Background on the BAVC Model


The trouble with videotape

From the moment of its manufacture, videotape begins to break down. Videotape is composed of magnetic particles applied with a binder to a polyester strip. The tape is stable only as long as the binder performs well. Manufacturers have never guaranteed tape stability for more than a decade.

Tape is only stable for a short while and is subject to harsh treatment during use. It is dragged through a tape path, across a spinning head, and wound around a spool. Depending on the maintenance of the tape machine, videotape often ends up with crinkles, creases, stretches or tears.

There are additional dangers. Videotape attracts debris, such as air-borne dust. Good storage practices are essential to maximize "shelf life." Caretakers must be concerned about humidity, temperature, storage medium, storage orientation, proximity of magnetic equipment (such as stereo speakers) and other materials.

Finally, the information on videotape can be retrieved - seen and heard - only through the use of the right playback machine and equipment. This equipment must be well maintained by a maintenance engineer. Yet video equipment is continually becoming obsolete. If videotape has been recorded in a format that has not been used for several years, working equipment and equipment replacement parts will be difficult to find. Compounding the problem, as video technology changes, it is a rare technician or engineer who will work with or repair equipment that is not "state-of-the-art."

In 1992 BAVC faced these problems - deteriorating videotape, no equipment, no parts, no technicians, and no engineers - as we considered remastering 1/2" open reel videotapes. At the time, I was the Director of Research and Development at BAVC, and Sally Jo Fifer was the Executive Director. The commercial vendors who performed the work and our technical consultants all outlined these problems.. And this picture has proved to be very accurate.

Despite these warnings, BAVC began to remaster obsolete tape formats, specifically "skip field" and EIAJ 1/2" open reel, in 1994. From the beginning it has been the intent of BAVC and many in the media arts field that the remastering work BAVC does, and the vision of the remastering work that can be done, would be shared by a broader pool of organizations and technicians. This paper serves as a first step to make good on this promise.

BAVC rises to the challenge

Why then did BAVC move forward with researching and developing a video remastering program, a seemingly impossible task? There were four important reasons for BAVC.

  • First, the need in the media arts and independent video community was tangible. Steve Gong from Pacific Film Archives raised the idea of remastering to BAVC at the 1992 meeting of the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture (NAMAC) in Portland, Oregon. This was shortly after a 1991 symposium on video preservation held at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, organized by Media Alliance in partnership with the Electronic Media and Film Program of the New York State Council on the Arts.

The need for action was clear from our conversations with Steve, and reinforced by Deirdre Boyle's article on the symposium "Video Preservation: Insuring the Future of the Past" (The Independent, 1991). You can read the article in the Resources>Written Word>Bibliography section of the Video History site. It was clear that significant artworks and documents concerning art history were on 1/2" open reel and were largely unavailable. In 1993, the symposium and its findings were later documented by Deirdre in the monograph Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past published by Media Alliance.

There were a number of other articles from within the media arts community, some of which I was unaware at the time. Historically significant articles related to video preservation are published on the Video History Project web site, a project of the Experimental Television Center. See the sections Tools - Texts and People - Texts

  • Second, traditional moving image preservation professionals seemed to consider videotape a lower priority than film. In the early 1990s film preservation, was concentrated on Hollywood classics. The positive marketing of film preservation had also succeeded in increasing general public awareness of the need for saving films and of the organizations doing this work. The publicity and awareness of need had begun to trickle down to avant-garde or experimental film.

Independent media and video art were largely ignored, as were commercial and public television programming. . With the exception of the Pacific Film Archives, preservation organizations expressed little interest in restoring video; the video that interested BAVC and the media arts community was even more marginalized.

Despite the culturally significant role of electronic media in the last quarter of the 20th Century, video and sound recordings are often considered "throw-away" documents. Even in news gathering organizations, tapes are often recycled, with new news recorded over old news. We know that history is constructed by what historians can piece together from the documentation that survives. Through remastering services, BAVC and other media arts groups will keep a window open on the people, actions and discussions from particular places and times in the previous century.

