Film

“We want people to be entertained, inspired and challenged by the material we preserve and present”: Interview with Kasandra O’Connell

Today, I’m speaking with Kasandra O’Connell, head of the Irish Film Archive at the Irish Film Institute in Dublin, Ireland. We discuss the Archive’s origins, its activities at home and around the globe, and its ongoing effort to open up Irish cinematic culture both to the people of Ireland and to the rest of the world.

(Archivoz) As the head of the IFI Irish Film Archive, what does your job entail? What are some of the main things you’d like to accomplish/foster in that position?

(K.O.) Although the IFI Irish Film Archive is custodian of a national collection, we are also one of nine departments within the Irish Film Institute (IFI) and have quite a small team (12). Unlike other larger archives where roles are quite strictly defined, our staff tend to be involved in a range of activities. Consequently, my duties are quite varied: much of my time goes to strategy and policymaking, applying for grants and other types of funding and liaising with our stakeholders. I also work on a lot of preservation and access projects with my amazing team. Although we do still receive film material into our collection, like most other archives we have spent most of the last decade transitioning to a digital environment. We began by developing a Digital Preservation and Access Strategy, which shaped our route from analogue to digital collections management. As a result, we boast a very robust digital preservation system which has won several international awards in recent years.

I’ve held my job for 20 years, and my aims for the archive have evolved over time. When I first joined the IFI my focus was on ensuring adherence to internationally recognized standards, since our existing policies and procedures hadn’t originally been developed as part of an overall collections management plan. I introduced the SPECTRUM museum collections management standard, which is now the basis of all our collections management activities. Having previously worked in the National Museum of Ireland, I knew this standard would work well with a moving image format. We were recently accredited under the Museum Standards Programme for Ireland, which is a scheme to promote and benchmark professional standards in collections care, so I feel our work in this area has been recognized and validated.

At present, we raise awareness of our work and the importance of film preservation through publication, workshops, exhibition and outreach; we also have an active education strategy. I would like to expand these activities to foster further understanding of moving image preservation in the community at large. We host interns from various university courses throughout the year and teach a media archives MA module for our partners at Maynooth University; unfortunately, due to COVID-19 restrictions, this program has been postponed this year. My ultimate goal is to open a museum of Irish film in the vein of the Berlin Film Museum, a place where we could display our artifact collection and tell the story of Irish cinema and cinema-goers.

(Archivoz) I’m fascinated by the Institute’s religious origins. Can you give us a bit of history, and tell us how you went from moral guardianship to offerings like the Horrorthon, which you advertise as “the bloodiest event in the Irish film calendar”?

(K.O.) At the start of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church was very concerned about the nascent film industry—particularly in Hollywood–and its moral effect on the religious. As a result, Pope Pius XI issued the Vigilanti Cura (1936), which stressed the importance of the Church’s involvement in all aspects of motion picture production and consumption. In Ireland, this encyclical prompted the establishment of the National Film Institute (NFI) in 1943, under the direction of the Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid. The NFI’s mission was to counteract the influence of unsavory foreign films, and it accordingly collected, distributed, and occasionally created cultural, educational and public information films.

This material became the basis of an embryonic Irish Film Archive. A group of progressive film educators, practitioners and historians took control of the NFI board in the early 1980s with a view to reforming its ethos. They removed all references to the Church from the Institute’s constitution and redirected its focus from moral guardianship to a critical engagement with the art of film. From this point on, the approach to exhibition, programming and audience development changed dramatically, and over time the Irish Film Institute (IFI)—as it is now called—has come to engage with a number of disparate audiences. This outreach includes our festival work (e.g., French Film, Family, and Documentary and the Horrothon); our schools programme, IFI International; and our regular programming, which includes new releases, classics and undistributed material.

There is a large community of horror fans in Ireland, so Horrorthon, which takes place over the Halloween bank holiday weekend, is one of our most popular festivals. Fans are able to meet up at the Institute and indulge their love of all things ghoulish and gory. This year, of course, was somewhat different, since the lockdown forced us to hold all screenings online via our new streaming platform, IFI@Home.

(Archivoz) You actually have a movie theater as part of your establishment, and due to COVID, you’ve been closed at least periodically throughout the year. Under the circumstances, how does the IFI continue to enable interaction with Irish film culture? Is any of your content accessible remotely?

(K.O.) We have three cinemas in our main complex in Temple Bar (which is a converted 17th century Quaker meeting house). We also have a bookshop and café bar, so it is a very social space. We have always made great use of that through a number of Irish film exhibition strands led by our Irish Film Programming department. However, since the pandemic began we have been almost entirely closed to the public. This has obviously restricted our ability to reach traditional audiences, but fortunately our IFI Player allows us to give free global online access to material curated from the Archive. The IFI Player’s viewership has grown steadily since it launched in 2016, but COVID-19 prompted a lot of media interest in the platform. As a result, we saw an increase in users seeking an alternative to commercial platforms such as Netflix, Amazon, or others.

