How Are Anime Materials Archived?

by Justin Sevakis,

Ashley asks:

Given that anime publishers and licensors can't just throw a master tape or a film can in a vault anymore, how does the process of archiving master materials work, both from a practical hardware standpoint and a file-type software one?

Publishers can and do still throw master tapes into a vault. Japanese producers still back up everything to HD-CAM SR tapes for archival purposes -- HD-CAM SR being the "last" and best quality master tape format in common use.

But increasingly, and worldwide, production and distribution no longer takes place on tape. Master files, which are usually in Apple's ProRes format (a flavor of QuickTime), or occasionally uncompressed 10-bit QuickTime, get shuffled across the world via FTP, private network transmission servers like Aspera, and via the good old fashioned and time-tested method of just throwing a USB hard drive into a box and sending it via FedEx.

Archival of digital assets is an ongoing challenge, and every company has its own methods of how to do it, ranging from not archiving anything at all, to throwing a bunch of hard drives in a closet, to keeping as much video as possible on a redundant hard drive array, to systematic backups on data tape or multi-layer BD-ROM.

If that sounds like chaos, that's because it is. Media archival is a really difficult thing. There aren't many formats that are hearty and stable enough to stand the test of time -- even formats we thought were pretty robust, like Digital Betacam, often have drop-outs and errors after sitting untouched for a number of years. At this point, good old fashioned 35mm film is the most reliable backup we have. Unfortunately, it's not really being used much anymore, and has its own problems that make it less than ideal.

The major motion picture studios are storing their archival files in a robust MJPEG2000 format based on digital theatrical packages, or DCPs. But those are fairly useless for anything BUT archival -- they can't even be played back directly. I'm unaware of this practice being used in Japan.

The good news is that, while some pieces of shows might get lost as they always do, a properly authored and mass-produced DVD and Blu-ray will probably outlive us all. Blu-ray is such good quality that it's potentially indistinguishable from a master tape with the naked eye. While it's not ideal (or completely uncompressed), if someday somebody has to pick up the pieces and re-release something with old Blu-ray assets, they'd still look pretty great and sound perfect. (Blu-rays almost always include uncompressed, full master quality audio, after all.)

So increasingly, content is being archived via redundancy, and that redundancy can at least partially be found in consumer formats. I've personally contributed a number of hard-to-find elements from media originally intended for consumers, and been able to clean it up and restore it to something that can be used again.

I'm afraid keeping anime archived properly is always going to be something of a work in progress. It's the nature of the beast.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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