Cleaning, Remastering and Restoration

A Review of the Issues

As it became apparent that older videotapes were deteriorating and becoming difficult to play, concerned people in the media arts field started investigating cleaning and re-mastering; early experimenters included Bob Harris at Anthology Film Archives, Tony Conrad at Media Study/Buffalo, Ralph Hocking at the Experimental Television Center, videomaker David Schulman, and staff at Electronic Arts Intermix. See Further Reading for related articles.
There is considerable discussion surrounding methods of cleaning, particularly in relation to open reel tapes. It's accurate to say that methods of cleaning are still evolving. Scraping with a blade, wiping, vacuuming, baking are all methods that are used to clean open reel tapes, depending on the problem. There is much debate within the field about the advantages and disadvantages of each method.

It's important to remember that not all tapes need to be cleaned, and the method of cleaning will depend upon the problem. For cassette tapes, there are cleaning machines, called RTI machines, which are readily available. If you plan to tackle the cleaning yourself, do some research, so you can diagnose the problem and treat it accordingly. The Bay Area Video Coalition  is a good source for non-proprietary information on cleaning methods; if you are using a vendor, inquire as to inspection and evaluation procedures, how they conclude that cleaning is needed and which cleaning methods they use.

Choosing a Format
Which format will you choose when you transfer your old tapes? Many people are now recommending transfer to an uncompressed digital format such as D-2 and an analog format such as Betacam SP. There are a number of reasons for this. From a preservation perspective you want to preserve all of the information with as few changes as possible. A compressed format means a loss of information, and thus a change in the original work. For artists invested in the unique characteristics of analog imaging, the transfer to digital format may cause unacceptable changes in the original images. On the other hand, if you are concerned primarily with the content of a tape, you may accept an alteration in the image because your priority is access to the information - both through traditional and online means.

Another issue you need to consider when choosing a preservation format is the likelihood that the format itself will survive in the marketplace and remain in use for a prolonged period. Because built-in obsolescence is a factor in manufacturing and marketing, not all hardware has an equally likely chance of long-term survival. It can be expensive to have to again transfer tapes to a different format because they exist on a format that is no longer being made or supported by the industry. Betacam SP is a preferred analog choice; because it is so widely used in the broadcast industry, the format is unlikely to be discontinued. This means that repair and replacement of equipment are likely to be available later.

You also need to analyze the format in relation to the kinds of equipment you have. What hardware are you currently using to offer access to screen or study works, to distribute, or to broadcast? Ideally you will make two preservation masters, each one stored in different locations; these would not be touched except to create new sub-masters. Viewing dubs would be made from the sub-masters, and it is these tapes that are actually used. However, this is often not possible for an organization, so you need to consider what hardware you have available in your institution or region.

Talk with people who have had tapes cleaned or re-mastered to get their recommendations on facilities. Ask whether they have done the work in-house, used a non-profit production facility like the Bay Area Video Coalition  or a commercial house like VidiPax. Electronic Arts Intermix  has a strong preservation program that began in the 1980s and can share their experience and decision-making process.

You might want to consider saving your hardware and software, whether it works or not. If you decide to do this, you should also save manuals, schematics, and training materials, as well as contact information for engineers and inventors who have worked on older equipment.

"Reel to Real: A Case Study of BAVC's Remastering Facility", by Luke Hones, edited by Sherry Miller Hocking and Monda Jimenez, is available in the Preservation area of the Experimental Television Center's Video History site.

Many businesses that do re-mastering now describe themselves as also doing inspection and evaluation, cleaning, restoration, re-mastering and sometimes audio or video "correction "or "enhancement". See "Preservation Terms" . Some businesses focus more on disaster recovery from fires, floods and the like, while others are best equipped for routine problems such as dirt, humidity and drop-out. Some perform both in-house cleaning and re-mastering, but others may send one of those tasks to another facility. Be sure to ask for and check references, and inquire about their processes.

Non-profit Centers

Bay Area Video Coalition
BAVC is the nation's largest nonprofit media arts center dedicated to providing access to media, education, and technology. BAVC has been instrumental on many fronts with video preservation, but one for which it is best known is the establishment of the first professionally equipped, non-profit preservation center.

Video treatment services include cleaning and re-mastering. Capable of re-mastering AV and CV 1/2" to Betacam SP and consumer formats. V tape is a non-profit media arts center that distributes and exhibits video art and independent documentaries, and provides access to video preservation services. Members include video artists, video centers, art galleries, museums and researchers. V tape also provides in-person consultation on related issues.

Commercial Facilities

The companies appearing below are listed in the Magnetic Media Preservation Sourcebook, available from Media Alliance Inclusion on this list does not imply an endorsement of the facility. This is not a complete listing. Descriptions of services can be found at the organization's website or in the Sourcebook.

Video and Audio
Roland House

Obsolete Tape Transfer Division of RGB Broadcast Corp. Philadelphia, PA
DC Video Post
WRS Motion Picture & Video Laboratory
Specs Brothers
Film Technology Company, Inc.

Chace Productions
Adrian Cosentini
NT Audio Video Film Labs
Richard Hess, Audio Preservation
Smolian Sound Preservation

Further Reading

Boyle, Deirdre. Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past. New York, NY: Media Alliance, 1993. Extensive bibliography, and anecdotal information about early experiments with in the media arts field.

Conrad, Tony, "Open Reel Videotape Restoration," The Independent, October 1987.

Feist, Rick. "What the Manual Didn't Tell You: Film/Tape Image Conversion." The Independent, vol. 15, no.1 (January/February 1992).

Fifer, Sally Jo, Tamara Gould, Luke Hones, Debbie Hess Norris, Paige Ramey and Karen Weiner (eds.), PLAYBACK: A Preservation Primer for Video,  San Francisco, CA: Bay Area Video Coalition, 1998. See chapters "Video Analysis and Evaluation" and "Maintaining Technology-based Installation Art", both by Mark Roosa; also "Toward and Institutional Policy for Re-mastering and Conservation of Art on Videotape at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art."

Kesse, Erich. Archival Copies of Video Tapes  University of Florida, George A. Smathers Libraries, n.d.
A description of their procedures for caring for their tapes, including deciding when, what and how to re-master.

Lindner, Jim. Confessions of a Videotape Restorer or How Come These Tapes All Need to be Cleaned Differently?  N.d.

Murphy, William T. Television and Video Preservation 1997,  Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1997. See the chapter "The Materials and their Preservation Needs" for a discussion of cleaning and re-mastering techniques. You may also order it from the Library of Congress.

Shulman, David, "Deja View: Restoring and Re-mastering Open-Reel Videotapes," The Independent, October 1991.