Tape is King at DC Video

 David crosthwait and the crew at dc video.

David crosthwait and the crew at dc video.

DC Video provides high quality video migration services to the television industry as well as to the general public, recovering television programming that exists on older, obsolete broadcast and consumer videotape formats, and transferring them to more modern digital or analog tapes and computer file formats. We sat spoke with DC Video owner David Crosthwait about his work and critical process of preserving aging tape-based media.

Your service is quite specialized. What is your background?
Experience in the field of broadcast television and post-production is essential. It really lays the foundation for understanding why procedures and standards are so important. I am now in my forty-second year in the post-production industry. But my time working with videotape goes back even further into my high school days in Texas. Over those many years, I’ve developed a respect for what it takes to produce and edit a television production, even with the tools of the trade changing every few years. I grew up with all of these different video formats which really helps to decipher technical challenges with a particular recording or set of recordings. In my case, I remember how good many of these television broadcasts looked when they first aired. It's our goal to make the restored media appear like it is a ‘live’ production. We just want to get the job done right.

It seems like tape preservation gets less attention within the archival community than film preservation. Do you agree?
There seems to be a prevailing thought that film is king and only film should be elevated to a restoration status. It would be better for the archival community to understand that videotape preservation is just as important as film preservation. They both hold equal value. It's not whether it's on film or tape that's important. It's the content itself that should be properly recognized and preserved.

What kinds of clients do you typically serve? Do you work with a lot of stock footage archives?
Basically our customers are anyone or any organization who has material on one of the obsolete videotape formats but needs this material accessible on a more modern-day platform. This includes TV networks, producers, independent content owners, university archives, individuals, research companies, clip licensing firms, international organizations and many more.  

What media formats are most at risk?
Any and all material that has been neglected and/or exposed to harsh storage conditions is the most at risk. Long-obsoleted formats such as Panasonic MII and some esoteric digital tape formats are at the highest risk level also. There are many two-inch Quad recordings and one-inch recordings on unstable stock including the notorious 3M foam flange. The best chance of recovery for each of these formats is to store them in a climate-controlled environment at the industry recommend temperature and humidity levels. But procrastination will do no good. Transfer them very soon if not now or else the technology to recover these old tapes may be forever lost. Also, the older media is only going to deteriorate over time. It will never get better or ‘self heal.’ Now is the time to transfer old tape to new media.

Which is a bigger problem, deteriorating media or obsolete formats? 
They are both of the same problem level. As noted, damaged and deteriorating media can be very challenging to recover. But at the same time, very rare machine formats require unique parts, which in some cases have not been made for 40+ years. 

Walk us through a typical project. How do you get started? Is there an assessment process? What does the client get back in the end? What is the end result?
Generally speaking, with new clients, we will discuss their needs by phone or email to get a sense of how the material appears to them physically and how it has been stored. Once we have the videotape on site at our facility, it goes through a physical inspection process first, then we use preparation routines developed in-house. The tape is then transferred with 100% attention to audio and video quality in a controlled environment. It is in this step that we will judge technical quality, making the determinations such as ‘Is this the optimum it can look and sound?’ Since we know that we have best-in-class equipment, we’re confident that the end result is a superior product. And it would suffice to say that most of the material that is undergoing a modern-day transfer and A to D process in our facility is going to look and sound better than it ever did before when one considers the limitations of the analog broadcast and the analog television sets the public watched these shows on when they originally aired.

Do clients typically want to migrate to a fixed media or go digital?
Approximately 50% of our deliveries are on broadcast quality digital videotape and 50% are on digital files on hard drives.

How big is a typical project? 
It varies. It could be a single item of extremely rare material to hundreds of tapes. We've seen it all.

Can you provide some examples of really tricky projects? Why are they challenging? What is the hardest format to work with?
Due to NDA's, I can't name specific projects, but any tapes damaged by neglect are the most time consuming and have the most wear and tear on a machine. Additionally, some physically edited tapes, such as spliced videotape programs take what amounts to open heart surgery to transfer and to recover frame by frame. 

Click here for some examples of DC Video's recent work. 

What are some of the key tools for doing this work?
It really depends on the project. In other words, we are fully equipped to handle most every videotape migration project that is handed to us. We have Mac Towers, Final Cut Pro, Bosch-Fernseh B format VTR's, third-generation Ampex 2" Quad tape machines including the Cadillac: The Ampex AVR-1, Sony EIAJ and CV, 1", U-matic, D1, D2, Digital Betacam, DV Cam, Hi 8 and Digi 8 VTR'S plus Panasonic D3, D5, DVC Pro and MII machines just to name a few. We have time-base correctors, video noise reducers, standards convertors and up-convertors to convert SD original to HD, as well. 

Click here for a complete list of the obsolete videotape formats DC Video can handle.

What is the typical timeframe for a migration?
It depends on the project. Some tapes can play right out of the box while others need special preparation before recovery. Ultimately, the complexity of a project underway dictates what the turnaround time will be for new arrivals. In other words, first come first served.

I am assuming this kind of work is not cheap. Can you give us a sense of a typical budget for a migration? 
Our pricing is based on client needs and is not published anywhere. We urge those with media to migrate or reformat to contact us to discuss what they have and what they need to go to. We welcome both large and small projects.

For a really big project, do you think an archive can recover the investment?
Our job is not to determine the value of content but rather to obtain the best quality possible so that the content owner can maximize their assets. In our opinion, it's up to the content owner to market their media in the fashion that best fits their organization's goals. We provide reformatted media that meets or exceeds their expectations.

Can you handle multiple projects at once?
Yes we can handle multiple projects depending on the machine usage within a specific job. We have multiple bays and a duplicity of hardware so that all workflows can be efficiently accommodated.

Is all the work done on site?
Yes.

Can you do a project at a client’s facility?
No.

What is the gold standard for a migration project? Are there clients who want both a fixed media migration and a digital file?
Every client has a different need. Digital Betacam is certainly still a major player for SD archiving while Apple ProRes is the most popular codec. 10-bit uncompressed is considered the highest quality in SD work. Some clients wish for their media to be migrated to both digital videotape and to digital file. This could include multiple hard drives sent to different locations to protect the newly created assets against calamities. Some clients who are working in a 1080p 23.98 project want their archival SD material to be up-converted to HD. This can be accomplished and has been done so many times within our facility.

Anything else you want to add?
I'm thankful for each and every one of our clients over the years. We will continue our work within the archival community preserving, migrating and reformatting our magnetic media heritage.