Note: This presentation was part of a three-person panel entitled “Deciding What to Keep: Archivists as Co-creators of Historical Meanings.”
In the presentation “Preserving the Immaterial: Digital Visual Effects Records and Archiving,” Evanthia Samaras (University of Technology Sydney, Australia) presented some of the findings of a PhD thesis currently underway at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). To begin, Samaras briefly recounts the history of special effects from the visual trickery of early film to the multimillion-dollar industry that it constitutes today.
At the end of this historic walk-through, Samaras then stresses the discrepancy between the movie industry’s ever increasing investment in visual effects (now on average 20-25% of movie budgets are devoted to them) and the absolute lack of standards for archiving effects which constitute such an expensive part of the commercial movie production business. Today, as with so many fields of digital preservation, this archival effort needs to go beyond the pure data set: when software moves on, certain digital effects cannot be reproduced in the new system. These software transitions pose particular challenges to projects and companies which seek to re-release movies laden with special effects (for example through release of a blu-ray version).
The second part of Samaras’ presentation highlights the question why digital effect records are usually missing from movie industry related collections. Visual effects generate a large data footprint (the digital archive of the 2019 Spiderman took up 300 TB, for example), which makes their storage and preservation financially challenging. Most likely, companies which produce movies mainly to boost profits from showings in theaters do not see that the value of an archival effort would offset the costs. With the increase in remastering old TV shows and releasing straight-to-digital video productions, however, these records became treasured assets.
While it is hard to ascertain the state of current record keeping practices in what is a very private and protective film industry, there are at least some indicators that various studios are making some efforts to archive complex special effects movie imagery. Apart from the monetary reasons, Samaras also identifies the very nature of the digital effects records as one of the reasons for their archival neglect. The appeal of the archive is still a physical one, according to Samaras, where it is the material record that creates the archival experience and generates excitement and engagement. The immateriality of digital effects records naturally lacks this physical appeal but part of the blame for this general unawareness lies with the movie productions themselves: credits frequently gloss over contributions of special effect crews, thus rendering their artistic work even more invisible. In the wider intellectual community, special effects are also often charged with the ‘death of the plot’ and it is this ‘bad rep’ that might also add to the unwillingness to treasure them archivally.
Samaras concludes by drawing the consequences of this not-so-benign neglect and the lack of standards in unambiguous terms: “Yet the longer we wait, the more likely the records will become unreadable and inaccessible.”
Dr. Sebastian Modrow
Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries