Preserving Hollywood's most valuable treasures -- its films (pictures)

For the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, preserving tens of thousands of the greatest films of all time is a crucial job. CNET Road Trip 2012 stops in at the Academy Film Archive.

Daniel Terdiman
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Straight down the row

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.--Tinseltown may be known for big stars and that famous sign on the hill, but when all is said and done, its real treasure is its movies. As in the actual film stock.

For years, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences -- the folks behind the Oscars -- has made it its business to preserve tens of thousands of movies, and these days, it does so at the Pickford Center in Hollywood, an old TV studio.

Now, the Academy Film Archive keeps more than 76,000 titles locked away in cold storage in giant concrete vaults, safe from earthquakes and fire, all so future generations can be sure to enjoy watching the great -- and even not so great -- flicks this town has produced.

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Lawrence of Arabia

Films are archived on large sets of shelves in three cold-storage studios. Though there is no specific order the movies are stored in, they are all digitally coded, so archivists can find any title they want quickly. This is a stack of cans filled with multiple reels of a 70mm print of "Lawrence of Arabia."

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Wide view

A look down one of the many rows of archived films in the cold-storage vaults of the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood.

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The famous gold statue, writ large, stands guard inside the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Pickford Center -- home to the Academy Film Archive -- in Hollywood.

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Through the floor

A look through the grated floor of the second story of one of the vaults at films stored on the first floor.

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Three sizes

On a shelf, a look at three different sizes of film stock in the archive's collection -- from left to right, 16 mm, 35 mm, and 70 mm.

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Protective sieve

A reel of the 1982 Jessica Lange film "Frances" is stored in what's known as a molecular sieve to protect it from the breakdown of acetic acid. The sieve sucks up the acid in a decomposition process.

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2001 cans

Several reels of "2001: A Space Odyssey" sit on a shelf at the Academy Film Archive.

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The Academy Film Archive stores films in cold-storage vaults at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 25 percent relative humidity. Because of that, when it is necessary to remove reels for any reason, they must first be acclimatized before entering normal environmental conditions. As a result, they are stored in this interim area for 24 hours, covered by plastic in case a fire causes sprinklers to go of.

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Because water is just as bad for film stock as is fire or smoke, there are no water pipes anywhere inside the vaults. Instead, the Academy utilizes a fire-supression system called Inergen, which instantly converts oxygen in the air to carbon dioxide. That leaves no fuel in the air for fire, but enough oxygen for someone inside the vaults to breathe long enough to escape.

The Academy keeps this phalanx of tanks in the basement of the building, always at the ready to completely fill a vault with Inergen in the case of a fire. However, two different sensors in the vault must both be triggered in order to release the material, to prevent against a costly false alarm.

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It's a Wonderful Life

Several reels of "It's a Wonderful Life" sit in cans in the archives.

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Several reels of "Spider-Man" sit in plastic cans on a shelf in the archive.

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Michael explaining

Academy Film Archive director Michael Pogorzelski explains the preservation system inside one of the vaults.

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Hockey puck

It's been more than half a century since films were made using nitrate stock, but there are still countless movies in existence that used the unstable material. Nitrate stock is highly flammable and burns uncontrollably if it ignites. But it is also can start to decompose, and once it does so, the only way to stop it is to cut out the ruined elements, which meld into what is called a "hockey puck," as seen here.

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Hockey puck and good nitrate

A side-by-side look at two nitrate film reels -- a hockey puck that has had 700 feet of good film cut off it, and a normal-condition reel.

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Rusty nitrate can

A very old and rusty nitrate film reel can.

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Stack of nitrate cans

A stack of nitrate film reel cans on a table inside the office where archivists work with the highly flammable material.

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The Academy Film Archive, in addition to maintaining more than 76,000 titles on film stock, also has machines that can be used by researchers and others to play back the movies. This is a Moviola.

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History of videotapes

The Academy Film Archive also keeps thousands of film titles on various types of video tape. This is a look at some of the many different kinds of video tape in its collection: (right to left) a circa-1986 D1 and ending with an HDCam SR.

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Capacitance Electronic

This is a copy of "Bridge over the River Kwai" on a Capacitance Electronic disc, a precursor to the laser disc that never made it because its creators took too long to get it to market.

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Playback decks

A cart full of various playback decks used when someone needs to watch old video tape. The Academy Film Archive tries to keep a complete set of these machines, as well as others from which to take parts, to ensure that it will continue to be able to play back any tape in its collection.

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