Interview with the Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA) (part 2/2)

Institut National de l'Audiovisuel (INA), Bry-sur-Marne, (December 22, 2009).

Since its creation in 1975, the INA or National Audiovisual Institute1, located a few kilometres East of Paris in Bry-sur-Marne, has been entrusted with the complete archives of French radio and television broadcasting. Its mission is to safeguard, to restore, to preserve and to provide access to thousands of hours of radio and television programmes. The audiovisual archives themselves are many kilometres long, on film or different video formats of various ages and sometimes in poor condition. The SNC2 workforce of about 25 is organised into two sectors: Safeguarding, responsible for saving the archives by changing them into newer and more stable formats, and Digitization and Communication, responsible for digitising these records and passing them on to customers.

We met Gerard Mathiot who worked as a production technician, then in equipment maintenance for the ORTF and the INA, before becoming the technical manager of safeguarding. With him, we went through the different steps of safeguarding audiovisual material, from the arrival of a tape at the SNC, right up to the moment its contents are made available online at ina.fr. The aim of this interview was to determine how the INA manages the problem of obsolescent playback equipment during the tape safeguarding process. Gérard Mathiot, Alexandre Khuy; a technician for the SNC and Michel Gouley; a technician for the INA’s central video maintenance service, answered our questions about maintenance, spare parts management and the technical know-how associated with the use and repair of their equipment.

PACKED: Michel Gouley, you work for the INA’s central maintenance service. Do you work on the same type of equipment as the technicians of “the clinic”?

Michel Gouley: More or less, yes. I am mainly involved with regular maintenance, which follows a calendar that is based on the running time of each appliance. Here I do maintenance before issues arise, whereas at “the clinic”, work depends on the problems that arise during a transfer. Most of the appliances are Betacam VCRs, Betacam SP, or digital Betacam and are used intensively for transfer or digitisation in the Flexicarts3. But I sometimes also have to work on Umatic or 1” players.


A Sony Flexicart-robot. (Photo: clubic.com)


PACKED: What products do you use to maintain the VCRs?

Michel Gouley: I use Isonet cleaner on the components, but not isopropylic alcohol as this dries out the mechanical parts and increases the friction coefficient of the tape on the parts and, depending on the origin of the tape we risk jamming the mechanics. But for parts made of plastic and rubber, I use alcohol and cotton buds.


PACKED: What types of breakdown do you most frequently encounter here in the central maintenance service?

Michel Gouley: We can have faulty video heads or mechanical problems, such as a motor breaking down for example. If this is the case, we simply change the motor. If the failure involves a card, I can sometimes repair them, but on the more recent appliances the circuits are very thin, and most of the time I can do nothing except replace the entire card. Whenever possible, I replace capacitors and intervene on the circuits, but this is less common as the circuits and components are miniaturised.


PACKED: So when it happens, these are failures of the older equipment?

Michel Gouley: Yes, for older appliances. For example, we have second-hand Betacam SP VCRs that I completely refurbish here at maintenance. These are appliances that we bought for €400 from people who wanted to get rid of them but originally, when they were new, they were worth about €30,000. On these, the cards are more easily repairable, as the technology dates from the mid-eighties.

A makeover of this type often takes three or four days, and this is something I only do when I have spare time in between my regular maintenance and repair operations.


PACKED: What are the regular maintenance and repair operations?

Michel Gouley: It greatly depends on the age and the running time of the appliance. A regular fix on a Betacam SP VCR for example consists in replacing the video heads, the pinch roller, the capstan motor and the spool motors. Then, the next time that the same VCR comes back for maintenance, I will replace the same components, but also other parts such as the video head motor.

This is particularly true for Digital Betacam and Betacam SX VCRS that are in robots and in use night and day: we don’t wait until the appliance has a problem before we intervene. We know that certain parts will fail at a certain time, either from experience or from the manufacturers recommendations. This is why I change the video heads of the appliances used in the Flexicarts approximately every two years, which corresponds to about 3,000 hours of use.


PACKED: So the maintenance and replacement of parts is based on estimation? It is preventive maintenance?

Michel Gouley: Yes, and for the simple reason that if we wait for the equipment to break down, we take the risk of a faulty appliance damaging a tape and that is not an option. For the INA, the value of the material is much greater than that of a spare part, whatever it is. The INA is not a museum for video equipment: all the appliances here have one and the same function, to save the material in the best possible way, without putting the tape on which it is recorded at risk.

In addition, the digital appliances are also equipped with compensation systems that process data to correct errors. As a consequence, we don’t see the defects and problems coming: from one day to the next we go beyond the limits of the correcting system without any warning clues during playback. On analog machines however, we see the problem appear before getting worse, and we can avoid it more easily.


PACKED: How do you find spare parts and components?

Michel Gouley: SONY has a European centre for spare parts in Belgium4, as stock is not taxed in Belgium. However, we can no longer find video heads for the old appliances such as Umatic VCRs. There are certain companies, mainly in England or the USA, that remould video heads; we just send them the drum and they put on new video heads. But this is not an ideal solution, in that the drum is often worn or scratched and its characteristics are no longer really optimal.


PACKED: Is a metal drum really all that fragile?

Michel Gouley: The diameter of a drum can lose between 10 and 15-20 microns5, and that is enough to modify the settings of the video player. The tape has the same effect as sandpaper wherever it runs through the video player’s mechanics. Even if on a metal part the wear is minute, the permanent friction of the tape is enough to have consequences, as the dimensions are very precise. Also, a worn component will distort the tape.


PACKED: So you have a large stock of spare parts?

Michel Gouley: Most of the time, I have stock left but I also have wrecks from which I take whatever I am missing: to sum it up I “undress Peter to dress Jack”. For obsolete appliances, this is how we proceed; we salvage the wrecks. But this is already a problem for more recent formats such as Digital Betacam. Sony has decided to end production of the spare parts for this equipment, which is an awkward situation as it is the reference format for the INA’s archives. As they stopped selling these video players seven years ago they can legally stop production of the components. We are already giving thought to the stock we will need.

I also have a stock of electronic components that are indexed by the manufacturer’s code. Each component corresponds to a code on the manual, and when a circuit fails we can find the part thanks to this code. Personally, I use a reference book printed by Sony that gives all the equivalents between the different components. Then I order the part on the Internet and sometimes it is available in Belgium, otherwise it comes from Japan.


PACKED: How do you find the older appliances?

Michel Gouley: From brokers, broadcasting equipment retailers, television channels or production agencies. The brokers have contacts worldwide, which avoids us having to search ourselves on eBay or by other means.


PACKED: How do you manage the stock of appliances, and follow-up their maintenance and repair?

Michel Gouley: We have a database that includes all the equipment of the INA. This goes from oscilloscopes to VCRs, through monitors, telecine etc… Each time we intervene on equipment, or equipment comes to central maintenance, it is recorded in the database. Each machine is referenced and has a sort of health record that lists the parts changed, any anomalies that have occurred, and an account of the appliance’s running time.


PACKED: Did the INA develop this database?

Michel Gouley: No, not the one we currently use. In fact, for the past few weeks we have been using a system developed by a software editing company KIMOCE6 based in Mulhouse, that develops CMMS7 applications, and which developed the DAGOBA8 programme according to the INA’s requirements. DAGOBA is a database that contains all equipment found at the INA and not only video players. Prior to this, we had an internally developed database on Access9 with a Visual Basic10 interface.


PACKED: How many video players do you possess in the INA?

Michel Gouley: If I consult our database right now, I see that we have 1129 video players for different types of format from 1” to Digital Betacam.


PACKED: Are the “wrecked” appliances also indexed in the database?

Michel Gouley: Yes they are, however they are considered as rejects.


PACKED: On which documentation do you base the maintenance of your devices, and how is it organised?

Michel Gouley: Our working background for maintenance and repair is the collection of manuals supplied by the manufacturers. We have the printed manuals, and we possess an application on CD-Rom that includes electronic versions of these documents. Each year we subscribe to the Sony Assist11 website that allows us to find manuals. On this site we also find an index of the most common defects of an appliance and the best way to remedy them. It is a maintenance aid, without being a universal “recipe”, because it is not because you encounter a problem that it always will be indexed on the site.


PACKED: Is the documentation procured at the same time as the equipment?

Michel Gouley: The policy of the INA is not in fact to buy the manual at the same time that the equipment is bought. Most of the time, we buy the manual when we need it, that is to say when the equipment breaks down. This is in part due to the change in policy of the manufacturers, who formerly supplied a manual systematically with each sale, whereas today they sell each manual for about €500, which directly increases the cost of the device by €500 as a consequence. Even the users manual is now very rarely on paper but on CD-Rom, which of course allows the manufacturer to cut down on expenses even more.


PACKED: Do you have your own maintenance notes?

Michel Gouley: Yes, I sometimes add notes to existing documents, because the same problem might reoccur at intervals of two or three years. Often, we establish that it is a design problem with the device, and this is why the problems are often recurrent.


PACKED: Are there differences between the different manufacturers and/or models in terms of design?

Michel Gouley: Yes, from experience I would say that Sony appliances have always had very simple and robust mechanics, and it is on these devices that we have the fewest problems of this type. A multi format Betacam video player, such as those we use for digitisation on the Flexicarts for example, are designed with a moulded cast aluminium chassis that is very strong. This is important, as the heat generated by the appliance’s use must not warp this base from which the dimensions are established. Conversely, the first video recorders made in Europe were real Rube Goldberg machines equipped with very complicated mechanics. This superiority is very probably due to the experience Sony had already gained through Umatic video recorders.

It is the same for diagrams; each manufacturer has its own way of organising its diagrams and drawing components. From one brand to another, the logic can sometimes be very different. Here also, the diagrams of Sony or Thomson are often much more easy to use than those of Panasonic for example, which are very complicated to understand and with which the path between different components is not easy to follow during a repair.

Gérard Mathiot: However, and this time to the credit of manufacturers, speaking of more recent appliances, it must be said that the more complex a device is, the more complicated the electronic diagrams have to be. There was a time when each card had a slide because each card had a function. Today, cards are such multi-functional things that the diagrams have to be split between several pages, or the information is so small that it becomes difficult to read. When a diagram covers seven pages, it becomes more like playing paper chase.


PACKED: Do you also have problems with monitors?

Gérard Mathiot: No, not really. The only problem we have is with the evolution of flat screens replacing cathode tubes and the quality is truly different. Otherwise, technical problems are rare. In ten years, monitors have few major problems.


The different fases in the preservation, digitalisation and disclosure of a program. (Photo: INA)


III. Digitisation, Back-up and Communication.


PACKED: At which date must the backup of the entire video archive be completed?

Gérard Mathiot: The end of safeguarding and digitisation is planned for 2015, so in 5 years time.


PACKED: Does the INA also possess archives of daily television broadcasting?

Gérard Mathiot: Yes, at one period there was a compliance recording system saved to Umatic ¾ that was sent to the INA daily by the television channels. Compliance recording saved to Betacam then replaced this. Today we have a live capture system, which allows us to immediately digitise the broadcast and save it to a file.


PACKED: You spoke of a mirror site12 where a copy of the digitised material will be stored. Will this be done on hard drives or on LTO13 tape?

Gérard Mathiot: There is still a lot of debate in the archiving world around this question. Hard drive technology today certainly allows us to store much more information using a lot less space and at an ever-decreasing cost. However, one counter argument is that we have experience with magnetic tapes that we don’t have with other means of storing data such as hard drives. In addition, saving data on LTO tape only uses energy when the archive has to be consulted, whereas a hard drive uses electricity all the time. The fact that the IT service had their say in the decision was a major influence, as their culture is one of hard drives rather than tapes.


PACKED: How is quality control implemented?

Gérard Mathiot: Quality control is an important part of our process. Digitisation comes after a step we call conservation, this means transferring the material to a more permanent format, in this case Digital Betacam. Quality control therefore takes place after this transfer, to make sure that the Digital Betacam tape is of good quality, but of course also to make sure that the transfer is of good quality. We cannot check everything, so we proceed by “surveying” transfers that have been done internally or outsourced, which is the case for transfers of telecine, for example.


PACKED: Is the material restored if the quality is not up to scratch?

Gérard Mathiot: For now, in terms of safeguarding, we do not seek to restore material, but to transfer them as they are and simply take care not to introduce additional problems to those that already exist. Safeguarding is done as is by adjusting the appliance in the best possible way. Restoration, if it takes place, will take place later and on demand if a customer wishes to show an archive with fewer imperfections. In this case, a financial contribution is often asked for.


