Archive Fives – Digital Workflow

What are the inner workings of an audiovisual archive? Who are the people that do the actual archiving? Archive Fives is a series that looks at the five Preservation Services teams that are part of Collection Services at Ngā Taonga.

In part five, we check in with the Digital Workflow team to learn more about them and the great job they do.

Adam Sondej and Oscar Halberg have plenty of experience working with digital files and best-practice archival processes. They talk about their background and the collection items they love.


Can you describe your job in a few words?

Oscar Halberg, Archivist – Digital Workflow – I think challenging, fascinating, variable, frustrating and essential. Maybe also ‘01001’ – binary.

Adam Sondej, Digital Workflow Team Leader – I thought fascinating too. Also epic, kaupapa-centred, technical and tarantula. A bit of a metaphor there – digital video archiving is like a tarantula in that it’s a complex, multi-armed friendly looking beast that will bite you if not handled correctly!

Do you have any favourite items from the collection?

Oscar – I love all the old newsreels and gazette and Pictorial Parade items. Plus the Pacific Films’ Pacific Magazines from the 1950s that we have in the collection. With my background as a projectionist, I love those old forms of dissipating news to an audience. The one that stands out to me is the building of the airport at Rongotai. I really love it because it’s a place that I see every other day. Also some of the 35mm show prints that screened that are now part of the collection. I’ve come across a couple that I projected in the past that have my handwriting – one being The Price of Milk. There are specific details like aspect ratio and sound levels. The show print would have been deposited after the theatrical run.

Adam – I love the Radio With Pictures episodes from the Karen Hay era. They’re fantastic. From the modern ‘born-digital’ realm there’s some really surprising documentaries. They can be very personal, niche stories and epitomise what a great film an independent filmmaker can create on a low budget. One example is Kathleen Winter’s documentary Datastream about a photocopy shop that supported independent publishing and became a real community hub. It’s something that you might not have known walking past the store. So that was a gem to find. Also the Mother Goose ‘Baked Beans’ music video – it’s iconic and a great, funny clip. This one isn’t available online sorry!

Have you had any really memorable events during your work here?

Oscar – Many and varied. From the client access mahi that I do, an example would be some of the iconic music videos that were used in the documentary series Anthems. That was neat. I just came across it on television and while I was watching thought ‘oh, I remember working on that. Oh, I remember that, too.’ And at the end in the credits Ngā Taonga was credited for the content we supplied.

Adam – I love old video technology. Our team was formerly responsible for digitising video. I really enjoyed setting up the ‘dub room’ and converting it with full digital switching so that we could easily digitise from different sources without crawling under desks.

Could you give a quick background on how you’ve come to be working here?

Oscar – I started with the New Zealand Film Archive back in 2012. That was about two years after the inception of fully digital cinema. Cinemas paying for all that new digital equipment meant that something had to be cut – wages and hours were two of those things. So I changed from full time to part time. I heard the Taranaki St cinema needed a part time projectionist and I started working there. I made a few improvements in how we projected things. With the creation of Ngā Taonga we increased the amount of digital screenings that we were doing, both on and offsite. I assisted with some client access work and that’s how I began my work creating digital files for these screenings. Then with the move we chose to close the cinema and Ngā Taonga leadership very kindly suggested I might work with Adam in the digital workflow team.

Adam – I was previously a video colourist and online editor at The Gibson Group, a post production house in Wellington. I was there for 11 years and was involved in video mastering of documentaries, television drama, reality shows, museum visitor experience installations and also digital films. I had a hugely varied role, it seemed every new digital project required a new workflow. I was also responsible for quality control of TV shows for distribution locally and internationally. My nickname was The Gatekeeper! It was very challenging but hugely enjoyable.When a video archivist position came up at Ngā Taonga, I felt it was a job I could really contribute to. I started off at Ngā Taonga in 2015 digitising VHS tapes and have worked my way up from there.

How do you see your work connecting with the rest of the Archive?

Oscar – I think we engage with all the other parts of the archive in terms of how we access or make available to the public our collections.

Adam – There’s three components to our core role. The first is preserving born-digital video. There are many challenges in digital video preservation: format obsolescence, quality control, complex multichannel audio management and large amounts of preservation data to manage. For example, a video might be deposited as a compressed H.264 file that is not suitable as a preservation format. We’d need to convert it into an archivally safe ‘uncompressed’ format which could increase its size by a factor of 10! We also keep the original file as deposited.

The second thing is migration of legacy Retrospect digital preservations on LTO tape (Linear Tape Open) to our new Quantum Stornext archiving system we’ve called Kohinga.

Finally, there is our client delivery work where we prepare video files for our Information Services and Outreach and Engagement teams for whatever format that’s required. This can include making extracts for re-screening on television, web presentation and even inclusion in cinema projects.

Oscar – There’s variation in what’s needed for screening. If it’s in a gallery on a small monitor, the file type that you use would probably be quite small. If you’re doing a big screen projection though, you’d look towards the industry standard of DCP (digital cinema package).

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.