Conversation with Heather Weaver
Bay Area Video Coalition
Heather Weaver

Heather Weaver is an online editor at Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) [], who has worked extensively with the preservation and restoration of obsolete videotape formats-in particular, the widely used and highly vulnerable 1/2" open reel format. This interview was conducted by telephone on February 26, 2006, and revised by e-mail.

Jeff Martin: How long have you been working at BAVC?

Heather Weaver: I've been working here since 1995.

JM: And what kind of background did you have that brought you to working in preservation?

HW: I have a B.A. from Hampshire College, where I studied video. Video history was certainly a component of my studies, so I came in with an interest and a very clear understanding of why independent media is important-both the making of it and the preservation of it. I also came to BAVC with basic post-production skills, which enabled me to pick up online editing quickly.

One of the first major programs I onlined at BAVC was Video Data Bank's - "Surveying the First Decade: Video Art and Alternative Media in the U. S. 1968-1980." The project includes seventeen hours of excerpts of independent video and video art.

I remember that many of the pieces we used had to go through BAVC's remastering services before we could edit from them for the compilation. Working on that project gave me first-hand experience of the trials of working with older tape and a far greater appreciation of why it is important that these works be preserved for the future.

I think that my experience as an online editor working primarily on documentaries gave me skills that I have been able to apply to video preservation and restoration. Because I work mostly on documentaries, much of the footage I work with is either archival or shot with small-format cameras in less than ideal situations. Sometimes the footage has dropout issues, won't play back smoothly, or has color-balance issues. The techniques I use to repair footage for documentaries are the same techniques I use in restoration.

JM: What steps would you advise people to take before they bring tapes into the remastering process?

HW: I suggest that before a large body of tapes is sent, they be visually inspected and logged. The larger the order, the more important it is to create a list so that the lab can confirm that it has received all of the tapes that were sent. If there are many tapes, I have found it is sometimes helpful to assign a temporary number to each tape.

I would include the following information on the list:

  • Tape number (if assigned)
  • Any information found on the tape label
  • Tape format, if known
  • Length of tape or size of reel (for example, 60 min. cassette, large open-reel, etc.)

It is a good idea to look at the tape to make sure that the cassette or reel is not broken. If you notice that something is broken, you can add that information to the list and take special care in packing it.

JM: What kind of information do you use for internal tracking, once you begin the process?

HW: It is very basic. Generally tapes being sent in for preservation cannot be played. Sometimes the person sending in the tapes has very little information. So a number, a format, and whatever the label happens to say-that's all we can really expect.

JM: Generally, are you working alone or in a supervised session with a client?

HW: When we clean and remaster or preserve tapes we usually work alone. Our clients come from all over, and usually they send tapes. The problem with somebody on site is the unknown aspect of how long the process will take. Sometimes it takes days just to clean a tape before it will play. If you're a client, you could be sitting here for days while we try to get your tape to play through even once. So it's a convenience factor for us to work independently. This is especially true with open-reel and older cassette formats such as 3/4". On the other hand, when I am restoring a copy of a work, the client is nearly always with me in the edit suite for at least part of the process.

JM: What kind of information do you give clients before beginning a project so that they understand what can and can't be done?

HW: Basically, in the world of preservation, there just aren't any guarantees. Often we find that a descriptive label on a tape has no relation to the actual content. Sometimes tapes are used multiple times and it may be a surprise to find that a tape contains an off-air television broadcast rather than what it was thought to contain. So somebody may not even know; they think they have one thing, when in fact they have something else.

It is not possible to tell whether a tape will play back properly by looking at it, except in extreme cases, of course-if the tape is literally falling apart in your hands. Even though a tape may appear to be in good condition, there's no way of knowing beforehand, just by looking at it, if it's going to play back, or if that transfer's going to be successful.

Unfortunately, tape is not like film, where you can actually look at it and see what's on it. In that way, it's much more daunting than film. We have found that it isn't even possible to know for sure what format a tape is by looking at the reel or case. Especially with the earliest portable formats, which were created when machines did not record information on the tape in the same way.

JM: Can you take me through the basic steps of your remastering process?

HW: First we create our own internal documentation for each tape to track its progress. Then we carry out a visual inspection of each tape. We look to see if the casing is broken, if there is mold on the tape, how the tape is packed on the reel, etc.

If the casing doesn't need to be repaired, the tapes are cleaned. We always clean tapes before we try to play them because we have found that tapes often will not play all the way through without being cleaned, and it removes dirt and debris that can damage the heads on our playback equipment. We then load the tape and transfer the signal from the obsolete tape onto a modern tape format.