Recently, the IFI launched two other streaming platforms: IFI@Home and IFI@Schools. These platforms have allowed the Institute to continue its programming activities through festival and exhibition work. Although their use is restricted to Ireland, the response has been very positive and technology has allowed us to connect with our audiences during this challenging period.

(Archivoz) When I look at new libraries or archives, the first thing I check out are their special collections. Can you tell us a little about yours? Do you have a favorite?

(K.O.) Alongside our 30,000 cans of film, the IFI Irish Film Archive’s Special Collections holds approximately 200 filmmaking equipment artifacts, such as cameras, projectors, and sound recorders that afford us additional insight into the history of filmmaking in Ireland. In terms of a favourite item, I’m going to be very obvious and say the 1986 production design Oscar given to us by Irishwoman Josie MacAvin, which she won for her work on the film Out of Africa. The Academy Award is such an iconic item and we are honoured to have one on permanent display in the collection. MacAvin also donated an Emmy she won for Outstanding Art Direction on the 1994 miniseries Scarlett.

(Archivoz) Why is it important that the public be exposed to film culture and cinematic heritage? How does the concept of “pop culture” relate to what you do? Is there a difference between it and “film culture” properly conceived?

(K.O.) As the national cultural institution for film and film culture in Ireland, it is the multifaceted nature of the material we hold that gives it its heritage value. It is an historical record and a social document, as well as a means of entertainment and education. Our collections capture in a uniquely accessible manner the changing landscape of the Irish nation, alongside changing attitudes, customs and social conditions. It is important that the public be exposed to film heritage because the things we have chosen to record and the stories that we commit to film tell us much about our interests, beliefs, hopes and fears. We feel that the moving image is the most democratic medium of our age, reaching across all ages, abilities and social groups. We endeavour to present film in a non-elitist way, enabling audiences to engage with it on a deeper level, or merely to experience our collections as a source of entertainment. We want people to be entertained, inspired and challenged by the material we preserve and present.

Although our collection contains titles many might consider part of pop culture, particularly those related to television reality programming, as an archivist I’m not snobbish about the categories of content we take in. I think the main distinction between pop culture and film heritage is a change in perspective afforded by the passage of time. Films that initially may seem lightweight and populist over time can develop new layers of meaning,  which may resonate differently with future audiences, so it is incumbent upon us not to be too prescriptive in our selection and acquisition policies. Material considered frivolous or “pop” by today’s measures will eventually be a fascinating insight into the media and cultural landscape of the early 21st century and therefore is as valuable to us as any other social or historical artifact.

(Archivoz) What sort of international presence does the IFI have? How do you share your content with the rest of the world?

(K.O.) The Archive engages with the international archival community, particularly FIAF (The International Federation of Film Archives). We often contribute to publications and present at conferences and symposiums, and I was part of a 2018 FIAF initiative that went to India to teach film collections management. We regularly collaborate with film archives around the world: for instance, we are currently finishing the EU-funded restoration of an Irish film called Blarney (1938) with material from the BFI and UCLA. We also do online advocacy work for archival preservation via public seminars, workshops, panel discussions and webinars. Most recently we are taking part in a partnership project called Make Film History that engages with young filmmakers and makes archive material available to them for free.

We are also globally active through IFI International, which provides Irish film programming to cultural exhibitors worldwide. IFI is managed by the Irish Film Programming Department, which draws on IFI Irish Film Archive’s collections and liaises with film directors, producers, sales agents and distributors in order to develop a global audience for Irish film culture. IFI International works with over 100 exhibition partners in more than 50 countries annually to provide access to new and classic Irish cinema, presenting material in contexts which enhance understanding of Irish cinema and provide new routes for audiences who may be unfamiliar with Irish culture. It is an excellent mechanism for sharing our collections theatrically around the world and allows the IFI to create meaningful partnerships with festivals, venues, musicians and archives in many different geographical locations. It also complements the IFI Player’s personal viewing experience, allowing audiences to experience Irish film in a communal setting.

(Images courtesy of the Irish Film Archive)


Interview conducted by: Vance Woods

An archivist walks (back) into a film visual effects company

Introduction: From film to archives, and back to film

From a young age, I’ve been enamoured with films and the magic of bringing moving images to the screen. In my 20s I pursued undergraduate studies in media production and dabbled in many areas of film production, never quite getting my break into the industry. The closest I got was when I landed a job with a visual effects company in Sydney. However, after 11 months of being there, they went into liquidation and closed down.

In my 30s I set aside my dream to work in the movie business and enrolled into a Masters of Information Management. Within a few months, I lined up a professional placement which turned into full-time contract work. Then within a year, I secured an ongoing role in a government archive. I thoroughly enjoyed my new career and didn’t look back to film until one day my friend tells me about a new school being set up to teach animation and VFX. “They’re offering research scholarships”, she told me, “you should apply”. “But what would I research?” I responded puzzled. “Archiving of course!” she said matter of factly.

