Things change: Animated film archives in the digital age


Film archives traditionally consist of stacked film reels in cold storage. But the holdings of archives for animated film also include production materials such as props, dolls, sets, screenplays, storyboards and other written and visual documents, as well as the estates of studios and filmmakers. Archives have long been (wrongly) viewed by the general public as a dusty, stodgy affair they are not considered particularly sexy. With digitization, however, and above all with the omnipresence and universal availability of the internet and Web 2.0, archives’ working methods (including new tools, etc.) and the public perception of them are changing, with no end in sight.

At the same time, dwindling state cultural budgets frequently lead to funding cuts and the closure of longstanding, well-equipped institutions or even studios. There is a danger that the ongoing discourses and achievements of these institutions will be aborted and forgotten as they disappear from the scene.

And another risk threatens from a different quarter: in March 2012, the Encyclopedia Britannica announced that it would discontinue its print edition after 244 years, being published henceforward only as a fee-based online offering. [cf. infographic on OpenSite ]. Responsible for this move are presumably both rising printing costs and the slow publishing cycle for the traditional reference work, along with the fact that many users and students simply expect today to find everything on the internet, doing all their research there and in particular in Wikipedia, making it difficult to motivate them to consult other sources. Many people therefore don’t even take into consideration stocks of knowledge that can only be accessed physically at a certain location. “If it Doesn’t Exist on the Internet, It Doesn’t Exist” is how Kenneth Goldsmith, operator of the avant-garde portal UbuWeb, once put it, already sensing the trend back in 2005. If Google can’t find it, then it must not (or no longer) exist. Older content and knowledge stores, i.e. anything that is only available in analogue form, threaten to become lost because they are simply being ignored.

This example makes it more than clear what enormous importance the Internet/WWW now lays claim to in the realms of education and entertainment compared to books, cinema and television, and it also points to the conflicting field in which archives (and other institutions) currently operate.

How are animated film archives responding to this new situation? Ultimately, the question of who archives what, how and why is being framed anew by the internet, and the balance of power is also shifting.

Digitization promises anytime, anywhere availability and infinite storage capacity. Everything can be saved, and one never has to decide what to weed out and discard which at first sounds like a wonderful boon. But this attitude also harbours serious disadvantages, evident nowhere as clearly as on YouTube. The video platform is in a sense a cultural (world) memory, the worlds largest film archive. Almost everything is here, and yet it is impossible to find anything. A video that causes a sensation today is perhaps already gone again tomorrow. Due to its size, complexity and legal problems, YouTube eludes any attempt at systematic research. This places higher demands than ever before on human and technically supported selection processes.

A trend that can be observed everywhere is that digitization is causing what were once largely discreet institutions and concepts such as archive, museum, gallery, festival, library, sales, shop, online film database and community to converge or enter into new partner constellations or alliances. Archives are coming up with diverse and in some cases contradictory solutions for dealing with these opportunities and challenges. Some of these strategies arise spontaneously and rather chaotically, and others develop organically, while a few are even planned long in advance.

Archives are undergoing a radical transformation and expansion in their function. In concrete terms, this means that their agenda no longer entails only the safe and proper storage of material that is currently no longer in use, but also the need to publicize older material and make it available in the present-day context. A related aim is to cultivate new target groups in order to ensure that the necessity of the archive will be recognized in the long term.

Up until now it has been the case for many a film that after its festival career it had (nearly) come to the end of its value chain (1). But “films are made to be seen”, as the documentary film distributor (2) declares with jaunty defiance. One of its missions is thus to rediscover and re-release documentaries that have already run the gauntlet of the usual commercialization (festivals, television, etc.). Selected films featured at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen have been hosted on the Kulturserver (culture server: since 2011 and administered by The site’s so-called Videothek (video library) (3) is a database of films that ran in the Oberhausen programme and can now be viewed online. The filmmakers themselves decide whether to offer their works as stream or download and what price to charge for a viewing. This strategic alliance between filmmakers, festival and online platform pursues various objectives: it is an additional source of revenue for filmmakers, it contributes to the Festival’s branding and it functions as a “year-round film market” (4).

The International Festival of Animated Film in Stuttgart (ITFS) also began early on, in a prescient move, to include a question on the festival entry forms about non-exclusive digital distribution rights. In cooperation with Reelport and the Stadtbibliothek Stuttgart (city library), ITFS successively makes the (more or less complete) group of films chosen by the selection committee each year available in its Online Animation Library (5). Accredited festival guests can access the films anywhere, anytime for up to three months after the festival using their festival log-in. The Online Animation Library thus functions for the industry like a kind of temporally extended film market. Stuttgart citizens with a library card can even watch a special selection of films at viewing stations in the city library. For further impressions of the Festival, see the video podcasts on its own YouTube channel (6).

The Czech Anifest International Festival of Animated Films (7) doesn’t have a film database, but does archive items including lectures, the films in its internet competitions, spots and festival reports. Similar attempts to document impressions of the festival can also be found for a number of other animated and short film festivals, for example the Filmfest Dresden (8).

New aesthetics and new playback devices for animation (9) have extended the scope of archives. But new forms and aesthetics also require a different kind of archiving.
On the one hand, analogue films and their accompanying materials must be converted into digital form and it must be ensured that these holdings remain available in the long term (database, metadata), but on the other hand, so-called “born digital” films must also be archived adequately.

Two strategies for digital archiving have crystallized out: migration and emulation. In migration, data is transferred at regular intervals to new data storage media, a process in which data is also ordinarily lost an untenable state of affairs for archivists. In emulation, which is employed primarily for more complex digital objects, the original playback environment is emulated on newer devices (10).

As we have already been aware for a long time from archiving computer games, not only the data storage media (floppy disks, CDs, DVDs etc.) must be stored and regularly migrated, but also the hardware used to play them, such as game consoles etc. But because these devices eventually wear out don’t last forever even when carefully maintained and stored, it is imperative to “preserve” them almost as a kind of software that is able to simulate the original device on a different one (usually faster and more powerful), a strategy that is also known as “emulation”. The dilemma is that the archivists must copy data for this purpose that is protected under the usual European copyright laws (11).

Early computer games have therefore often been revived by fans who emulated the obsolete hardware or operating systems in order to play bygone favourites on modern, fast and powerful computers. Classic games were reverse engineered in Adobe Flash. These fan-made products represent valuable resources, especially for periods in which computer games were not yet viewed as part of our cultural heritage.

These problems are exacerbated for works conceived from the outset in a transmedia environment, or for projects that gradually expanded into different media. The question is then which medium a specific project should be stored in, and where/when the work begins and ends. A film archive thinking along traditional lines namely soon comes up against its limits when confronted with preserving a project that is conceived as, or is meant to develop into, a universe. A prime example is the “Matrix” trilogy by Andy and Larry Wachowski, a very promising feature film project that got off to an auspicious start in 1999 but came to a rather tragic end in the third episode, “Matrix Revolutions”. The first part impressively showcased what were at the time astonishing techniques made possible by computer animation. Procedures such as motion capture and bullet time thus became known to a wide audience.

From an archiving point of view, it is sufficient only at first glance to contemplate how to archive three feature films. This is because, on closer scrutiny, the cinematic trilogy “The Matrix” was only the beginning: the “Matrix” cosmos also went on to also include an “Animatrix” DVD with nine animated short films by various, primarily Asian, filmmakers who were invited by the Wachowski brothers to make short films that relate thematically and stylistically to “The Matrix”. And then came the action game, “Enter the Matrix”, which was commercially successful albeit controversial due to numerous bugs that brought it negative reviews in gaming circles. The game formed a content link between “Matrix Reloaded” and “Matrix Revolutions” and contained scenes that had been cut from the film “The Matrix”. Also part of the growing cosmos was the short film “Final Flight of the Osiris”, extracted from “Animatrix”, which ran in Germany as supporting film before the science fiction feature “Dreamcatcher” and astonished viewers in 2003 with the hyperrealism of its virtual characters. Various websites (12, 13) appeared that were devoted to the (pseudo) philosophical discourse the film inspired. An entire generation dressed in long Matrix coats. A wide variety of cross-references and allusions could be found amongst all the different media formats and events. They in turn inspired parodies on the internet such as e.g. “The Meatrix”(14). This all resulted in a complex narrative cosmos that no longer played out in a single medium, but rather started in one medium and then proceeded to wander back and forth between several.