JM: Is there a risk in cleaning tapes or is it always a necessary step?

HW: I believe it's a necessary step. When BAVC first got our cleaning machines, a number of tests were made by running tapes through them over and over again and comparing subsequent transfers. It was determined that the machines did no harm to the tapes. [Note: a copy of Hone's report can be found here, on the website of the Experimental Television Center.

JM: What are some of the problems you might encounter once you begin the playback process?

HW: There are many. Even though a tape appears to have come clean in the cleaning process, there is still a chance that it may not play back in its entirety without clogging the heads on the playback machine. When this happens, the tape may need to be re-cleaned; or baking becomes a possible option.

Some tapes are so unstable that our time-base correctors have a difficult time stabilizing the image. Often we have to try several different time-base correctors to find the best one for the particular tape problem we are encountering.

If a tape was originally recorded on a machine that was not working properly, it is very difficult and sometimes impossible to get that tape to play back on a machine that is working properly. This happens mostly if the video heads were out of alignment when the tape was recorded.

JM: Is there a way to compensate for that poor calibration by adjusting your decks?

HW: We're looking into that. We are hoping to modify a machine so that we can easily alter alignment to match the alignment of the original recording, but it's not available right now.

JM: What's your point of view on how to balance a client's desire to make a tape look really good versus making it true to the original?

HW: Well, there's a difference between remastering and restoration. Preservation is the act of migrating a signal from an obsolete tape onto a modern format in its current condition. We want to migrate the signal to the modern format as it is, so that all relative variances are maintained. This includes the exposure differences, color balance differences, etc. After that's done, you can make a new copy of the work and go in and clean up dirt, debris, dropouts. This would be considered restoration. Restoration is the process of compensating for loss and damage that occurred after the work was created. Some artists also go in and make changes such as adjusting levels or making color balance changes. It is a personal decision to be made by the creator of the work and the owner of the work, and sometimes it is appropriate. It depends on the artist's intent. Generally this type of work is done in stages on separate tapes so that the process is reversible and the original transfer is not altered.

JM: Are there problems you encounter in terms of client misperceptions that would be useful to correct? Things that people expect that you can't fulfill?

HW: We always try to avoid client misperception by thoroughly explaining our process and what can be expected. Clients such as Video Data Bank or EAI obviously have handled quite a bit of older, obsolete tape and they are aware of what older tape looks like when it is played, complete with jumpy in-camera edits, dropout, and occasionally unstable video.

Misperception is more of a challenge with individuals who perhaps have come across an old open-reel tape in their attic or basement and are curious about what's on it, so they send it in. Sometimes they are thrilled to find footage of a family member or something really great, but other times, they can be disappointed to find that the contents of the tape have no relation to the label, or that the tape is so degraded it looks nothing like what they are used to video looking like. We generally can't make a tape look pristine, like new footage.

JM: What format do you recommend now for remastering?

HW: My favorite choice for remastering is still digital Betacam tape. However, we always try to help a client choose a remastering format that will best suit his or her personal needs. There are many digital Betacam decks in the world. The tape does employ compression, but the compression is very mild.

I think it is important to mention that even if a facility decides to remaster to hard drive, it will still need to be migrated in the future as systems change. And some form of compression will likely be involved. There is still no archival medium for video.

JM: Regarding 1/2" open reel: is that the bulk of the remastering work done at BAVC?

HW: Yes, we chose 1/2" open reel because that's what a lot of the early artists used and, probably, from what we see, the most endangered format. Because it's an open reel, the tape is more susceptible than 3/4" to dirt and debris, though we also get 3/4" and VHS preservation as well.

JM: What's your opinion on the risks posed by 3/4" tapes? Can you make generalizations about that?

HW: Because it's within a cassette and because there are more functional 3/4" machines in existence, I'd say it's less of a concern than 1/2" open reel. But 3/4" is definitely dwindling now. I guess it has a few more years than 1/2" open reel but it is still endangered.

JM: Are there steps clients can take to maximize their budgets when planning a remastering project?

HW: Organization and communication are major points. A good question to ask yourself is whether or not someone else has a copy of the same tape that you're interested in preserving. It isn't always necessary for two different archives to remaster the same title. However, it depends on your needs, of course.

JM: Any final thoughts?

HW: One thing that's disturbing is when people think that they can just put their program on a DVD, and that's preservation. We're happy to educate people when that occurs, but it's amazing how many people are unaware of the compression schemes involved and how that affects the image.

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