Are We the Archivists of Film History?

I watched the documentary Side by Side over the weekend and enjoyed it very much (it was mentioned here at the Morlocks about three months ago when Morlock Keelsetter did a post, The Year in Documentaries, assessing the best non-fiction had to offer for the year, outside of the short list created by the Academy to compete for nomination for the Oscar).  It’s an excellent documentary about the transformation of the film industry to the digital industry, literally.  That is, it documents the demise of 35 millimeter film in favor of digital production.  It traces the history of digital video to the present and has multiple famous and well respected directors, cinematographers and editors weigh in on what it all means. But for me, the most important aspect of all of it was given only a few minutes right at the end: Archiving digital media and how terribly inadequate current technology is for the task at hand.

George Eastman House archive- Rochester, New York from "Side by Side" distributed by Tribeca Film. Copyright 2012 Company Films LLC all rights reserved

Side by Side is directed by Christopher Kenneally and produced and hosted by Keanu Reeves, who sits with the industry artists and discusses their thoughts on the transformation.  There are some ardent holdouts, most notably Christopher Nolan, director of the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, who wants to continue to make movies on actual film and will as long as he can but there are even more ardent converts, from George Lucas and James Cameron to Robert Rodriguez and the Wachowski siblings (Lana and Andy).  And while their back and forth was interesting to watch, the question of archiving didn’t come up until the end.   The problem of rapidly changing digital media was discussed briefly, in the last few minutes, as a kind of harmless aside.  The media changes so fast that even if you save all of your DVDs for that day when your great great grandchild can see them, there may not be any DVD players to run them.  The media changes so fast that the old technology becomes incompatible with the new and is thus discarded.  With celluloid, on the other hand, all you need is light.  Hold it up to the light and you can see the picture, every time.

In all the arguing over film or digital, the matter of storage is the argument that gets lost.  After all the fighting about which provides better quality, which gives the director more freedom, which makes the director of photography more important to the process, we’re left with the question, “What does any of it matter if it all disappears one day?”

Here’s the thing:  Digital isn’t forever.  In fact, in the last ten years, we’ve realized just how frighteningly temporary it is.  Some DVDs don’t hold their information for more than twenty years before they start to break down.  Don’t play them for a few years and the decay is even faster.  I discovered this firsthand when, a couple of years ago, I pulled out my DVD of The Black Stallion to show our youngest daughter.  I had purchased it in 1999, during the early days of the DVD revolution, and watched it once.   Eleven years later, it simply wouldn’t work.  It froze up every few frames.  I tried it in the computer drive, a portable player and the regular DVD player.  None could make it work.  It was dead.

And while plenty has been written about digital decay and storage, like this article by Peter Csathy,  when the solutions are offered the one that makes the most sense is never mentioned: Making just one single print on celluloid and sending it to the salt mines.  Of course, the impediment to this is the unpleasant fact that 35mm film is going the way of the travelling salesman.  But if the film industry was serious about taking a digital film, fully edited in its final form, and filming one copy of it onto 35mm film intended for storage, the film production and development industry could stay alive, albeit it in a far reduced and specialized manner.  Its entire purpose would be archival.  And then, in two hundred years when someone discovers, “Hey, all these digital files are empty,” someone else could say, “Don’t worry, each one has a copy on film 58 stories underground.”

side by side 002

But that’s not going to happen, is it?  Chances are good that it won’t.  It’s a shame because it really is the best possible storage method but once film is gone it will probably be gone for good.  Which led me to wonder, “Are we the archivists?”

When the brief discussion of storage begins in the movie, I was happy to know it wasn’t being ignored.  When it ended mere minutes later, I wasn’t just disappointed, I was disheartened.  Disheartened that many see the same answer that most people use for problems they don’t want to deal with:  It’ll work itself out.  Aimee Mann once sung about the idea of doing nothing while hoping for the best and ended the line, “as if anything ever comes from that except an appalling mess.”  George Lucas and Lana Wachowski say that almost all of the world’s information is now stored digitally so surely - surely! – someone will come up with a way to preserve it.  I fear George and Lana are vastly underestimating humanity’s ability to not give a flying crap about such things until it’s too late.

So again, are we the archivists? What I mean is this: Will it come down to the individual collectors to keep the fires burning?  Will our collective memories and personal collections be one day called upon when all else is lost and they’re hoping, praying, that somebody still has a working copy of Disney’s Star Wars, Episode XXVII, The Fall of Nim Drovis?*  Beyond the technical challenges come the challenges, not even discussed in the documentary (because, admittedly, it wasn’t really the topic), of keeping track of everything.  IMDB is an essential tool for information of films but it says nothing of value about the smaller films that time and preservation may well forget.  Look at any IMDB Top 250 list (Top 250 Highest Rated Movies of All Time, etc) and you’ll be hard pressed to find any hidden gems on those lists.

