Our film preservation lab
Watch our film technicians at work preserving the NFU collection so everyone can use and enjoy it.
Our film preservation lab has a special connection with the NFU – it began at the unit's original Darlington Road studios. Some of our team of expert technicians started their careers at the NFU.
Peter Jackson's production company bought the lab in 1991, and it came to Archives in 2013. It’s the only one of its kind in Australasia, and still has equipment from the NFU era – including our beloved Apple IIe printer, which we bought in 1985.
"They don't make them like this any more" – our Apple IIe, bought in 1985.
Preserving the NFU collection
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!
How we preserve films
Our team are experts in film preservation techniques like grading, printing and processing. Between them, they have over 150 years’ experience.
The earliest films were made of cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate, which deteriorate over time. This video shows how we copy them to more stable polyester material, and increase their lives by up to 500 years.
At Archives New Zealand we have some very important New Zealand films. These films form part of our nation's audio-visual history.
Many of our films are old and the film material will deteriorate over time. To preserve their content for future generations, we take the original film, from a nitrate or acetate film stock and copy it onto a more robust polyester film stock. This happens in a very special part of the Archives building.
Welcome to the Film Preservation Lab. The lab came to Archives New Zealand in 2013 from Park Road Post Production and is staffed by a team of six specialist film technicians, who collectively, have over 150 years worth of experience in the film industry. They also have invaluable knowledge of the Archives New Zealand film holdings. The lab's first job was to finish the preservation of the National Film Unit collection. When a film arrives from the cold vault, it needs to acclimatise before we can work on it. It's then condition checked to ensure it's strong enough to go through the copy process.
Sometimes it needs to be repaired. A countdown leader is added so the film can run through the film equipment. The film then goes to grading. When required, the Apple IIe is used to create a shot list for the film analyzer. The analyzer is used to color grade the film. Film grading is where the negative is matched shot by shot for continuity of look, density, and mood of the film. When the grading is done, a paper tape is punched with cues for the printing machine to read.
The film is then cleaned and is ready to go to the printing room. The Film Lab has a number of printer machines. The kind of film we are copying determines the printer we use. The printer operator works mainly in the dark. Using a safe light, he laces up the machine with the reel of film to be copied, and then in complete darkness, loads the new film stock. The paper tape from grading is fed into the machine. It controls how much light goes through the colour filters during the copy process. Staying in complete darkness, he runs the machine to make the copy, and from experience he can hear if something has gone wrong or needs fixing. When the process is finished the copy goes in a light proof bag and is then taken to the processing room for developing.
The lab has a separate processing machine for colour film and for black and white. The technician running the machine also works in total darkness to lace up the film in the Preparation Room.
Once the film is running, he needs to get through to the processing machine without any light getting on the film, by using the light lock door.
The film then runs through baths of various photo chemicals at a controlled speed to develop the image and finally, runs through the drying cabinet. Once it's dry we have a brand new preservation copy.
Quality checking the new film reel is the final step in the film preservation process.
First the density reading is checked for correctness using a densitometer in the Sensitometry Room.
The film is then put on the neg checking bench in the Inspection Room and checked for any faults that may have occurred during the film preservation process. If the new film passes quality inspection it's put in a new can, labelled, and documentation is updated.
The new film element can now be added to archives repository systems and stored safely away for access in the future.
Find more about our work
We’ll continue our work preserving government films for the next three years. Films from the NZBC – the precursor to Radio New Zealand National and TVNZ – are just one of the collections we’re working on.
If you want to know more about the film preservation lab’s work or you have a question about a film, you can contact an archivist to learn more.
Last updated on 26 October 2021