Digitising the Archive

A lot of work and planning has gone on behind the scenes to bring the Swindon Viewpoint archive back to life and we're happy to share a little of this with you. Here is a quick tour of the work going on to make it all happen!


Great care has to be taken with the original material in the Archive. When it is a film original, it needs to be inspected carefully for any breaks or damage by running slowly through on rewind arms.

Viewpoint Film

An Early Film Reel

The spool is then loaded on the Western Film Archive’s telecine machine, an Elmo Transvideo, to which a modern digital video recorder (Sony HVR10) is connected.

Sony HVR10
Sony HVR10

Placed in record mode, this then makes a digital videotape of the film that can be loaded into the main capture station. (See later)

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The Viewpoint tape library needs an equal amount of care, as many of these videotapes are approaching 40 years old. Programmes from 1973 to 1976 were generally mastered in black and white on one-inch tape, with some on half-inch.

1 Inch Tape Reel

One Inch reel-to-reel video recording tape

From 1976 to 1986 programmes were mastered on Umatic industrial format. A substantial cassette tape the size and weight of a large book. Shown here with, at bottom right, the tiny DV cassette we master to nowadays.

New and Old Video Tapes

Umatic cassette tape, at the bottom right is a modern DV tape, for size comparison

From 1986 onwards Viewpoint programmes were mastered to Umatic SP, an improved version of the original Umatic format but visually identical.

We do not currently have a playback machine for the reel-to-reel tapes, so they are on hold for later treatment. The only programmes we can currently digitise from this era are the few that were copied to Umatic in the seventies before the reel-to-reel machines went out of use.

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Umatic tapes are inspected carefully for tape damage through the viewing window and by lifting the loading flap. We look particularly for crinkles and also for oxide shed. Tape damage could make it jam in our machine and oxide shed will gum up the playback heads, either of which will bring the process to a grinding halt, not just for this tape but by putting the player out of action for use with subsequent tapes. Some Umatic cassettes are found with the tape broken and put aside for future possible repair. When we are satisfied with the condition, the tape is loaded into the player.

Umatic SP Player

Western Film Archive’s most recent Umatic machine.

The tape is wound forward and rewound a few times to loosen it up, and attention is paid to the sound of the spooling to try and detect any problems with its free running. Presuming none, we engage the tape in play and transfer the programme material to the connected digital recorder (HVR10) shown above. At the end of transfer we leave the Umatic tape at the end of spool (presuming we found it at the beginning) to minimise future ‘print through’. (Where the signal can transfer between layers over time and degrade the signal). The Umatic is carefully returned to its box.

During transfer the archivist watches the tape and make a record of its contents in the tape logbook. Most tapes have very little or inaccurate details recorded on the labels, some were recorded over after the label was written, and some are found in the wrong boxes altogether.

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When we have a decent digital videotape copy, we transcode it using a capture station. This makes a digital file of the programme that the computer can read.

Capture Station

Western Film Archive’s capture station

The digital file of the programme is now processed with digital editing software and reviewed to ensure sound and image quality is ok. It is also ‘topped and tailed’ at this stage to remove extraneous leader and tail, and any viable improvements to picture and sound quality are made. A small amount of tweaking of brightness or contrast is sometimes applied, but not much change is usually possible without causing other problems. The file is now rendered, (which can be a lengthy process) and exported to a finished digital file on a permanent storage device. We are currently using a Lacie 1TB disk array for permanent storage.

The programme file is now transfered to the encoding station, where it will be de-interlaced (changed from a TV type recording to a computer video) and then encoded to an MPEG-4 format digital video file for transfer to the distribution service.

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Swindon Viewpoint uses a high quality video distribution service offering much better resolution than, for example, Youtube, so the encoding process can be demanding and quite lengthy. The encoder crops the video and sets its frame rate, resolution and format (e.g. wide screen or standard). It can also apply noise reduction to the picture, but as with most of these tools, overenthusiastic application can result in a decrease in picture quality in other ways.

The original digital video file is saved, as is the MPEG-4 encoded file and transfered to our video distribution service via a consumer grade ADSL Broadband Internet connection. The upload process can be long, depending on the length (and therefore size) of the programme or how busy the distribution service is at any given time. Often programmes are left to upload overnight. Once the programme is available on our video distribution service we embed it on www.swindonviewpoint.com and add details such as a title, description, location, tag words etc. All so you, with a single click, can watch a programme on demand.

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