  • Third, it wasn't clear whether any other media organization aside from BAVC intended to offer a remastering program. There were valid debates in the archival and media arts communities about cleaning techniques and preservation formats, and these debates were taking center stage. Because of the expense involved in any serious effort at remastering, it was a risky endeavor to begin a program without a resolution of these issues. However, at BAVC we thought we had the advantage of being outsiders to the debate. The organization also had technical proficiency, and a tendency to take risks when needed.
  • Fourth, it was felt that the remastering program would enhance BAVC's image as a technology leader. We felt that if BAVC could develop a remastering program that could be run efficiently and meet the highest standards, we could provide a needed service for the media arts community, provide BAVC with another income stream, and market our efforts to funders.

At the time, BAVC had been in the process of developing a strong facility for several years. BAVC had long term relationships with some of the best maintenance engineers in the Bay Area, and BAVC's equipment was professionally installed and well documented. The facility had a reputation for being a good first stop for technicians interested in working in the high-end video/computer graphics industry.

For foundations and individual donors, BAVC wanted to display the ability to think outside the box. BAVC's idea for the remastering program came at the same time that many arts organizations were exploring program expansion into new technologies such as multimedia and CD-ROM production. BAVC advocated a thoughtful and measured approach to the "technology of the moment", and wanted to emphasize our role as a leader in the field, with a solid understanding of the subtleties of technology development.

BAVC was also approaching new technology manufacturers for support, and defined ourselves as a center that could present their products in the best possible light. We argued that BAVC was a good site for their products not only because of its position as a nonprofit technology center, but also because BAVC had professional staff that was capable of providing leadership on such thorny technology issues as video preservation. We hoped that preservation would be a cornerstone on which we could build a new technology facility.

However, before BAVC began transferring its first tape, we had to address the politics of remastering videotape.

Entering the preservation landscape

I began to call tape manufacturers and remastering specialists to get a sense of best practices. Some were very open about their work; others were concerned about releasing proprietary information. Soon I began to get calls from other professionals in the business curious about BAVC's intentions. In some cases I felt like I was being "warned off," but I always made it clear that BAVC's course was set: we were committed to setting up a 1/2" open reel remastering facility.

An early attempt had been made to call our fledgling center the "National Center for Video Preservation" which created a stir with a national film preservation organization. While there was no evidence that the organization had any interest in physically preserving video, BAVC could not expect funding by initiating a branding war. After Sally discussed the issue with the National Endowment for the Arts, we settled on referring to our center as a model remastering center. The term "model" also allowed us to distinguish BAVC's center from remastering facilities that chose not to share their techniques. We believed that information-sharing was important.

BAVC also wanted to meet with staff from Media Alliance who had encouraged the discussion among facilities on the east coast, to introduce ourselves. While BAVC had the advantage of being somewhat outside preservation debates, we felt we could easily become unwelcome interlopers if we didn't proceed carefully. We met Mona Jimenez of Media Alliance for the first time at an NEA conference in Chicago in 1994. At that point we had done some tests with a borrowed 1/2" open reel machine from the Optic Nerve collective, but it was still a few months before we acquired our first machines, in trade for remastering services.

After meeting with Mona, it was clear BAVC could no longer act independently. Up to that time, BAVC had been a "local" San Francisco media arts center bent on providing services and differentiating itself from Film Arts Foundation and other local media arts centers. BAVC's vision was to capitalize on opportunities to benefit BAVC's growth; we focused on our strengths and pursuing projects where we could be successful. Mona made it clear that if we intended to do the work of remastering, our obligation to the larger field and to media producers would deepen. Our vision would need to go beyond BAVC's bottom line and organizational concerns.

In addition to Media Alliance, BAVC worked to develop relationships with key organizations and individuals such as Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), Video Data Bank, and Arthur Tsuchiya, who at the time was in the Media Arts Program at the NEA. In order to develop a funding and client base, we needed to be represented at meetings of archivists and librarians. We began to attend events organized by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the American Library Association (ALA). We also visited the American Film Institute to connect with the staff working on the National Moving Image Database (NAMID), a cataloging project.

With the basic groundwork in place, BAVC applied for and was awarded a Challenge Grant from the NEA in 1993 to develop the model center. Sections of the original proposal "The National Video Preservation Center - A Brief Overview" is on the Video History site Resources>Groups>Bay Area Video Coalition. At this point, there was no turning back. The NEA challenge was matched in the years following with funds from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the San Francisco Foundation, NAMID and the California Arts Council.

