Moving the movies

December 4, 1998

Murray Weston focuses on the epic production of a project that tests the potential for digital delivery of a high-quality film archive

Moving pictures have this year taken their place among the resources available to scholars and teachers on the United Kingdom's academic network JANET. These are not just brief video clips which run in a small screen window. Hours of high-quality feature, documentary and medical film, accompanied by supporting information, are available for browsing.

Last January saw the start of the Imagination/Universities Network Pilot project, an experiment with online moving picture delivery in UK higher education. On December 17-18 there will be a conference at Robinson College, Cambridge to discuss progress and prospects.

The partners in the project are the British Film Institute, the British Universities Film and Video Council and the funding bodies' Joint Information Systems Committee. Two university sites were selected to work on the project because they offered the opportunity to test two different technical solutions. The University of Glasgow, home of the Performing Arts Data Service, had installed Silicon Graphics server technology with Mediabase software and planned to test a high-end solution. The University of Glamorgan and the South Wales Metropolitan Area Network wished to test lower cost technology with NT servers and Microsoft NetShow software.

The two sites have installed on their servers a significant collection of moving images and metadata (structured catalogue information describing the encoded material) sourced primarily from the BFI's National Film and Television Archive. The material was selected by three subject groups working in social history, film studies and medicine. Some 35 hours' running time has been cleared for use and digitally encoded. Additional content has been obtained from the NorthWest Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University. Medical film material has been provided by the University of Sheffield, the University of Leicester and the EBS Trust's Shotlist initiative, which is creating specialist video recordings for UK higher education use without copyright restriction.

The material includes a collection of work by the director Alfred Hitchcock, a collection of 1950s and 1960s television, and medical footage in which the human skull is opened and the brain dissected.

The encoding of content has been carried out at Manchester Computing's Visualisation Unit. Various levels and types of encoding algorithm have been tested. The resulting files will be available for use at the sites until March next year when a concluding report with evaluation will be published. This month's conference will allow participants to assess the quality of delivery live from pilot sites. Sessions will demonstrate how metadata has been formatted to assist in the process of browsing various related digital assets.

There will be a chance to see BFI Online, a parallel project developed by the British Film Institute in partnership with IBM. And there will be a demonstration of a project in which the Nederlands Audiovisueel Archief is distributing moving images from its centre in Hilversum to local educational institutions.

These projects, and other trials in the UK and abroad, are facing similar challenges as they move to scale up for general distribution. Rights clearances, network bandwidth and traffic, access authorisation and integration of standards - these are some of the difficult issues encountered on the way to creating a fully integrated resource.

The next three to four years will be a crucial period. Few teachers and researchers in higher education have the knowledge and tenacity to navigate their way through the myriad of moving image distributors, libraries and archives to find anything of value for their specialist use. The process of clearing rights and negotiating purchase often proves to be a stumbling block. Audiovisual librarians are helpful guides on the path to acquisition, but they are few in number.

Recent moves by JISC to develop a Distributed National Electronic Resource for higher education include the notion of providing online access to moving image content alongside still illustrations, text sources and databases. This integration would be the first realistic attempt to instal audiovisual works among other resources for scholarship and make them available to all university subject disciplines. It could open up access to material which has rarely been seen and place those works in a context which would encourage further reference and more flexible use.

Murray Weston is director, British Universities Film & Video Council. Conference information: BUFVC, 77 Wells Street, London W1P 3REtel: 0171 393 1500 fax: 0171 393 1555 email: bufvc@open.ac.uk web: www.bufvc.ac.uk.

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