The NFB Collection Conservation Rooms
Canada’s living memory, an accessible collection of more than 190,000 items to date, stored in one location.
The NFB: A world leader in conservation, restoration and digitization
The NFB is internationally recognized in the fields of audiovisual conservation, restoration and digitization. The institution has digitized all of its active collection—over 60% of the more than 13,000 titles produced over the past eight decades. This colossal task continues as the NFB works to conserve its current and future productions to ensure that Canadians and people the world over can access Canada’s audiovisual heritage. By tracking new technology, investing in research and development and partnering with Canadian and international public and private sector organizations, the NFB is implementing the technologies needed to preserve and share the unique and daring storytelling of Canadian creators and creative technicians. This will ensure that this constantly expanding archive continues to be an accessible, living archive of works.
New conservation and digitization rooms
This fall, the collection conservation and digitization facilities will be moving to a new building owned by the Montoni group, at 4725 Cousens Street in the borough of Saint-Laurent in Montreal. The new building will house a leading-edge data centre and conservation facility designed for quick access to the NFB’s rich audiovisual heritage. But the centre will be more than just an archive. It will be a centre of expertise—a laboratory where technologies past, present and future intersect. Over a dozen experts will continue their conservation, restoration and digitization work there to make the NFB collection even more accessible. Most of this living collection, which is constantly growing and becoming more accessible, can be viewed without charge at NFB.ca.
Publicly available 24-7 on all platforms
A great diversity of conserved items
Easy and permanent access to the digital archives is provided by a high-speed connection between the conservation room in the borough of Saint-Laurent and NFB headquarters at Îlot Balmoral in downtown Montreal. This will give the public access to the collection and the NFB’s most recent titles during festivals, in communities, on television, in theatres and online.
Carefully archived duplicate media assets
The building at 4725 Cousens Street, with its 2,950 cubic metres of storage space, will house about 190,000 items, including:
- 16-mm and 35-mm reels
- Various types of cassettes, including video cassettes and Digital Betacam
- Memorabilia of different kinds:
- Equipment: cameras, projectors, Moviolas, Sprocketape (a predecessor to the portable tape recorder, invented in the 1950s by Chester Beachell at the NFB for recording sound)
- Production items: glass display cases of animated films, puppets, drawings (such as those from the film The Hat by Michèle Cournoyer) and props (such as the chair from the film A Chairy Tale by Norman McLaren)
- Awards: Academy Honorary Award, Gémeaux, Canadian Screen Awards, Boomerang, Numix, Palme d’Or
As part of the NFB head office move, a process was initiated to dispose of unused shots, retain anything of historical value that could be made available through NFB Archives (stock shots) and determine what should be removed from the conservation rooms.
Note: The Photo Library Collection is housed in the NFB head office in Îlot Balmoral, in downtown Montreal. In addition, over 800 photostories created by the NFB between 1955 and 1971 can be viewed on a website created by the Canadian Photography Institute at: photostories.ca.
Digitization and restoration at the NFB: The key to increased accessibility
In accordance with the NFB’s golden rules of archiving, a duplicate of every media asset in its collection is kept at a remote second site in a former mine. Its underground location provides exceptional archiving conditions. The NFB also stores IMAX® productions at the site.
Other media assets are housed at Library and Archives Canada, particularly 35-mm prints that date back before the NFB’s conservation rooms were centralized in the mid-1990s.
Finally, the NFB head office at Îlot Balmoral serves as a second archive site for “Born Digital” productions thanks to its high-speed connection and storage technology.
Technical details: The NFB’s new conservation and digitization rooms
The NFB is recognized worldwide for its well-thought-out strategy and high-quality work in the fields of audiovisual conservation, restoration and digitization. In our era, digitization is the key to preserving the collection and making it accessible. Some of the ways in which the NFB is looking to the future:
• In recent years, the NFB has implemented its four golden rules of long-term archiving:
1. Put a process in place that continuously checks the integrity of the stored data.
2. Choose open-file formats in order to avoid frequent data migrations.
3. Proactively anticipate the obsolescence of the storage hardware.
4. Keep two copies of every media asset on two very different storage technologies, in two completely different locations.
• Digitization requires specialized equipment and expertise working with film stock, both of which are increasingly hard to find.
• It is also time-consuming. For example, a 35-mm feature documentary with a running time of 2.5 hours takes triple that—7.5 hours—to digitize.