A remastering center emerges

In the fall of 1994 I visited Intermedia Arts  in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a media arts center with an historic regional video collection in need of preservation. Director Tom Borrup took me up to the attic and showed me four 1/2" open reel machines. I loaded them into my car, signed an agreement for BAVC to transfer 100 tapes in exchange for the decks, and drove home to San Francisco. The remastering center's first transfers took place shortly afterwards and were delivered to the Minnesota Historical Society, which houses the collection.

The remastering center was developed over time. In the beginning I tested and set up the basic equipment configuration, heeding any advice I could glean from engineers at Ampex, 3M, Sony and commercial remastering facilities. The first few remastering jobs, in particular the Minnesota Historical Society and the Gay and Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library were not documented, but BAVC's Debra Finucane, Preservation Technician, and Grace Lan, Facility Manager, soon developed the first documentation sheets for remastering projects. Debra and Grace also were instrumental in establishing a standardized administrative workflow, essentially transforming a research center into a business center. The administrative workflow continues to be improved.

Perhaps because of the necessary evolution into a business center, the important work of research and development, evident early in the project, has fallen by the wayside. BAVC has an established remastering process, and has no funding to research, modify or develop other methods. BAVC technicians Jonathan Selsey, Preservation Technician, and Heather Weaver, Senior Staff Editor, see this as a real weakness that must be addressed in any future development of remastering systems.

We had no original technical documentation on hand, so technical development for the facility was done without technical manuals for the tape machines. We relied on two resources in our efforts to set up and maintain the equipment. One was a well illustrated book from that era, Charles Bensinger's Video Guide (Video-Info Publications, 1979.) In his acknowledgements, Bensinger writes: "Video being such a visual subject, it seemed desirable to utilize as much visual material as possible." The illustrations are numerous and give a very complete view of the equipment of that time. Bensinger's description of the 1970s state-of-the-art technology guided my understanding of what I needed to know. The Video Guide substantially cut down on my trial and error.

Another resource was the engineer Ken Zhin of Merlin Engineering of Palo Alto, who I located through Deirdre Boyle's Video Preservation: Securing the Future of the Past. Ken works on both obsolete tape machines and on the tape cleaning machine that BAVC uses, and was very helpful throughout the development of the center. Other key information, as noted below, came from Sharon Grace of the San Francisco Art Institute, and from NASA Publication 1052: Magnetic Recording for the Eighties.

In the beginning we did not know it would require seven years to take this first step. We underestimated the complexity of the challenge of video preservation. During this time, discussions concerning appropriate preservation formats, cataloguing, gatekeeper selection processes and video art documentation dominated, while discussion of remastering took a back seat. Each of these topics is Very complex and full of controversy within the field. Remastering was not emphasized perhaps because 1) it was happening at BAVC and other places; and 2) it is a rhetorical/technical quagmire where every step is open to a prolonged debate.

At the time the remastering center was being developed, electronic communications tools like email and the Web were not widely used. Since t that time, AMIA and Independent Media Arts Preservation (IMAP) have provided important information sharing on preservation issues through their listservs. Video Preservation - The Basics (, part of ETC's Video History site, is another great resource for the media arts community.

However, there is little provocative or new information about remastering. Over the last several years some archives have asked me to help them set up 3/4" U-matic transfer systems, and I've heard from some technicians about small projects they've attempted. However, as far as I know BAVC is the only non-profit in the US doing ongoing work remastering 1/2" open reel.

The following description of BAVC's remastering center - its equipment, system design, some common problems and solutions, and future vision - will be very specific and technical. .
Hopefully, the description will accomplish three important goals:

  • Provide a recipe for creating a video remastering transfer center
  • Identify parts of the process that need further research and development
  • Give others a head start in designing and developing remastering services

I provide this recipe knowing full well that, for some, it will not taste like the "remastering center Mom used to make." Like a recipe, you should use the general idea and develop your own ingredients list and process.

This paper deals primarily with the transfer of 1/2" open reel and early 3/4" U-matic tapes. It assumes basic knowledge on analog production processes and equipment. Sections of the Video History project site, in particular the sections Tools - Texts and People Texts  have numerous articles that provide more information. "Video Preservation: The Basics" has several extensive glossaries of technical terms which will be of use. In addition, there are links to other sites with glossaries. The Preservation Area also has posted numerous historical articles on the subject.