PACKED: How does digitisation take place?

Gérard Mathiot: First of all we check the contents of each cassette, not in its entirety, only particular moments such as the first and last useful images. All these cassettes are placed in robots, SONY Fexicarts, which were originally broadcasting robots but here are used as video players for digitisation. Today these are not in production anymore, so we buy them whenever we get the opportunity. We use them for cassettes of the Betacam family, including Betacam, Digital Betacam or Betacam SX. These cassettes, if they haven’t just been made at safeguarding, hold material that was already in a Beta format that is usable for digitisation. The robot contains video players that are compatible with all these formats and it is capable of recognising them. The robot’s arm, after reading the bar code of the cassette, will put it in a video player establishing which one should be used first. Once the cassette is in a video player, playback is real-time, so if the cassette is one hour long then the digitising process also lasts one hour.

The video and audio outputs are sent to an encoder14 that is fitted with two cards. One of the cards will process MPEG-115 and the other card MPEG-216 and the whole is sent to the room where all the data is stored as files, for a total of 430,000 hours of television and 230,000 hours of radio stored on LTO or hard drive. The process is semi-automatic; once the cassettes have been loaded onto the Flexicart, digitisation is autonomous.

And whenever there is an emergency, all we have to do is change the date in the computer management system and tell the system that the tape was needed yesterday, and it will be processed in priority. This is something that happens less often as the most demanded archives are already digitised. During the day, technicians check the quality of playback and encoding during the digitisation process. In the morning, when the appliances have been running all night, the technicians check the files one by one, not in their entirety, but also by sampling. We cannot achieve 100% reliability, but risks are reduced to a minimum.


PACKED: Which formats are used for digitisation and storage?

Gérard Mathiot: During the digitisation process, two types of file are produced; a high-resolution MPEG-2 8MB file and a low-resolution MPEG-1 file. The low-resolution file will be used on the Internet, and the high-resolution file can be made available to the customers who wish to use it.


PACKED: What are the media used to store these files?

Gérard Mathiot: This is all stored on LTO tape and hard drive. We initially made the decision to use SONY DTF17, which is why you can still find robots for this type of tape here today. But a few years after we chose this format, SONY decided to stop producing this type of tape.

Since the demise of DTF, the MPEG-2 files are stored on LTO magnetic tape. We can save 108 hours of material with LTO-3 and with LTO-5, which is the format we will upgrade to; we will be able to save 400 hours of material. The advantage of LTO is that it is an open format, produced by several manufacturers, which avoids us being tied to a single supplier, as was the case with Sony DTF.

If the air conditioning is always on here, it’s because of the mainframes. As for the backup system maintenance; the company that sold it to us does it.


LTO-tapes. (Photo: clubic.com)


PACKED: Is the building where all this data is stored secured?

Gérard Mathiot: There are power generators for the hard drives and the air conditioning. An emergency system with gas bottles will eliminate the oxygen in the room if a fire breaks out. In addition, a limited number of people have access thanks to a fingerprint reader.


PACKED: Will this data also have to migrate at some point in time?

Gérard Mathiot: Yes, once the LTO tapes are well used, we will decide if we copy them to a newer format. And in opposition to the original videotapes, this would no longer be a real-time process, but a much faster one.


PACKED: How are the archives supplied and passed on to customers?

Gérard Mathiot: After validation by our legal management that the INA possesses the rights of the programme to be released, the commercial management confirms the order, and a copy of the archive can be made and sent to the customer. This copy is made from the MPEG-2 sequence stored on LTO tape and read by the robot. As time goes by we will deliver more and more files, and fewer DVDs or cassettes.


PACKED: Which format is used to send this copy?

Gérard Mathiot: Copies to Digital Betacam, Betacam SP or DVD are produced by the SNC. We can send a file containing the programme, with no physical media, from the urgent communication service. Eventually, when all of our customers are equipped to receive files, then production of cassettes and DVDs will become marginal.


PACKED: When all the Digital Betacam tapes are digitised and tapes are finally replaced by archive files, will a non-compressed18 format be used?

Gérard Mathiot: The MPEG-2 format currently produced from Digital Betacam cassette is a compressed format. When we have restoration work to do, we have to start over from the Digital Betacam tape that contains a maximum amount of information. Good restoration is only possible with a sufficient amount of data, because restoration tools are more and more powerful and need a maximum amount of detail.

