CNE to digitalize 90 year film collection

As soon as the Canadian National Exhibition wraps up next month, the real work will begin for the event’s archival division.

The Toronto-based CNE Archives, responsible for preserving the public records for the annual exhibition, will begin to digitize its collection of films taken at the CNE. Without intervention, the archival material — some of which dates back to the 1920s — will continue to deteriorate

Christina Stewart, sound and moving image archivist at CNE Archives, said the exhibition has over 200 reels of 16 mm film in its collection, featuring footage of entertainers such as Bob Hope and Duke Ellington and other memorable events from the CNE’s storied history.

“We’ve got all the dignitaries that have opened up the CNE over the years, great footage from fashion shows and, on the fun side of course, we have all the rock concerts from over the years,” she said.

While stopping the deterioration process was a driving factor, another motivation for the project was to create a learning tool for researchers and students.

Currently, researchers who come to the CNE can only look at paper documents and photographs, Stewart said. But after the digitalization process, CNE Archives plans to set up a film vault section on its site to allow users to search and stream video.

Even though the CNE has been planning to undertake the initiative for awhile, the project is now being kick started by a US $15,000 EMC Corp. cash and equipment donation. The CNE was awarded the EMC’s Heritage Trust Grant, which includes a pair of Iomega StorCenter Pro rack mount servers and a cash grant that will cover the purchase of both a film scanner and a freezer to preserve the archival materials.

“If a grant didn’t come along, we would probably only digitize films on a request basis,” Stewart said. “So if a researcher wanted to see Johnny Cash in 1970, they would have to grant it themselves.”

Mike Sharun, managing director of EMC Canada, said the CNE was chosen because not much of the exhibition’s 130 years of heritage is easily accessible to the Canadian public.

“And being a Canadian exhibition, there are a lot of elements that are from other parts of the country,” he said. “It’s not just Toronto or Ontario, it’s really Canada. So we thought it was a really good platform to reach out to the entire country all at once.”

As for the process itself, Stewart said, the CNE Archives has already done the hard part. The organization has already gone through and assessed all the footage to determine what can be digitalized. “On the analog side, the only challenge I see is if the film is too fragile to go through the telecine unit,” Stewart said.

After putting the film through the telecine and into the editing software, Stewart said, CNE Archives will attempt to do some colour correction work to offset any degrading that might have already occurred. Because the transfer process is done in real-time, she added, the CNE will be able to make a detailed shot list and frame count of everything in the footage during the process.

For companies undertaking similar projects, Stewart recommended they do their background work first, to correctly assess what can be converted and how it will be organized after the process is complete.

Additionally, companies will need to be sure that they actually own the rights to all the film, audio or other information they wish to preserve. The CNE grandstand concerts from the 70s and 80s, she said, feature copyrighted songs meaning the audio cannot be reproduced.

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