of recordable DVD brands, imagine how low that task ranks on the agendas of Blu-ray and HD DVD manufacturers. If time is not of the essence, it might be worthwhile to wait for one of the next-generation DVD formats to emerge and then make your decisions regarding your choice of archiving format. You'll have a lot more capacity waiting for you if you do.
This dilemma is somewhat less pressing with smaller collections of videotape. An event producer or small, independent company will probably lose less sleep when confronting this issue. In this scenario, if a particular format change doesn't fit the company's needs, they are less deeply committed to the change and can presumably be more flexible about changing to a more compatible format.
Even the most forward-looking techno-gurus among us could be found drawing straws to try and guess which path is best, as we have all seen good technologies fail and bad ones succeed. As technology and formats evolve, so will your video archiving options. The most important decision is not which format you choose, but rather how you implement it and what migration path you will have in place as technology progresses.