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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.