Who’s going to preserve all the small movies that get a few runs at festivals and then get consigned to a handful of independently produced DVDs for sale and maybe a questionable quality streaming file?  Do George and Lana think the smaller, low-budget films that don’t make it past their respective film festivals are going to be preserved?

Well, no, actually.

Lana even says that, hey, things get lost and that’s a part of life.  And, yes, that’s true but when I turn on TCM and watch the amazing amount of minutia between the movies (the shorts, the trailers, the travelogues) I realize that we’ve got access to all kinds of fascinating tidbits of film history because they were shot on film and somehow survived without anyone caring whether they did or not and decades later, all they required was a projector to make them work again.

side by side 003 B

Of course, thousands of films didn’t survive.  And maybe that’s what worries me.  If we managed to lose so many movies before, can it happen again?  Will there be a second period (after the pre-1950 nitrate film period) of loss before someone steps in and fixes the problem?  Will students and lovers of film in a hundred years lament the period between 2010 and, say, 2045 when innumerable films were lost forever because it was originally thought their digital storage was invulnerable and it wasn’t?  I don’t know because so far most of the discussion is about what looks better, digital or film, not about what stores better.  I’d like to hear more people in the industry take it seriously rather than shake their head and say, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll figure it out,” while the rest of us sit around hoping for the best.    If they do, and research is done to make digital storage better, or perhaps use celluloid for single print storage copies, perhaps this time we can avoid the appalling mess.  Here’s hoping.

66 Responses Are We the Archivists of Film History?
Posted By anne newman : March 6, 2013 10:28 am

Why can’t Scorsese and others, really organize for salt mine storage?

Posted By anne newman : March 6, 2013 10:28 am

Why can’t Scorsese and others, really organize for salt mine storage?

Posted By Doug : March 6, 2013 10:43 am

Greg, not a topic easily understood-we love the old movies, and cherish what we have left, bemoaning what is lost, but what to do?
One thing to consider, using your Black Beauty DVD as an example:
don’t put the digital information on plastic. ‘Engrave’ the digital information on a more permanent media, one that will last for generations, and we might be in better shape. Of course, as you said, what good is a DVD in the future if we have no DVD player?
Archive that technology also-keep examples of DVD players, with schematics and hope that our future generations don’t descend into “Idiocracy”.
As for smaller films…Wachowski may be right. Things do get lost, and are only mourned by those who have a memory of them.
I don’t miss the ‘missing’ Chaplin, for example, as I never knew them.
I don’t make room for regrets-they get in the way of appreciating what I do have.

Posted By Doug : March 6, 2013 10:43 am

Greg, not a topic easily understood-we love the old movies, and cherish what we have left, bemoaning what is lost, but what to do?
One thing to consider, using your Black Beauty DVD as an example:
don’t put the digital information on plastic. ‘Engrave’ the digital information on a more permanent media, one that will last for generations, and we might be in better shape. Of course, as you said, what good is a DVD in the future if we have no DVD player?
Archive that technology also-keep examples of DVD players, with schematics and hope that our future generations don’t descend into “Idiocracy”.
As for smaller films…Wachowski may be right. Things do get lost, and are only mourned by those who have a memory of them.
I don’t miss the ‘missing’ Chaplin, for example, as I never knew them.
I don’t make room for regrets-they get in the way of appreciating what I do have.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 10:55 am

What I have wondered, is this push to digital for filmmaking just because this is the “new” tech out there to play with or is it because of an environmental reason, i.e. digital is better on the environment than 35 mm film medium? I don’t know, but have been wondering if that is also a factor? Possibly the almighty dollar is the main reason for the push; as in so many things, follow the money trail.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 10:55 am

What I have wondered, is this push to digital for filmmaking just because this is the “new” tech out there to play with or is it because of an environmental reason, i.e. digital is better on the environment than 35 mm film medium? I don’t know, but have been wondering if that is also a factor? Possibly the almighty dollar is the main reason for the push; as in so many things, follow the money trail.

Posted By robbushblog : March 6, 2013 11:02 am

This is troubling. We have lost so much already. Do we want to lose so much more? I’m with Anne. Aren’t there big muckymucks in Hollywood who can organize an archive of as much as humanly possibly on film and store them somewhere safe? And, just to be even safer, have duplicates made and stored in more than one location? The Library of Congress is too slow in doing this. They can’t do it all.

Posted By robbushblog : March 6, 2013 11:02 am

This is troubling. We have lost so much already. Do we want to lose so much more? I’m with Anne. Aren’t there big muckymucks in Hollywood who can organize an archive of as much as humanly possibly on film and store them somewhere safe? And, just to be even safer, have duplicates made and stored in more than one location? The Library of Congress is too slow in doing this. They can’t do it all.

Posted By Arthur : March 6, 2013 11:28 am

Fascinating topic. The same question can be asked of TV shows. I remember watching TV series in the 1950s that everyone in the nation was watching and talking about. Few today even remember their names, let alone finding copies, in any form, of the episodes. What about plays? There are multiple versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Who can say which were the originals. Everything is fleeting, save memory, which is not at all exact, and becomes even less so as it is handed down through the ages. . .

Posted By Arthur : March 6, 2013 11:28 am

Fascinating topic. The same question can be asked of TV shows. I remember watching TV series in the 1950s that everyone in the nation was watching and talking about. Few today even remember their names, let alone finding copies, in any form, of the episodes. What about plays? There are multiple versions of Shakespeare’s plays. Who can say which were the originals. Everything is fleeting, save memory, which is not at all exact, and becomes even less so as it is handed down through the ages. . .

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:43 pm

Anne and Rob – Obviously I’m in agreement. The fact is, making a celluloid print from the digital film would not affect the filmmaker or the finished film in any possible way. While the finished film is showing in 8,000 theaters nationwide, another copy is in the lab being processed, frame by frame, directly onto celluloid for storage. And, as an added bonus, it keeps celluloid alive in a much reduced capacity should we ever need to return to it for any reason.

And the expense would be minimal. One of the reasons that celluloid costs filmmakers so much is stated in the film: They have to shoot thousands and thousands of feet to cover all takes, reshoots and fixes of all manner and when they’re done, about ten percent of that film is actually (excising all takes, bloopers, poorly lit shots, etc) used. But when it’s just used for preservation, by definition, only the exact amount of celluloid needed to film the copy is used. A 93 minute movie will use exactly 93 minutes of celluloid. To me it’s a no-brainer as a preservation solution.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:43 pm

Anne and Rob – Obviously I’m in agreement. The fact is, making a celluloid print from the digital film would not affect the filmmaker or the finished film in any possible way. While the finished film is showing in 8,000 theaters nationwide, another copy is in the lab being processed, frame by frame, directly onto celluloid for storage. And, as an added bonus, it keeps celluloid alive in a much reduced capacity should we ever need to return to it for any reason.

And the expense would be minimal. One of the reasons that celluloid costs filmmakers so much is stated in the film: They have to shoot thousands and thousands of feet to cover all takes, reshoots and fixes of all manner and when they’re done, about ten percent of that film is actually (excising all takes, bloopers, poorly lit shots, etc) used. But when it’s just used for preservation, by definition, only the exact amount of celluloid needed to film the copy is used. A 93 minute movie will use exactly 93 minutes of celluloid. To me it’s a no-brainer as a preservation solution.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:45 pm

what good is a DVD in the future if we have no DVD player?
Archive that technology also-keep examples of DVD players, with schematics and hope that our future generations don’t descend into “Idiocracy”.

Doug, excellent point. Right now, museums and storage facilities have the DVD players, so to speak, but not the schematics. Absolutely there should be the means of projection preserved and the means of building them from scratch.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:45 pm

what good is a DVD in the future if we have no DVD player?
Archive that technology also-keep examples of DVD players, with schematics and hope that our future generations don’t descend into “Idiocracy”.

Doug, excellent point. Right now, museums and storage facilities have the DVD players, so to speak, but not the schematics. Absolutely there should be the means of projection preserved and the means of building them from scratch.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:50 pm

Jenni, in the doc they talk about many time and money saving advantages of digital. For instance, on film a director shoots scenes one day and then, that night, the film gets processed and, at the end of shooting the next day, they go look at what they shot the day before. Now, if they look at what they spent 12 hours doing the day before and it doesn’t work because the lighting is all wrong they have to reschedule that shoot for another day at enormous expense. In a worst case scenario, if they were filming other scenes based on what they thought they were getting in the shots that just didn’t worked, those might have to be re-shot too, especially if, once looking at it, it just doesn’t work with the story but seemed to while they were filming it.