Transmedia projects in which content only unfolds its full potential through the interplay of multiple media are not an isolated case anymore, but increasingly the calculated standard. Such developments are still in their infancy in the short film field, but examples are multiplying quickly for instance “iPLOK!”, an interactive series for tablets and smartphones.(15) Here the user is prompted, by systematically touching certain areas of the screen, to move the figure Plok through various episodes (thus causing the story’s plot to unfold). The format is not new and was in fact originally designed for the Web. The 58 linear versions consisting of twelve sets with four parts each, and ten more for Christmas-time, are archived by creator David Berlioz on a YouTube channel, where they generate further revenue (16). Whereas the user can spend several minutes enjoying the interactive episodes, the linear clips are only about half a minute long. The original version won several prizes, including the Grand Jury Prize for Best Internet Animation Project at the MIFA in Annecy in 2001 and the award for Best Internet Animation at the SICAF in Seoul in 2001 (17). In order to archive “iPLOK!”, one would have to preserve the various linear and nonlinear versions in the various media and corresponding end devices.

The TV series “om und das Erdbeermarmeladebrot mit Honig” (Tom and the Slice of Bread with Strawberry Jam and Honey), dubbed by the late actor Dirk Bach, who passed away unexpectedly on 1 October 2012, is likewise at home in more than one medium, having in the meantime added a website, app, Facebook page and occasional live events. Anyone feeling inspired by these developments, can, as a homework exercise, come up with an idea for storing the oeuvre of the virtual band Gorillaz for example (18).

The Internet has also spawned, or at least fostered, its own animated works. If such “born digital” Web and real-time animations are to be archived in a way that is faithful to the original, this requires the preservation of the right software to play them back. The first machinima film, “Diary of a Camper” (1996), for example, is available in the Internet Archive (19) in the original demo file format, but as this can only be played with the computer game “Quake 2″, for all those who do not have access to a copy of that game a video is also available for playback on common video players. As can be learned from the history of computer games, fans and collectors are often the first to archive a new medium.

For live and performance animation and live visuals e.g. Pierre Hébert (20), usaginingen, Friedrich Kirschner – it is typically the case that these are in a certain sense unique each time they are performed and are hence impossible to conceive of without the presence of the filmmaker. The work consists here not only of the finished film, but also the process of performing/filmmaking – in some cases with the participation of the audience or other actors. This also applies to live projections like those in “A Wall is a Screen” (21). In this unusual presentation made up of short films and a walk through the city, the films are each tailored to the specific location where they are screened and there is thus a closely calculated interaction between the films, their projection, and the respective city as projection location. Here again, we must reconsider what archiving actually means. At best, all of these art forms can be documented on video. This is indeed the format often chosen by the artists themselves and then published on the Web.

There are three archives that have long been active in the online realm and are therefore one step ahead of the game. The “Internet Archive” (22) in San Francisco has been scouring the World Wide Web at regular intervals since 1996 and storing the respective current state of websites. Since 2001 these snapshots amassed by the Internet Archive have been available online on the “Wayback Machine”. The stored versions are flawed and incomplete, as for example pictures and films are often not saved along with the site, or the owners of domains prohibit storage for various reasons. Nevertheless, the Wayback Machine is a remarkable resource for the history of the World Wide Web.

The Internet Archive has also been collecting films since 2002 and making them available online. The selections include films that are in the public domain under US law, such as teaching, education and propaganda films from the Prelinger Archives, as well as cartoons and amateur films in various formats and qualities. The goal is to make all of the films in the Internet Archive available to researchers in high quality, but also to stimulate further research, for which reason the films are published under a Creative Commons license. By using rankings and numbering the downloads, it is possible to bring a bit of order to the huge archive when browsing.

Very early on, even the National Film Board of Canada (23) made efforts to revive its own older contents and make them available for e.g. educational purposes. The archive is a treasure trove for productions funded by the NFB. Countless animations and documentaries can be streamed and downloaded and/or purchased on DVD for prices starting at $1.95. The NFB has in fact always supported multimedia and internet-based projects.

UbuWeb (24) is another exciting resource, providing online access to hard-to-find and out-of-print avant-garde material. UbuWeb is completely independent and works without financial support, relying instead on donations and volunteer work and taking advantage of bandwidth donated by various partners. Founded by the poet Kenneth Goldsmith, the portal originally collected only text-based forms such as poems and visual poetry. With increasing visual material on the Web, however, it was only logical (and almost natural) to gradually add poems photographed off the page and later also audio files and films. UbuWeb lists a very colourful conglomerate of interesting finds, among them a number of experimental films by for example Rosa von Praunheim, Clemens von Wedemeyer and Richard Kentridge, but also early rock shows by Patti Smith, works by Joseph Beuys and media art by Jodi. In terms of its approach, UbuWeb is more interested in fringe artistic production than in the “perceived” or commercial mainstream. The site continues to grow, while flirting with, and at the same time warning of, its possible imminent overnight closure due to its anarchic approach.

