The Blind Leading the Blind: One Man’s Journey in Film Preservation

By Mary Kate McConahay

I had the opportunity to speak with David Walsh recently about his thoughts on film preservation. This was a wonderful chat. David has had a 40 plus year career working in film preservation. He started his career at the Imperial War Museum, a British institution dedicated to preserving the experiences of nations and people in conflicts. The large mission of the archive is matched by its collections, which consist of over 25,000 hours of moving image material. Progressing through the ranks, David became the Head of Preservation in the 1990s and then transitioned to the Head of Digital Collections in 2012. Additionally, David was asked to become a member of the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) Technical Commission in 2006. Excelling in the organization, David has since become their Training and Outreach Coordinator. He is truly a star.  

Here is a bit of background about David. He started working for the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in 1975, putting his master’s degree in chemistry to work as he joined a project to study the decomposition of cellulose nitrate film. He stayed on at the IWM, gaining greater experience in film preservation. At the time, film preservation was still relatively new, and many best practices had not been established yet. According to David, “I had to be self-taught. I did courses with Kodak and individuals, although I didn’t have any formal training. I had to do it all myself.” With that came a lot of learning from past mistakes. The process involved trial and error, often reversing what was considered best practices due to later-realized problems. He shared a story about his early years working at the IWM as he and his boss came across a film that was coming up for its turn in their preservation program:

It was a training film made for the Royal Air Force RAF in the late 1930s, before the war started. We had the original negatives and the original soundtracks of three or four reels. But the soundtrack of one of the reels had started to decompose at the front. I remember the fun of my boss, who had absolutely no clue, trying to work out what to do about this. Although the film had gone sticky, the soundtrack along the edge was perfectly readable. It’s just the rest of the area of the film had gone all tacky and had yellow sticky blocks so it wouldn’t run through the printer very well. He had managed to get it on the film projector and make a copy of the sound. Which we then used to make a new optical negative; which we then used to splice on the original after the damage had gone past. It was a fascinating process, but the results were terrible. In later years, I realized what a daft exercise that was! It was the blind leading the blind, but with the right intentions. From that point on, I began to understand how to do these things properly.

As he continued his work in the film and video archives of the IWM, David encountered interesting challenges concerning the technology for film and digitization:

First of all, the film technology itself, and it turned out to be a huge subject. And I’m always surprised by the number of things we discovered in the vaults. We didn’t know quite what it was or how it worked. It was very often the case ‘ooh I’ve never seen that before,’ and [that] this had been something that [had] been used at some point in film production- at some point that enjoyed a little bit of success and had gone out of favor. There are always surprises in film stores. That remains a big issue. Particularly people who think they can digitize their entire collection. You think, ‘We’ve got a big collection and it’s quite well documented, let’s digitize it.’ Within a moment of starting, you run into the first can, and [when] you open [it] you think: ‘whoa, what is that,’ ‘how does that work,’ ‘I don’t understand how this fit in the production chain,’ ‘do we need to digitize it.’

Meeting all of these challenges and gaining greater expertise, David was promoted to Head of Preservation for film at the IWM. However, it all started to become a little too routine for his tastes. I asked about his interest and later transition to Head of Digital Preservation, and this is what he had to say:

Digital came along at the right time. I was actually getting quite bored with film preservation. I was beginning to think I had learnt it all or most of it. Then digital started. We had no ability to store digital data, and there were no formats apart from highly proprietary ones that were attached to particular bits of equipment. It was all about sending the film off to the digital lab. They would scan it; they would do any of the restoration work that we agreed and then write it back on to our film negative. At the end of the day, you got a new negative and a new print. And the new digital data was offered, and we said, ‘sorry, what are we going to do with it?’ The amount of data was so vast [in] those days. A terabyte of data in the year 2000 was an unmanageable amount of stuff. But I found myself in the position where I was increasingly working in both camps [film and digital]. I kind of became the guy who understood digital in the museum and having been the guy who understood film technology. I found it interesting because it keeps the brain functioning to learn new stuff. And it was very much new stuff. The technology was developing as fast as we could keep up with it. It was only 5 or 6 years after our first foray into digital that we found ourselves taking in digital tapes with digital stuff on it. That sat in my office for another 6 years. It wasn’t until that point where the museum progressed to the point where they had a digital mass storage system capable of taking all of this data. And then we had to pay someone to read the tape backs. There were no standards. The tape format was standardized but the file format wasn’t. So we had to have someone who remembered how it was done. 

In addition to the IWM, David has been involved with FIAF for many decades. The mission of FIAF is to connect non-profit moving image archives throughout the world, and provide expertise, resources, and awareness of its members. FIAF achieves this by highlighting or hosting conferences, symposiums, screenings, and training events all over the globe. Currently, FIAF consists of over 170 member institutions representing 79 countries. When asked about his initial involvement with FIAF, David remarked on the importance of professional organizations to moving image archivists:

I first found myself invited into the FIAF Technical Commission which was fun. And that was really good. You couldn’t learn digital stuff by sitting in your office on your own. In a museum where no one else had any clue about this new stuff. You really needed to get out and talk to other people and find out what others were doing. Learn from the professionals and amateurs and the like. 

Involvement in FIAF for David, much like the organization itself, soon expanded across the globe. He advanced from a member of the Technical Commission to the head of the commission. Wanting to improve the commission, he started asking people what they would like the commission to do. What should and could it do? The major feedback he received was the need for assistance with training staff. FIAF and David realized the value in training and education for archives, culminating in FIAF creating a formal post for training and outreach. David became the Training and Outreach Coordinator in 2016. He has since traveled all over the world to visit various archives in need of assistance with training and resources. Through this experience, David recognizes the importance of advocating for greater investment in moving image archives, especially in the developing world. He ended our conversation with these final thoughts: 

My main preoccupation at the moment is how do we stop the rest of film heritage around the world from disappearing, the stuff that hasn’t gone. Particularly in lower income countries in the global south or in the tropics. The thing is, I don’t have a solution. It looks like looking after old film is an insurmountable problem that you are never going to solve unless you are in a temperate climate, and you have lots of money. I don’t have an answer for this and I’m still looking for one. My worry is that we are going to lose a huge amount of footage in the next 10 years because it’s all reaching the end of its life. We are going to lose a huge amount of video material as well because time is already running out, and in some cases, already run out to copy this stuff. There aren’t enough machines with head life left to copy even a small part of video tapes that are sitting in vaults around the world. Everyone thinks digital is the answer and then we are going to have some digital disasters too because people don’t understand how difficult it is to preserve digital stuff.

Those last thoughts were very poignant and something I hadn’t truly considered in their entirety, especially about storing digital information.

Before we signed out of Zoom, I asked David to rate our conversation on a scale from 10 to 10. He ranked it an 11. David is full of wit and humor, and it was an absolute joy to speak with him. It is not every day that you get a chance to speak with an expert in their field, so when you do, it’s hard to contain the excitement.

If you are interested in learning more about his current work, please visit FIAF.