Now, with digital, you see what you’re filming right then and there while you’re filming it so no surprises 48 hours later. You can make the decision to re-shoot or move forward right then and there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:50 pm

Jenni, in the doc they talk about many time and money saving advantages of digital. For instance, on film a director shoots scenes one day and then, that night, the film gets processed and, at the end of shooting the next day, they go look at what they shot the day before. Now, if they look at what they spent 12 hours doing the day before and it doesn’t work because the lighting is all wrong they have to reschedule that shoot for another day at enormous expense. In a worst case scenario, if they were filming other scenes based on what they thought they were getting in the shots that just didn’t worked, those might have to be re-shot too, especially if, once looking at it, it just doesn’t work with the story but seemed to while they were filming it.

Now, with digital, you see what you’re filming right then and there while you’re filming it so no surprises 48 hours later. You can make the decision to re-shoot or move forward right then and there.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:51 pm

Arthur, tv preservation before the sixties is pretty bad. Most shows were disposed of after their run and shows shot live were gone forever unless preserved by kinescope in awful, poorly lit grainy, dreary images. We lost a lot of things I’d love to look at from that era.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 6, 2013 12:51 pm

Arthur, tv preservation before the sixties is pretty bad. Most shows were disposed of after their run and shows shot live were gone forever unless preserved by kinescope in awful, poorly lit grainy, dreary images. We lost a lot of things I’d love to look at from that era.

Posted By Drue : March 6, 2013 2:03 pm

Every career has their brilliant people. Just like space exploration may finally, really get off the ground because some very smart people with the money to back it up, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and the like said “I don’t want to wait anymore for someone else to do the work. Here guys, here is your backing, lets find a way to do this”. The film industry is the same. There has to be a brilliant man or woman with the money,dream and guts to say “We are going to find a way to save media for the long term”. There just has to….please.

Posted By Drue : March 6, 2013 2:03 pm

Every career has their brilliant people. Just like space exploration may finally, really get off the ground because some very smart people with the money to back it up, Elon Musk, Richard Branson and the like said “I don’t want to wait anymore for someone else to do the work. Here guys, here is your backing, lets find a way to do this”. The film industry is the same. There has to be a brilliant man or woman with the money,dream and guts to say “We are going to find a way to save media for the long term”. There just has to….please.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 2:46 pm

Thanks for your answer to my questins, Greg.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : March 6, 2013 2:46 pm

Thanks for your answer to my questins, Greg.

Posted By Doug : March 6, 2013 4:41 pm

We still have cave drawings from pre-history-I think that we will be able to archive films (in whatever media)for future generations.
But save everything? In Stalinist Russia the comrades who fell out of favor were ‘erased’ from history. If I were in charge of the archive project and allowed my prejudices to color my decisions, future generations would not know the name “Jerry Lewis”. But I would preserve every scrap of film of MY favorites.
This topic reminds me of the Millennium Seed Bank Project which hopes to save the seeds of every plant in case of global catastrophe.
“Hollywood” may save it’s seeds (films), but other countries will have to preserve their own works…unless a billionaire
such as Richard Branson writes the checks to save all film from everywhere.
How else could such preservation projects be funded? The Government? (hint:no) Raise ticket prices a nickel, DVD prices a quarter?
If there is no money to be made in an endeavor, it becomes a charity, and I doubt that there are enough film lovers willing to contribute for the benefit of future generations.

Posted By Doug : March 6, 2013 4:41 pm

We still have cave drawings from pre-history-I think that we will be able to archive films (in whatever media)for future generations.
But save everything? In Stalinist Russia the comrades who fell out of favor were ‘erased’ from history. If I were in charge of the archive project and allowed my prejudices to color my decisions, future generations would not know the name “Jerry Lewis”. But I would preserve every scrap of film of MY favorites.
This topic reminds me of the Millennium Seed Bank Project which hopes to save the seeds of every plant in case of global catastrophe.
“Hollywood” may save it’s seeds (films), but other countries will have to preserve their own works…unless a billionaire
such as Richard Branson writes the checks to save all film from everywhere.
How else could such preservation projects be funded? The Government? (hint:no) Raise ticket prices a nickel, DVD prices a quarter?
If there is no money to be made in an endeavor, it becomes a charity, and I doubt that there are enough film lovers willing to contribute for the benefit of future generations.

Posted By chris : March 6, 2013 5:09 pm

Wow! Thanks for making me wonder why I’ve been buying DVD’s all these years(including many movies which I’ve never seen before). I guess I better start watching them all before they disappear.

Posted By chris : March 6, 2013 5:09 pm

Wow! Thanks for making me wonder why I’ve been buying DVD’s all these years(including many movies which I’ve never seen before). I guess I better start watching them all before they disappear.

Posted By kingrat : March 6, 2013 5:27 pm

Greg, thanks for a thought-provoking article. These issues were raised by panelists at last year’s TCM Film Festival. Theaters are being forced to convert to digital, which for the surviving one-screen houses is a major expense. Fewer people have the skills needed by a projectionist.

Think of all the ancient literatures of which only a small portion remains. Part of the archive is in our minds.

Posted By kingrat : March 6, 2013 5:27 pm

Greg, thanks for a thought-provoking article. These issues were raised by panelists at last year’s TCM Film Festival. Theaters are being forced to convert to digital, which for the surviving one-screen houses is a major expense. Fewer people have the skills needed by a projectionist.

Think of all the ancient literatures of which only a small portion remains. Part of the archive is in our minds.

Posted By Qalice : March 6, 2013 8:39 pm

I remember when Paramount went to re-release The Godfather for its 30th anniversary, they found that they didn’t have a good complete print. They had to scrounge around to assemble the elements to strike decent exhibition prints. And The Godfather was not just one of the most highly honored films of the 70s, but also one of the most popular! I’m very worried about how this business will treat digital assets.

Posted By Qalice : March 6, 2013 8:39 pm

I remember when Paramount went to re-release The Godfather for its 30th anniversary, they found that they didn’t have a good complete print. They had to scrounge around to assemble the elements to strike decent exhibition prints. And The Godfather was not just one of the most highly honored films of the 70s, but also one of the most popular! I’m very worried about how this business will treat digital assets.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 11:32 pm

I read about this last year in Variety. So troubling and infuriating. And, I have lost all respect for George Lucas, a tech geek masquerading as a film director. I will never forget the 60 Minutes interview released after THE PHANTOM MENACE in which he gleefully explained his goal of making movies without having to use actors (real people) or to leave his ranch. As though that is a healthy goal.

Posted By Susan Doll : March 6, 2013 11:32 pm

I read about this last year in Variety. So troubling and infuriating. And, I have lost all respect for George Lucas, a tech geek masquerading as a film director. I will never forget the 60 Minutes interview released after THE PHANTOM MENACE in which he gleefully explained his goal of making movies without having to use actors (real people) or to leave his ranch. As though that is a healthy goal.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:21 am

Drue, I hope so. I imagine that, at the very least, there will be so many copies of movies out there that someone will have a good enough copy of any particular movie that no more will ever be truly lost. I hope.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:21 am

Drue, I hope so. I imagine that, at the very least, there will be so many copies of movies out there that someone will have a good enough copy of any particular movie that no more will ever be truly lost. I hope.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:26 am

Doug, we do have cave drawings but only a few. I assume their are tens of thousands of others that are gone forever.

As for contributing, it’s a tough sell. I take part in a film preservation fundraiser each year and it’s tough to get enough money to rescue one film much less thousands. It has to be something the industry champions out of self-interest, that is, having the movies preserved forever so they can keep selling them. That’s kept preservation at least a bit ahead of the game since at least the late thirties when they finally realized, with re-releases, later with tv and vcrs and dvds, how they could keep a film’s profits alive for decades.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:26 am

Doug, we do have cave drawings but only a few. I assume their are tens of thousands of others that are gone forever.

As for contributing, it’s a tough sell. I take part in a film preservation fundraiser each year and it’s tough to get enough money to rescue one film much less thousands. It has to be something the industry champions out of self-interest, that is, having the movies preserved forever so they can keep selling them. That’s kept preservation at least a bit ahead of the game since at least the late thirties when they finally realized, with re-releases, later with tv and vcrs and dvds, how they could keep a film’s profits alive for decades.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:28 am

Chris, as long as they’re relatively new, I think you’re okay. My BLACK STALLION DVD was one of the first ones, pressed around 97 or so and bought by me in 99. It was probably dead two years after I bought and watched it. Newer ones have a much longer shelf life, like twenty years or so. And if they’re re-watched, unlike tapes, it actually helps them last longer.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:28 am

Chris, as long as they’re relatively new, I think you’re okay. My BLACK STALLION DVD was one of the first ones, pressed around 97 or so and bought by me in 99. It was probably dead two years after I bought and watched it. Newer ones have a much longer shelf life, like twenty years or so. And if they’re re-watched, unlike tapes, it actually helps them last longer.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:30 am

Susan, I remember that, too. Several times, in fact, in many interviews. Lucas is leader of the pack when it comes to new technology. Hell, he funds a lot of it. Anyway, if Jar Jar Binks is any indication of what Lucas is talking about, I fear for the future.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 12:30 am

Susan, I remember that, too. Several times, in fact, in many interviews. Lucas is leader of the pack when it comes to new technology. Hell, he funds a lot of it. Anyway, if Jar Jar Binks is any indication of what Lucas is talking about, I fear for the future.

Posted By robbushblog : March 7, 2013 1:46 am

I’m glad he sold out to Disney for that statement alone. Might we get the original, unspecial editions on Blu-ray now that he doesn’t control the rights? I sure hope so. And if that’s the case, maybe we will have the original versions for all time.

Posted By robbushblog : March 7, 2013 1:46 am

I’m glad he sold out to Disney for that statement alone. Might we get the original, unspecial editions on Blu-ray now that he doesn’t control the rights? I sure hope so. And if that’s the case, maybe we will have the original versions for all time.

Posted By Dan : March 7, 2013 2:32 am

Unfortunately, making a film print is more expensive than its ever been, so it’s unlikely that everything will be preserved to film. Even if that were possible, what are you going to do when projectors are no longer made? More precisely, what are you going to do when the individual components that must be manufactured in order to build a working projector are no longer made? It’s true that you’ll always be able to look at an individual frame and see the image, but that won’t help you decipher the optical soundtrack that’s running alongside the picture. Without robust adoption and consumption of film (on a scale much greater than is probably possible today, even if the “preserve-everything-to-film” directive were adopted), incentive for manufacturing projectors (or Steenbecks, etc) will disappear. And the problem with digital archiving isn’t the cost of storage – that’s the least of your worries, as that’s getting cheaper every day (How much does it cost you to buy a drive that can hold a terrabyte? How much would it have cost you in 1993?). The problem is that formats become obsolete at an alarming rate, which means you have to spend money to constantly migrate your data, as well as time planning out a strategy for doing this and constantly scrounging for funds to keep your archive financially sustainable. I don’t mean to be snarky, but there are people devoting their careers to trying to figure out answers to these questions – producers and owners of data understand that there’s money to be made by holding onto it, so this is by no means being ignored. But it’s not just as simple as waiting for either a technological magic bullet or just preserving everything to film. The dangers you’re describing are very real – Google the phrase “digital dark age” sometime – but these issues will likely be causing headaches for generations.

Posted By Dan : March 7, 2013 2:32 am

Unfortunately, making a film print is more expensive than its ever been, so it’s unlikely that everything will be preserved to film. Even if that were possible, what are you going to do when projectors are no longer made? More precisely, what are you going to do when the individual components that must be manufactured in order to build a working projector are no longer made? It’s true that you’ll always be able to look at an individual frame and see the image, but that won’t help you decipher the optical soundtrack that’s running alongside the picture. Without robust adoption and consumption of film (on a scale much greater than is probably possible today, even if the “preserve-everything-to-film” directive were adopted), incentive for manufacturing projectors (or Steenbecks, etc) will disappear. And the problem with digital archiving isn’t the cost of storage – that’s the least of your worries, as that’s getting cheaper every day (How much does it cost you to buy a drive that can hold a terrabyte? How much would it have cost you in 1993?). The problem is that formats become obsolete at an alarming rate, which means you have to spend money to constantly migrate your data, as well as time planning out a strategy for doing this and constantly scrounging for funds to keep your archive financially sustainable. I don’t mean to be snarky, but there are people devoting their careers to trying to figure out answers to these questions – producers and owners of data understand that there’s money to be made by holding onto it, so this is by no means being ignored. But it’s not just as simple as waiting for either a technological magic bullet or just preserving everything to film. The dangers you’re describing are very real – Google the phrase “digital dark age” sometime – but these issues will likely be causing headaches for generations.

Posted By sinaphile : March 7, 2013 2:51 am

Hi Greg, I’m not in disagreement whatsoever that we need a much hardier and more robust method of storing our cinematic history. And, admittedly, it has been a little while since I watched SIDE BY SIDE. I don’t remember- do they give any time to the fact that almost every studio actively produces YCM masters of their product alongside the digital LTO masters that they make? Because they do. Studios actively film out everything due to there not being a standard storage material in use. LTO tapes are for migration, not storage, not backwards-compatible, etc etc etc. But even with YCM film outs, we will still have a problem: what if we don’t have the equipment in a few years to recreate the original product? They are VERY VERY actively pursuing a solution to this problem and trying their best to come up with it, but the other major issue? Unless something changes (and we can always hope!) film, actual film, will no longer will be available in a few years. Kodak is the only guy left in town, pretty much, for moving image stock.
I also have written about the smaller product you speak of, the festival films, the “throwaway product.” It’s a weird thought. We have almost all of the Hearst Newsreels because Hearst decided to donate them to UCLA through various means and ways. But What if that hadn’t happened?
I will say that there are a MASS amount of very smart, very concerned moving image archivists who are working on this subject and have been for a while and will continue to. It’s a weird & wacky time for everyone.