• The restoration process requires in-depth knowledge of the era in which the film was made to improve its condition without altering it. For example, restoring the documentary Churchill’s Island (1941, 21 min) required extensive research on the title, which was the NFB’s first Oscar®-winning film. Correcting details and imperfections took about 60 hours.
• The NFB augments its expertise by collaborating with a number of Canadian and international partners to continue to preserve and promote its rich and constantly evolving collection. Its partners include:
• Atempo (France): After an initial partnership in 2010 to digitally archive all of the NFB’s audiovisual assets using the Atempo Digital Archive, this collaboration was renewed in 2019 for another 10 years to integrate Atempo’s new features and help manage audiovisual production and distribution at the NFB.
• Rhizome (United States): This technical collaboration, announced in 2018, is intended to provide sustained access to more than 100 interactive productions and web-based artworks in the NFB’s collection using Webrecorder, an open-source archiving platform initiated by Rhizome. The NFB is contributing to its development. This partnership aims to produce significant enhancements to Webrecorder to meet the needs of the NFB and the industry.
• Sony (Japan): The goal of this technical partnership is to integrate the optical archiving technology into the Atempo Digital Archive solution.
A little history
4725 Cousens Street, Montreal (borough of Saint-Laurent)
- Over 2,950 cubic metres of total volume, 29.81 metres wide x 59.8 metres deep, with 7.3-metre-high ceilings. By comparison, the former conservation rooms at 3155 Côte-de-Liesse Road had a volume of just over 4,000 cubic metres.
- Approximately 190,000 assets archived, such as reels, cassettes and memorabilia.
- About 15 employees will move to the building.
- Digitization equipment:
3 film digitizers
1 sound digitizer
1 robotic archiving system
and all laboratory equipment
• Also stored here are archival films produced by the Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau (dissolved in 1941) prior to the NFB’s founding in 1939, such as:
o Films from the First World War, some of which are available at NFB.ca, such as: Airplane Casualities (1918), Battle of Arras (1917), Valenciennes 1 (1918) and Valenciennes 2 (1918).
o Parks Canada films, including some featuring Grey Owl, such as Beaver People (1928) and Beaver Family (1929), available at NFB.ca.
• The site of the former NFB head office at 3155 Côte-de-Liesse Road, Saint-Laurent, was selected to house all operations, including conservation rooms, a shooting stage and laboratories. It was inaugurated in 1956.
• A 1967 warehouse fire in Kirkland resulted in the loss of 60,000 film cans, or 13 million metres of film shot by the NFB between 1940 and 1952. The warehouse was used to store the highly flammable nitrate film stock away from the NFB’s other operations. For 2,150 films, this meant the loss of 35-mm prints in good condition. Many of the only remaining copies of a number of films that date back to the Second World War are well worn.
• To minimize the risk of loss and implement industry best practices, conservation rooms were centralized in the mid-1990s. This allowed the collection to be properly inventoried and stored under appropriate conditions, such as in refrigerated and humidity-controlled rooms.
• The NFB developed new film canisters in the late 1990s in partnership with STIL, a company from Quebec City, to replace the archive’s cardboard and older metal canisters. Designed to meet the highest film-conservation standards, the canisters are vented and made of polypropylene to protect films from degradation, dirt and foreign matter. They are easily identifiable by their yellow colour and other characteristics. Today they are sold around the world.
• John Coltrane’s only known film soundtrack, the album Blue World, contains eight interpretations of classic compositions specially recorded in 1964 for Gilles Groulx’s classic, The Cat in the Bag. It was rediscovered as the film was being made available online at NFB.ca. Thanks to careful preservation by the NFB’s specialists in Montreal, the soundtrack was released on the Impulse! record label in September 2019.
• The NFB’s collection continues to inspire today’s filmmakers. For example, Luc Bourdon created The Memories of Angels (2008) entirely from NFB films from the 1950s and 1960s, and his doc The Devil’s Share (2017), a new and unique look at the Quiet Revolution in the 1970s, was based on clips from nearly 200 films in the collection.
About the NFB
The NFB is Canada’s public producer of award-winning creative documentaries, auteur animation, interactive stories and participatory experiences. NFB producers are embedded in communities across the country, from St. John’s to Vancouver, working with talented creators on innovative and socially relevant projects. The NFB is a leader in gender equity in film and digital media production, and is working to strengthen Indigenous-led production, guided by the recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. NFB productions have won over 7,000 awards, including 27 Canadian Screen Awards, 21 Webbys, 12 Oscars and more than 100 Genies. To access this award-winning content and discover the work of NFB creators, visit NFB.ca, download its apps for mobile devices or visit NFB Pause.