Universal Studios Fire Raises Questions About Protection of Old Films

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Last weekend's fire at Universal Studios damaged a vault that contained film prints. We don't know yet exactly what was lost, but Universal has said all the films in the vault were copies. But this raised the question: how do studios protect their old films, especially the masters? KPCC's Morning Edition host Steve Julian spoke with Michael Pogorzelski, the director of the film archive for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, about the measures studios take to keep their old films safe from fire or other natural disasters.

Michael Pogorzelski: Well, um, there are sort of a lot of sets of industry best practices when it comes to vault construction and fire safety. The primary means of protection is geographic separation of all of the elements related to a feature film. If you have one set of original elements, say, on the west coast, then you'll have your second generation sets either in the Midwest or on the east coast, geographically separated from the originals.

Steve Julian: What about the vaults themselves? What can you tell us, what they typically look like?

Pogorzelski: Well at the Academy, a safety film vault is essentially just racks of shelving with film cans stacked on it. Film is best kept cool and somewhat dry, so usually the vaults are climate controlled, anywhere from, I'm gonna say 37 degrees Fahrenheit up to, let's say 50 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on what's in them.

Julian: What about fire protections?

Pogorzelski: There are all different types of fire protection that are also used by cultural institutions like museums that feature either pre-action sprinkler systems where the pipes are pressurized, but there's no water in them, so in the case of an accidental discharge or a sprinkler head being knocked off, you won't have the vaults flooded. There are also numerous types of gas fire suppressions systems, again, so in the event of an accidental false alarm or discharge, you're not getting the film collection wet.

Julian: At the Academy, is the vault that the originals are in protected with, I don't know, thick concrete walls, or anything like that, or is it just a part of the building?

Pogorzelski: Yeah, actually, our archives are located in Hollywood at a place called the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study. It began life as a radio and television studio in 1947, and so all of those old studio spaces have, like you said, 12 inch reinforced concrete walls, and we also have a gas fire suppression system for our vaults, and have built them so that if there's a fire in any one place, it will be isolated from the rest of either the vault facilities, or our offices and workspaces.

Julian: You've got a history in film preservation. Do you think that studios are doing enough to keep their films safe?

Pogorzelski: Yes. I think that– well, when I started working at the Academy film archive, it was really the beginning of a tremendous amount of work of restoration and preservation of all of the studios' libraries. I think that DVD's were certainly a part of it, but there also was– it increased awareness of the value of the libraries, but also their cultural value as well. And so I think that, I'm really happy to say that the vast majority of films in studio libraries are being really well taken care of these days.

Julian: Mike Pogorzelski is director of archives for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Thanks for your time.

Pogorzelski: Thank you.