When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Vladimir Semenov – retired Russian diplomat of over 20 years and self-defined ‘childhood space buff’ – established VideoCosmos, one of the world’s largest repositories of archived film, video and still images dedicated to Soviet and Russian space history. In addition to a vast databank of information on Russian space activities, the Moscow-based library has over 2,500 hours of footage, and over 45,000 negatives, photos and slides. VideoCosmos is also an independent production company that specializes in docs on space. Semenov, president and CEO of VideoCosmos, says, ‘We know everything there is to know about Russian space exploration.’
The archive’s catalog dates back to the early 1940s, when Russia created its first R-1 rocket, a missile fashioned after Germany’s V-2 design. Spanning 60 years of space history, the estimated US$40 million archive contains footage of space stations, satellites, interplanetary probes, spacecraft, space ranges, military missiles, launches and on-board activities. Split between Betacam SP and DVD Pro formats, the archive’s content is derived from many sources, including the Russian Military Space Force, the Russian space company Energiya, the Khrunichev Corporation, and about 100 other state enterprises. The biggest contributor to the archive, however, is the Russian AeroSpace Agency, which unlike its U.S. counterpart (NASA) does not maintain its own footage archive. ‘For the last several years, the Russian AeroSpace Agency has collected material and housed it in our archive, because they don’t have a place to put it and people to protect it,’ explains Semenov. ‘We are, in fact, the unofficial video production company for the Russian AeroSpace Agency. Whenever they need anything – promotional videos or documentaries, films for congresses or celebrations – we produce it.’
VideoCosmos has produced over 120 projects about space for Russian TV. Says Semenov, ‘Approximately 60% of the documentaries produced since 1993 that have appeared on Russian TV are our productions, or are productions involving our participation.’ The company completed its first international copro in 1993: Unknown Space, an hour-long doc uncovering the hidden stories of the Soviet manned space program, produced with Warsaw-based prodco Cinemark. Since then, VideoCosmos has been involved in 26 international coproductions with partners in the U.S., U.K., France and Germany. Among the more recent copros is one produced with Washington, D.C.-based Jones Entertainment Group. The MIR Chronicles: A Life in Space (2000) is a one-hour doc recounting the tumultuous tale of Russia’s MIR space station, the longest-inhabited object in space. The film was released a few months before MIR was pulled down.
Through copros and global footage sales averaging 45 to 60 minutes per year, VideoCosmos has been able to make use of much of the content the company has collected. But, according to Semenov, ‘There is a lot of Russian space history that still is not disclosed. For instance, space exploration from the very beginning was mainly dedicated to military use. But, until now, not a lot of the facts were disclosed. Even still, a lot of material is classified.’ Declassifying footage can be a challenge. Says Semenov, ‘We have worked to declassify a lot of material. We apply through state officials to the minister of defense, who is in charge of this declassification. Sometimes it is quick because often with historical footage, nobody cares whether it’s classified or not. Other times it takes a lot of time.’
Despite the odd hold-up, the archive continues to grow. Semenov is currently in the process of digitizing the photo library. ‘We’ve already converted 10,000 negatives into high resolution images and put them on CD, but it’s a lot of work since each week we acquire 200 to 300 new slides,’ he says. Next, he plans to put the video archive on DVD, a venture he estimates will cost in the region of $80,000 and will take about six years to complete. But, Semenov says, ‘We understand that we need to save these materials. Soon, the film itself will get destroyed. We must convert it into digital to save it for the future.’