Posted by Greg Ferrara on March 6, 2013
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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