Almost two years later, and here I am, doing a PhD about film VFX archiving. On many levels, it’s fantastic being in the film world again. This time bringing my archiving expertise back to help a niche group of creative and techy filmmakers preserve their work and reassess the value of their records. However, selling ‘archiving’ to this community is a challenge. In this article, I present some of my experiences and findings so far during my PhD with the VFX industry.

Film VFX

VFX is a creative and technical field of film production, which utilises digital technologies and computer-generated imagery (CGI) in conjunction with live-action shots. The industry is a transnational “media heterotopia” made up of geographically dispersed places and people funnelling work into networked pipelines to create fabricated and seamless visuals for the screen
[1].

Since its introduction in the 1970s through films such Westworld (1973) and Star Wars (1977), the “spectacle, imagery and esthetics afforded by computer-generated imagery has shepherded digital visual effects to the forefront of film production process” [2].

Producing VFX for films involves some specialists skills and tasks including 3D modelling, animation, texturing, lighting, effects and compositing which are provided by digital artists and an array of proprietary, open-source and bespoke software and tools. VFX production also generates high volumes of data, assets and records. Selecting, archiving and maintaining this material can prove to be a challenging process in the industry.

Archiving VFX

VFX studios do not generally employ records management or archiving specialists. Instead, information technology staff or data managers are assigned the task of archiving data, records and assets, usually, once a production project concludes. While some studios have sophisticated tools and processes in place to select only high-value assets that were used in final shots and which represent the ‘hero’ elements (key characters, props etc.). Other information (such as business records and the metadata and contextual information about the assets) are not always archived with the production asset material.

Access and retrieval of archives can be troublesome as archives are generally written to passive LTO magnetic storage tapes. Locating and restoring tape data can often rely upon staff knowledge as there is not always a detailed tape manifest or database to build upon. Besides, another issue is that new generations of LTOs are released every few years, and generally, the tape readers are only one to two generations backwards compatible. This means that if archives are not being migrated to newer tapes, the data becomes trapped due to media obsolescence.

Archiving is motivated by a need to free up online storage space for new productions. When I talked with senior VFX practitioners, they indicated that sometimes they would go back to their previous work if a sequel is on the cards or to reuse a specific technique. However, the technical environment progresses so quickly that most of the time, they just rebuild everything from scratch.

The notion of preserving evidence of VFX for cultural or historical purposes is not high on the agenda for VFX studios. Although, there is evidence that VFX collections do exist in publically accessible archives [3]. VFX is an industry that is continually looking ahead to the next job and the future creative and technical breakthroughs. Looking back to the past—to the records of previous generations of digital artists is something most studios do not consider.

This is partly because they often don’t own the rights to their work. Under copyright law, VFX studios and their artists are considered “work made for hire” [4]. Intellectual property rights sit with the producer (generally a film studio). This means, technically, film studios are the owners of the work and thus should have responsibility for managing VFX archives over time.

Because of the ownership model, the VFX industry takes information security VERY SERIOUSLY. Upon entering any VFX studio, you must sign an NDA and adhere to their strict security policies (e.g. visitors must be escorted at all times, certain machines have zero network access, studios cannot promote their work until the film is released and/or they have permission from the studio).

Conducting research with the VFX industry

So far in my research, I have interviewed over a dozen VFX practitioners based in Australia, USA and the UK. I have heavily relied upon my personal contacts to facilitate the research and introduce me to key staff in studios around the world.

As I experienced, first-hand, VFX studios are very busy work environments. They all have impending deadlines, and staff don’t have precious time to spare—especially not for some Archivist PhD Candidate! Selling the benefits of proper archiving can be a challenge as it inevitably will require resourcing. Smaller-scale VFX studios are generally resource-poor, and the larger studios have competing departments vying for more staff, software or newer tech.

In addition, due to the rigorous information security, I get the impression that for some studios, letting in an Archivist is seen as a risk not worth taking. To try and mitigate this, I have agreed to adopt strict confidentiality and anonymise all my research findings. However, this can also work against me as often the first question potential participants ask me is, “So who else have you spoken to?”. So without having the option to name-drop, I have instead ‘sold’ my research as a potential means to create more online space, improve access and retrieval and usability of their records over time.

Conclusion

In this article, I’ve reflected upon some challenges and findings of my industry-focused doctoral research project with the film VFX industry. In the next year or so I hope to continue to document archiving practices in various VFX studios around the world, share my findings and explore how improvements could be made to help ensure that evidence of this significant discourse of modern cinema is preserved for future generations.

References and notes
[1] Chung, H.J. (2012). Media heterotopia and transnational filmmaking: Mapping real and virtual worlds. Cinema Journal, 51(4), 87–109. doi: 10.1353/cj.2012.0071.

[2] McClean, S. (2014). Digital storytelling: the narrative power of visual effects in film, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 5.

[3] For example, see Dan Curry papers, 1967-2008, UCLA Library Special Collections

[4] Copyright Act of 1976 (USA), § 101