Initiatives to put film footage online and archive and present it on YouTube or Vimeo have also been undertaken by filmmakers (e.g. PES), companies and studios (e.g. Aardman (25), Studio Filmbilder (26) and film archives such as the British Film Institute (27), while others incorporate content into their own websites via Vimeo. YouTube’s partner programme can moreover be a profitable way to generate additional revenue from films that have already passed through the festival circuit.

Amateur communities that play no part in mainstream culture, or which consciously distinguish themselves from it as subcultures, also mostly archive their own films. Examples are skateboarding films (28), Brickfilms and the demo scene. Other underexposed animation genres that are rarely seen in exhibitions or at festivals have likewise unfolded their dazzling diversity only on the Web. The French website by Pascal Fouché currently presents (as of 2 October 2012) 6,930 flipbooks, created from 1892 to today (29). Just how versatile the genre of animated supporting film is becomes clear when perusing the collection “Forget the Film, Watch the Title” (30).

The projects presented here all represent attempts to archive animations from the Web and on the Web. They cover only a tiny fraction of all that is possible, but they can nonetheless serve to make us more aware of the kinds of upheavals facing film archives today and how rich and diverse their strategies can be.

Even if technological advances and software development never stop tempting us with new promises (e.g. 3D scanners, visual search, image search), it doesn’t mean that all archives are now charging full steam ahead to pursue digitization on all levels. On the contrary, some archives are turning the tables and only digitizing their holdings sparingly. They have only a minimal online presence. Instead, they put on special programmes and exhibitions at festivals and advertise the exclusivity of the material they manage: certain films can simply only be viewed here and now. The archives indirectly highlight in this way the auratic qualities of a work of art.

What can be said of all archives is that the financial situation won’t be getting any better in future. Just like in film financing, archives must find creative ways to preserve their stock and to build a loyal audience (31). Where might animation archives obtain further ideas on how to handle the kind of material described here? What’s needed is interdisciplinary collaboration that brings various disciplines and institutions to the table, so that not everyone has to reinvent the wheel, but can instead benefit from the experiences of others. Looking to media art and computer games (32) is to be recommended in particular, as all of these problems have already been encountered in those fields for a much longer time and on an exponentially greater scale.

Karin Wehn

(1) For festivals that exceed a certain scale, the number of films (videos, DVDs) submitted annually and their accumulation year after year pose challenges to festival offices of limited size (Oberhausen receives around 6,000 submissions a year). The Filmfest Dresden is in the fortunate position to be able to store part of its holdings at the German Institute for Animated Film (DIAF).
(9) On the new aesthetics in animated film, see also the article “Animation on the Move” Short Report 2012 (AG Kurzfilmfilm e.V.).
(10) Cf. Astrid Herbold: Die ewige Aufbewahrung des Internets.
(11) Cf. on this problem the texts by Andreas Lange, director of the Computer Games Museum in Berlin. “Pacman im Archiv: Computerspiele als Kulturgut”. In:, or an interview with him: “Why Preserving Video Games is Illegal”, http://thenextwebcom/insider/2012/04/22/saving-the-game-why-preserving-video-games-is-illegal/
(12) Animatrix.
(13) Calling up the Matrix website for the cinema feature today, in 2012, leads one to a virtual void. ( One can only hope that Warner Bros. has saved these materials somewhere.
(31) The Zurich media scholar Barbara Flückiger succeeded for example with a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo on 21 July 2012 to raise nearly 20% more than the targeted $10,000 for the project “Database of Historical Film Colors”. Up to then, she had financed the project entirely out of her own pocket. Her database, which includes more than 200 historical colour processes, is conceived as the starting point for further research.
(32) Cf. e.g. Andreas Lange: Strategy Paper. Results from the KEEP workshop Joining Forces. International Expert Workshop About Digital Preservation (Berlin, 1 February 2012). Andreas Lange kindly made this paper available to the author. For more information on KEEP, see: