Film preservation lab
Films don’t last for ever – they deteriorate over time, and preserving them is an important part of our mahi at Archives New Zealand. Discover what goes on in our film preservation lab, and learn about some of our digitisation projects.
The films in Archives New Zealand’s collections are like hundreds of tiny windows into our collective past. Through them, we can glimpse what life was like for New Zealanders in the last century as they worked, travelled and went to war – and how they thought about their identity and their place in the world.
But much of the collection was first recorded on nitrate and acetate film stocks, which deteriorate over time. In fact, you know a film has started to degrade if it smells like vinegar. When this happens, we’re at risk of losing important pieces of history.
At Archives New Zealand, we have three main ways of preserving film.
Storing films in cool, dry conditions slows the degradation process down. We keep our film collections in cool and cold storage vaults, at temperatures of two to 12 degrees Celsius.
This isn’t a permanent solution, though. To make sure we don’t lose what’s recorded on a film, we need either to digitise it, or copy it to a more stable polyester base in our film preservation laboratory.
Our film preservation lab
It’s quicker and cheaper to copy films to polyester than to digitise them, so we do most of our preservation mahi at our film lab. The lab has a special connection with the NFU – it began at the unit's original Darlington Road studios, and some of our team of expert technicians started their careers at the NFU.
To work with delicate early films, you need to use machines like the ones that made them. Some of the only people in the world with the skills to do this work at our film lab. It’s the only lab of its kind in Australasia, and still has equipment from the NFU era – like our Apple IIe printer, which we bought in 1985, and black-and-white film printing machine from the 1930s.
Tour of the film preservation lab
The video shows how we copy films to polyester, increasing their lives by up to 500 years.
In October 2019 the film lab finished a four-year project to preserve the NFU collection. We preserved 1,300 films made up of 3,198 separate picture and sound reels – that’s 2.36 million feet of footage.
The lab will continue its work preserving government films until 2022. Films from the NZBC – the precursor to Radio New Zealand National and TVNZ – are just one of the collections we’re working on.
Digitising films means we can put them online, sharing the taonga of Aotearoa with the widest possible audience.
Film digitisation takes a unique set of skills and expensive equipment that we don’t have at Archives. When our new Heke Rua Archives facility is built, we hope to be able to digitise films in-house – but for now, we work with an external provider to do it.
This is New Zealand
Digitising This is New Zealand (1970) has been our most challenging project. Produced for Expo ’70 in Osaka, the film displayed images of Aotearoa on three separate screens – a major innovation at the time.
Before we digitised it and put it online, This is New Zealand hadn’t been seen for decades. This is because the three different reels of film needed to be run at once, on three interlocked projectors. Over the years, different technicians tried to combine the images onto a single film – but this decreased their quality.
Advances in digital technology have allowed us to bring the film back to the screen. Archives technicians worked with two of the film’s original creators to scan, grade and restore the original images, and combine them into one. They also remixed the stereo soundtrack into a Dolby 5.1 surround sound track.
We scanned the NFU’s first official film, Country Lads (1941). This was the first time we used a 4K scanner – a high-resolution scanner powerful enough to make a detailed copy of each individual frame of the nine-minute film.
Scanning at 4K meant we could capture the greatest possible amount of detail and picture information from each frame. It was a way of future-proofing – when we need to restore the film in the future, we’ll be able to make it look as close as possible to its original form.
You can also watch the films we’ve digitised most recently, Letter by Robot (1960) and Night Flight (1951)
Find more about our work
If you want to know more about our film preservation work or you have a question about a film, you can contact an archivist to learn more.
Last updated on 28 April 2022