The Future of Film's Past

Science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who delivered one of our earliest SALT presentations, recently shared an article about the difficulties of film preservation on his Wired blog, beyond the beyond.

In the article, Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell describe the enormous and myriad challenges that film archivists face, from physical and digital decay, multiplicity of formats, sheer volume of footage, cost of preservation, and a general disregard for ‘preservability’ in the film industry’s production process.

The authors begin with the story of Dawson City, where a cache of films buried in 1929 was recently found, leading to some amazing restorations. But as digital footage becomes the norm, the stability inherent in 35 mm film (upwards of a 100-year life-span with proper care) is no longer a guarantor of longevity.

Given such discoveries, the archivists will set to work creating usable and enduring versions. But today such a task is much harder. Soon most of the films we make and show will not exist on photochemical stock. They’ll be digital files, and they need to be kept securely. But how?

Will today’s typhoon of ones and zeroes rip away our analog past? Will there ever be a digital Dawson City, a stockpile of files of lost movies? It seems likely that digital projection has, in unintended and unexpected ways, put the history of film in jeopardy.

Even when people recognize the severity of the problem, the cost of doing anything about it is steep. An EU archival commission estimates the cost of basic archiving for Europe’s yearly film output in 02015 at 1.5-3 million euros, with 1,900 petabytes of data and another 290 million euros to ensure long-term preservation. To archive the Library of Congress’ 30,000-title nitrate collection alone would require 1.44 exabytes of data storage.

Now let’s say you’ve not only recognized the problem, found the funding to act on it, and archived a film. “What if,” the authors ask, “you want to show it tomorrow? Or ten years from now? Or fifty?”

If you have a DCP [Digital Cinema Package] in good shape, and a projector that will show 2K/4K according to the Digital Cinema Initiative standard, you’re good to go. For now. But maybe not tomorrow. […]

The digital gold rush, along with fear of piracy, favored short-term solutions and proprietary, incompatible software and hardware. There were too many ephemeral video formats chasing the consumer and prosumer market, with little thought of their afterlives. The days of 8mm, super-8mm, 16mm, 35mm, and 65/70mm were simple by comparison. We’re left with a plethora of transitory standards that will be impossible to recover.

The tradeoffs between these standards – both digital and chemical – present a dizzying array of problems and opportunities that the article explores in much further detail. At the end is a long list of links and resources for anyone interested in digging deeper into the issue.

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