We are currently thinking and researching a possible conservation format to replace the Digital Betacam cassette, as it will soon be obsolete.

Click here to read Part 1 of this interview.


Footnotes

1The INA is in charge of the legal deposit of 88 television channels and 17 radio channels in France (www.ina-entreprise.com/entreprise/activites/depot-legal-radio-tele/index.html). The INA is an EPIC (an Industrial and Commercial Public Establishment). Its funding is neither entirely public, nor entirely commercial. The activity of the establishment is limited to the public broadcasting that it administers. It therefore cannot use its assets and capital for other activities unless these contribute, be it indirectly, to the public service with which it is entrusted.
2The SNC is the department of Safeguarding, Digitisation and Communication within the INA.
3A Sony Flexicart is a type of robot that can be controlled by a computer programme to accomplish automatic tasks with several video recorders or players, such as recording the same signal to several media, or the playback of several tapes according to predefined and programmed criteria.
4The spares centre is situated in Londerzeel, Belgium. More info: Sony Belgium - Sony Benelux B.V., Customer Info Centre, Techologielaan 7, 1840 Londerzeel, Belgium, tel: +32 70 222127, fax: +32 70 222127, e-mail: .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
5A micron is the unofficial name for a micrometre, equivalent to 10-6 metres or 0.000,001 metre or 0.001 millimetres.
6Founded in 1991, KIMOCE is a French editor of management software. http://www.kimoce.com
7A CMMS (Computerized Maintenance Management System) application is a management method designed for the maintenance services of a company to assist with missions of preventive, productive, corrective and prescribed maintenance, stock management, procurement and staff.
8DAGOBA was the name that the INA chose for its CMMS developed by KIMOCE.
9Launched in 1992, Microsoft Access, or MS Access (officially Microsoft Office Access) is a pseudo-relational database management system edited by Microsoft. It is part of the MS Office Pro suite.
10Visual Basic is a programming language that allows the creation of simple graphical applications. The first version of Visual Basic, VB 1.0, was launched in 1991. VBA, Visual Basic for Applications is a version that is directly applicable to software such as Word, Excel, Access or any other programme using VBA.
11Sony Assist is a programme edited by SONY, which is aimed at technicians, allowing them access to manuals of equipment in the SONY range.http://sony-assist.software.informer.com/
12In information technology, a mirror is an exact copy of a dataset. The mirror site is usually physically separated from the copied data to ensure safer archiving. The mirror of a website, for example, will be an exact copy of the data but on a different server.
13LTO is an acronym for Linear Tape-Open, an open format developed in the late 1990s for storing data on magnetic tape. It quickly became a standard and the most widely used format for storing data. The latest version is LTO-5; launched in 2008, with a capacity of 1.5 TB and a speed of 140 MB/s. LTO-6 has a planned capacity of 3.2 TB and a speed of 270 MB/s.
14An audio/video encoder, or codec, transforms data into compressed files.
15Le MPEG-1 is a video and audio compression format, defined by ISO/IEC-11172 standard and developed by the MPEG group in 1988. The MPEG-1 standard represents each image as a collection of 16 x 16 blocks. It allows a resolution of 352x240 pixels at 30 frames/s in NTSC and 352x288 pixels at 25 frames/s in PAL/SECAM. MPEG-1 allows a speed of about 1.2 MB/s.
16MPEG-2 is the second-generation standard (1994) from the Moving Pictures Experts Group, following on from MPEG-1. MPEG-2 defines the aspects of video compression through networks for digital television. This video format is used for DVD and SVCD with different resolutions and for satellite digital TV, cable TV, telecom network or terrestrial TV.
17DTF (for Digital Tape Format) is a tape format for data storage developed by Sony. It consists of a cassette that holds a ½ inch tape. There were two versions of DTF; DTF-1 and DTF-2, as well as two different cassette sizes, S and L. Today, Sony has completely stopped the production of this format.
18Video compression is a means of data compression, which consists in reducing the amount of data whilst limiting the impact on the visual quality of the video. The advantage is a reduction in the cost of storage and transmission of video files. With a lossless compression, no data is lost, but with a lossy compression, a risk of loss of information exists. A non-compressed video format preserves all of the data from the original signal.

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