Posted By sinaphile : March 7, 2013 2:51 am

Hi Greg, I’m not in disagreement whatsoever that we need a much hardier and more robust method of storing our cinematic history. And, admittedly, it has been a little while since I watched SIDE BY SIDE. I don’t remember- do they give any time to the fact that almost every studio actively produces YCM masters of their product alongside the digital LTO masters that they make? Because they do. Studios actively film out everything due to there not being a standard storage material in use. LTO tapes are for migration, not storage, not backwards-compatible, etc etc etc. But even with YCM film outs, we will still have a problem: what if we don’t have the equipment in a few years to recreate the original product? They are VERY VERY actively pursuing a solution to this problem and trying their best to come up with it, but the other major issue? Unless something changes (and we can always hope!) film, actual film, will no longer will be available in a few years. Kodak is the only guy left in town, pretty much, for moving image stock.
I also have written about the smaller product you speak of, the festival films, the “throwaway product.” It’s a weird thought. We have almost all of the Hearst Newsreels because Hearst decided to donate them to UCLA through various means and ways. But What if that hadn’t happened?
I will say that there are a MASS amount of very smart, very concerned moving image archivists who are working on this subject and have been for a while and will continue to. It’s a weird & wacky time for everyone.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 10:26 am

kingrat, I have noticed, sadly, that the classic films shown at the AFI for years have looked pretty bad for the last year or so. From VERTIGO to PLAYTIME, they are projected at maddeningly low light levels because, clearly, their projectionist was replaced and whoever took over is under the industry wide false impression that turning down the lamp makes the bulb last longer. Anyway, I’ve complained but they never know what I’m talking about.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 10:26 am

kingrat, I have noticed, sadly, that the classic films shown at the AFI for years have looked pretty bad for the last year or so. From VERTIGO to PLAYTIME, they are projected at maddeningly low light levels because, clearly, their projectionist was replaced and whoever took over is under the industry wide false impression that turning down the lamp makes the bulb last longer. Anyway, I’ve complained but they never know what I’m talking about.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 10:27 am

Rob, I’d love to have full blu-ray releases of the updated versions and the original versions before they were updated. That needs to happen.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 7, 2013 10:27 am

Rob, I’d love to have full blu-ray releases of the updated versions and the original versions before they were updated. That needs to happen.

Posted By Doug : March 7, 2013 11:15 am

Susan wrote about Lucas:” he gleefully explained his goal of making movies without having to use actors (real people) or to leave his ranch.”
Which stirred up this memory:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082677/?ref_=sr_1
“Looker” from Michael Crichton in 1981 saw this coming.
I recall thinking that the creation of digital ‘actors’ through mapping/digitalizing bodies was just so much science fiction-it could never happen. I’ve been wrong before.
Of course, Crichton also wrote/directed “Westworld”, where animatronic “actors” replace human beings in a theme park until
‘something goes wrong’ and they started killing visitors ala Jurassic Park.

Posted By Doug : March 7, 2013 11:15 am

Susan wrote about Lucas:” he gleefully explained his goal of making movies without having to use actors (real people) or to leave his ranch.”
Which stirred up this memory:
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082677/?ref_=sr_1
“Looker” from Michael Crichton in 1981 saw this coming.
I recall thinking that the creation of digital ‘actors’ through mapping/digitalizing bodies was just so much science fiction-it could never happen. I’ve been wrong before.
Of course, Crichton also wrote/directed “Westworld”, where animatronic “actors” replace human beings in a theme park until
‘something goes wrong’ and they started killing visitors ala Jurassic Park.

Posted By robbushblog : March 7, 2013 12:44 pm

Greg- The updated ones are already out on Blu. You can get those. Lucas didn’t want to release and doesn’t want people to see the original versions.

Posted By robbushblog : March 7, 2013 12:44 pm

Greg- The updated ones are already out on Blu. You can get those. Lucas didn’t want to release and doesn’t want people to see the original versions.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 8, 2013 12:17 am

I don’t mean to be snarky, but there are people devoting their careers to trying to figure out answers to these questions – producers and owners of data understand that there’s money to be made by holding onto it, so this is by no means being ignored. But it’s not just as simple as waiting for either a technological magic bullet or just preserving everything to film.

All excellent points, well taken. I do believe film preservation is taken a lot more seriously by the studios today than it used to be. I hope the solutions are both economical (and thus, encouraged) and long lasting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 8, 2013 12:17 am

I don’t mean to be snarky, but there are people devoting their careers to trying to figure out answers to these questions – producers and owners of data understand that there’s money to be made by holding onto it, so this is by no means being ignored. But it’s not just as simple as waiting for either a technological magic bullet or just preserving everything to film.

