The Cers Video Archive: You May Say I am A Dreamer


"Help yourself! Feel free to watch any tapes." How Man, President of CERS, showed me the heavy duty storage rack full of old video tapes in CERS’s Hong Kong headquarter office. Most of the tapes had a label with only date and place written on it. I felt discontented immediately because, as an editor and film- director, I know that it is essential when editing that any particular video clip should be easily located with accuracy in order to save time and maintain concentration. I have had so much painstaking experience in going through hours and hours of footages just to find a particular one second scene. This happened when detailed descriptions were not logged for each tape. Simply a date or a place is not good enough.
At least all tapes were kept in boxes stacked inside an air-conditioned room with dehumidifier. They were perfectly well protected from moisture and hence from deterioration. I felt anxious however, because of the imminent loss that would arise, not from within, but from the ever-changing world outside the box. Soon the footage recorded would be lost, not because of the failure of magnetic tracks on tape but because of the playback machine that was calibrated to interpret an analog video signal developed by the British in the 1930s. Manufacturers such as JVC, SONY and Panasonic ceased production of analog video machines after the inception of digital video in the mid-1990s. Digitalization had revolutionized the television and video production industry, thus making it difficult to find and expensive to retrieve analog video. The longer the time, the higher the risk of losses. Looking at those tapes on the shelf with labels dated 1983, 1984, 1985... up to 2014, my heart sank.


I had been a volunteer film-maker for CERS since 2007 and I had always kept a detailed description of what I filmed. Progressing with the technological trend is a hidden rule of the business. Average lifespan of video storage is 12 years. Constant renewal of the storage system allows valuable footage to last. These days, preserving a photograph is irritating to many people. Many of us have old family pictures in print form and want to have them digitally scanned. It used to be stored in a 4MB floppy disk, then on 3.5 inch disks, then on an internal drive of 100MB, then a 8GB USB drive, then a 16GB flash drive, then a 2TB portable hard drive. Meanwhile, the various digital formats for storing a picture, such as PNG, TGA, PDF, ICNS, BMP, TIFF, GIF, or JPEG, are making logging even more complicated. One second of video, in my case in the PAL system, consists of 25 frames of images. In other words, whatever complication applies to storing a photograph should be multiplied 25 times. You must acknowledge the bulkiness of the issue. No wonder there is a degree course for librarians in university.
Perhaps I am a minor OCD sufferer who has a craving to get things neat and useful. In 2015, I proposed a contract to How Man to spend full-time in salvaging those tapes, hence the footage, hence the legacy of CERS. Soon after, a total of 1,380 tapes of various formats dating from 1985 to 2014 were transported to my editing workshop, a.k.a. my home. Operation “Back to the Future”, as I named it, had begun.
Unlike going through a pile of photographs that you can flip faster or slower, video has to be viewed in real time. A total of 24TB of data, approximately 48,400 minutes or 800 hours, of raw footage had to be converted into digital video files before identifying and logging any valuable footage with detailed description. So far, a year and a half has been spent on building 70% of the ideal archive system. The intricate technical procedures and time consumed, however, are justified by the significance of the old footage that is being saved.


During the course of building the archive, I have had the privilege to access the past and witness the making of history. For all the exploration team members, I have watched as their bodies matured, unwillingly changing to be heavily built or, to be precise, fat. Black thick curly hair became grey thin threads or even bald caps. Lonely trips along the Yellow River of two young men squeezed in a borrowed car became a large scale expedition to the source of the river, with a fleet of 4-wheel drive Land Rover Defenders carrying a dozen international experts with a full supporting team behind their back. It is sometimes laughable and fun to see the past, especially when the team was pranked by the weather, cars got stuck in the mud, and everyone got soaking wet.
However, in sharp contrast, it is no fun to see the changes when the team returned to the same location years later. When conducting research on the same topic with a better and more sophisticated camera, the scene captured did not look any better. Human invasion into wildlife habitat, economic destruction of the natural landscape and disappearance of cultural heritage are happening faster than you can imagine. When comparing old and recent footage, the negative impact is astonishing. This has left nothing for anyone to laugh about.
A picture tells a thousand words, but it does not carry conversation, movement and music. Video does. Over the years, the CERS cameras have captured numerous conversations, traditional dances, music and songs of different tribes whenever they were visited. Unlike a broadcasting company, there was no agenda to publicly release the footage. It was merely for the record; a record saved for those who could relate to it, be it a descendant, a musician, a historian or a student. When will these people come looking for it? Nobody knows. But this is exactly how we envisaged the potential of this footage; like mum always having tea ready at home for an unexpected guest.


The visual quality of most of our old video is not as good as those from Nat Geo and Discovery Channel, who dispatched a whole film crew to shoot and another team to work on post production. CERS usually had only one person to handle the camera, and at the same time, he had to drive, cook, set camp and take photos. Not to mention that he was the editor of the film as well. Visual quality was compromised by the content, among other concerns. Recently, however, mobile phone and social media have taught people to accept shaky, granular, out of focus and improperly lit scenes. Now authenticity is everything and content is king.
In terms of logging the clips, I have embedded a keyword in the file name, based on the team’s notes written during the journey. All computers are equipped with a name searching function that can speed up a search, provided that the correct keyword is typed. Therefore predicting the user’s choice of keyword is a technique that needs to be mastered. Occasionally, notes are not available, and then frame by frame search is necessary, scanning each video clip for clues about the date, the place, the event and the persons involved, very much like a CSI forensic detective. An accidental camera pan shot on a road sign may reveal the location; a title banner may show the purpose of an event. It is not much fun to do.


Photographs, slides and negatives, traditional and religious artefacts, research books and papers also deserve to be properly logged. The video archive is just one of the many valuables under CERS’s protection.
Charles Darwin once wrote, “It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change”. I accept the fact that change is perpetual. A BBC documentary film I once watched examined the life cycle of a symbol. A human skull with two bones crossed underneath it that today signifies ‘DANGER’ may evolve to mean something else after a thousand years. Placed outside a nuclear waste dump site, future Pirates of the Caribbean could misinterpret it as signifying a pirate’s tomb with tons of treasure inside.
I don’t know how the pirates would deal with our video archive. Hopefully, they would think of it as treasure too.
You may say I am a dreamer, but I am not the only one.