Some thoughts on the archival life of film

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This post is just a brief aside … lately I’ve been thinking a lot about analogue film in a medium, both in relation to my own work, Kodak’s recent announcement that they’re stopping production of several black & white 16mm stocks, and a spate of articles that have been doing the rounds on social media. Of course, the hand-wringing about the Death of Celluloid is nothing new, but this article in The Hollywood Reporter makes a key point about film as a preservation medium:

But receiving less attention — though urgent — is archiving. Studios know that if they keep archival film prints of their movies on a shelf in a cold room, they can last for at least a century. […] In fact while nobody wants to name names, there have been whispers that some motion pictures have in fact been completely lost when stored digitally. (The film prints of these movies, however, still exist.)

In fact, if we are talking about modern polyester film, a century is a low estimate. Despite the many advantages of digital technology, film preserved on fine-grain duplicating polyester stock is generally considered a better long-term option than a digitization of the same. Leaving aside the whole issue of codecs, wrappers, compression, etc, there is no ‘store and ignore’ option when it comes to digital files, and LTO isn’t going to cut it in the long term. Despite all the hype about the cloud, a proper OAIS-compliant digital repository is expensive and therefore not easily available to many institutions, and the costs are long-term. Digital preservation is a mature and rapidly advancing field, and one in which I take a lot of interest, but the sheer amount of data that audiovisual media (digitized or born-digital) involves is challenging.

This article is more about emerging technologies, though. One, PIQL, sounds basically like a souped-up version of microfilm, where data is stored on (presumably ultra-fine-grained) polyester film in human-readable or binary form. The other, DOTS, came out of Kodak’s R&D department and involves binary data stored metal alloy tape that is apparently stable for over 100 years (except if you pour lemonade on it). 8000 dots across the width of 1/2″ media is impressive. One assume that it was developed to sidestep the issue of photochemistry entirely. Interesting concept, although their emphasis on patents gives me pause.

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The Wall Street Journal published a couple of prominent articles on analogue film recently. This photo essay on Kodak’s production plant is pretty cool. This article mostly covers the business/Hollywood side, but does include this aside:

But proponents have also pointed out that film is the only medium still used for preservation of all types of movies for long periods of time—even ones shot digitally. Digital files need to be regularly transferred, putting them at greater risk of being damaged.

Finally, a week or two ago The Atlantic published a short documentary titled The Death of Film: After Hollywood Goes Digital, What Happens to Movies? The title is a misnomer, because it doesn’t really engage with that question, but per the description, is a series of interviews with film “during their last days on the job at a soon-to-be-defunct movie theater”. The musical cueing is over the top, and it’s a bit too sentimental for my taste, but there’s some nice footage of film projection and equipment, as well as a good explanation of the mechanics of projection. (Incidentally, my first job was in a movie theatre; I was always a bit fascinated with the projection booth, even if at the time I didn’t know much about what went on there).

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Photos via the Nitrate Film Interest Group on Flickr.

Edit 09 Sep: and yesterday, another article in this vein from the New Statesman. Features the usual information about distribution, digital projection, comparative costs, quotes about the tactility and unique look of analogue film, etc. But again, the preservation side of things is touched on: “Yet the switch [to digital] matters. It is changing the way movies are made and exhibited. And long from now, it promises to dictate what works survive.” The author also quotes Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA in this passage:

You might think that the “immortal” qualities of digital cinema would help safeguard against similar losses in the future – but experts warn of exactly the opposite. Jan-Christopher Horak is the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles, one of the largest repositories of movies and television programmes on the planet. “The problem, in a nutshell, is that there is no such thing as a digital preservation medium,” he explains. “There is no physical carrier on which you can put digital information that will last anywhere near as long as the analogue alternative.”

In short, hard drives aren’t built to last. Tests suggest that polyester and chemical film will endure “400 to 500 years minimum” if stored at proper temperatures and humidity, Horak tells me. “We can take a preservation-quality negative, put it in a vault and, as long as we’re paying the electricity bill, that film will be in good shape long after all of us are gone.”

By contrast, when it comes to digital, archivists are faced with two problems. The first is the perishability of the physical equipment. The second is that every 18 months or so, a new file format comes along to displace its predecessors and, as a result of this constant upgrade cycle, archivists face a kind of Sisyphean dilemma.

The 18 month timeline, hmm.  True on one level, but not really applicable if you’re doing preservation-level digitization of your film or video. That said, format obsolescence is certainly a long-term concern. The article also wrongly describes LTO as a format rather than a storage medium. Still, it’s generally a good article, and I’m glad to hear the voices of preservationists are getting out there.

Despite all the hype about the Film Experience, digital distribution and a predominantly (or full)y digital production and post-production pipeline is here to stay. In the end, the preservation angle is the most salient argument in favour of photochemical film’s continued existence.

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2 Responses to Some thoughts on the archival life of film

  1. ninagiacomo says:

    Great post! I hope to read more about preservation here… :) I don’t know much about it and I love the way you write!

    Like

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