All excellent points, well taken. I do believe film preservation is taken a lot more seriously by the studios today than it used to be. I hope the solutions are both economical (and thus, encouraged) and long lasting.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 8, 2013 12:19 am

But even with YCM film outs, we will still have a problem: what if we don’t have the equipment in a few years to recreate the original product? They are VERY VERY actively pursuing a solution to this problem and trying their best to come up with it, but the other major issue? Unless something changes (and we can always hope!) film, actual film, will no longer will be available in a few years. Kodak is the only guy left in town, pretty much, for moving image stock.

Good point. The YCM film outs are exactly the type of preservation I hope continues but if no one is producing film in five years, then what?

Posted By Greg Ferrara : March 8, 2013 12:19 am

But even with YCM film outs, we will still have a problem: what if we don’t have the equipment in a few years to recreate the original product? They are VERY VERY actively pursuing a solution to this problem and trying their best to come up with it, but the other major issue? Unless something changes (and we can always hope!) film, actual film, will no longer will be available in a few years. Kodak is the only guy left in town, pretty much, for moving image stock.

Good point. The YCM film outs are exactly the type of preservation I hope continues but if no one is producing film in five years, then what?

Posted By Chris : March 8, 2013 9:02 pm

Often, preservation technique is a matter of time. It’s difficult to know how different formats will degrade over decades. You mentioned nitrate film, which we know now is highly unstable. We can see the decay process. It’s not always possible to find a perfect solution in advance, but I hope more effort is put into the research and thinking ahead. I believe Kodak recently released polyester film specifically for long term preservation. Considering the state of Kodak at the moment, who know if it’s still around though.

Posted By Chris : March 8, 2013 9:02 pm

Often, preservation technique is a matter of time. It’s difficult to know how different formats will degrade over decades. You mentioned nitrate film, which we know now is highly unstable. We can see the decay process. It’s not always possible to find a perfect solution in advance, but I hope more effort is put into the research and thinking ahead. I believe Kodak recently released polyester film specifically for long term preservation. Considering the state of Kodak at the moment, who know if it’s still around though.

Posted By Commander Adams : March 9, 2013 12:57 am

It seems that in our fragmented era, those of us who love and cherish film history have become the cinematic equivalent of the human books at the end of Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, trying to keep the memory of cinema alive in the face of both physical decay and cultural amnesia.

Posted By Commander Adams : March 9, 2013 12:57 am

It seems that in our fragmented era, those of us who love and cherish film history have become the cinematic equivalent of the human books at the end of Francois Truffaut’s adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, trying to keep the memory of cinema alive in the face of both physical decay and cultural amnesia.

Posted By erusut : March 10, 2013 1:56 am

I think the people who are really working to figure out data preservation are in information science: librarians, archivists, data managers, conservators. Trying to find ways to preserve data is something that researchers have been working on – and advances are being made.

Posted By erusut : March 10, 2013 1:56 am

I think the people who are really working to figure out data preservation are in information science: librarians, archivists, data managers, conservators. Trying to find ways to preserve data is something that researchers have been working on – and advances are being made.

Posted By Catherine : March 12, 2013 7:48 pm

Excellent article! I just finished my archival studies at graduate school and I actually used this as the seed for leading a group discussion about asking whose responsibility it is to make sure everything is properly preserved and addressing the fact that the film industry has done diddly-squat to address this issue. What do you preserve? How do you preserve? Standards need to be created but who will create them? Who will follow them? Everything becomes obsolete very quickly, even more quickly than you’d think. Plus, the amount of data that needs to be saved, both during and after production, is a considerable amount of digital space. It’s a very complicated issue, and I’m at least happy it was touched on in Side by Side (I didn’t expect it to be at all). But Steven Soderbergh’s dismissal of ‘someone will figure it out because they have to’ stance was disconcerting to say the least.

Posted By Catherine : March 12, 2013 7:48 pm

Excellent article! I just finished my archival studies at graduate school and I actually used this as the seed for leading a group discussion about asking whose responsibility it is to make sure everything is properly preserved and addressing the fact that the film industry has done diddly-squat to address this issue. What do you preserve? How do you preserve? Standards need to be created but who will create them? Who will follow them? Everything becomes obsolete very quickly, even more quickly than you’d think. Plus, the amount of data that needs to be saved, both during and after production, is a considerable amount of digital space. It’s a very complicated issue, and I’m at least happy it was touched on in Side by Side (I didn’t expect it to be at all). But Steven Soderbergh’s dismissal of ‘someone will figure it out because they have to’ stance was disconcerting to say the least.

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