In 2007, researchers forecast that around 50 percent of the world’s movie screens would be digital by 2013. By the end of 2013, the figure was closer to 90 percent. In a short time, film has gone from an industry standard to a novelty.
Digital seemed by far the best option, but for long term preservation it has turned into "something of a catastrophe". “At this time, the longevity of digital files of moving images is anybody’s guess. We do know that it is much, much shorter than the longevity of photochemical film. If hard drives aren’t occasionally turned on, he notes, they start to become unusable."
Two famous examples of the perils of digital preservation:
- when the makers of Toy Story attempted to put their film out on DVD a few years after its release, they discovered that much of the original digital files of the film had been corrupted.
- A similar fate came close to befalling Toy Story 2 when someone accidentally hit a “delete” button.
The physical deterioration of drives and discs and chips isn’t the only thing digital filmmakers need to worry about. Digital files are also prone to become outdated, with software upgrades and new programs that render previous ones obsolete or unusable. Formats may be changing every 18 months to two years and may not be compatible with each other.
Part of the problem is that preservation isn’t a for-profit endeavor endeavor, so many do not want to spend a lot of money and space to preserve resources. But it becomes more important when considering the long term view. “There’s this notion, which is not true, that digital is very inexpensive. Filmmakers and studios are saving a lot of money in production and post-production costs because of digital, and that’s a good thing. But because of that, many people don’t really understand that they’re putting their assets at risk by wholesale transferring to digital and then not keeping the originals.”
“This is not a new problem. In the 1970s and '80s, some film companies took all of their motion-picture film and transferred it to ¾-inch video, which was thought of as a preservation medium. They threw away their originals! And ¾-inch video was not a good format. In fact, it was a terrible format! This is happening with digital now. They’ve already sloughed off their nitrate collections, and there are actually discussions in some of the studios to get rid of their 35mm collections as well.”
However, film may not be as dead as some seem to think. Some archives have discussed manufacturing film themselves, if and when companies like Kodak or Agfa or Fuji go out of business. Sooner or later, there will be other strategies for the long-term preservation of digital material. “I even saw someone discussing the idea of shooting it all up into space and then waiting for it to come back around again,” he says. “That sounded like pure science-fiction, but who knows?”
Large studios are making sure that all the digital files associated with a multi-billion-dollar movie will be duplicated many times and securely placed in multiple locations. Others may not have the resources to preserve the content. Some relevant questions to ask:
- What will happen to them over the course of what is sure to be multiple format changes?
- Is somebody making sure their hard drives and the files are still usable?
- Have they been distributed into multiple locations?
- Will their producers and distributors remain solvent enough over the years to care for the content?
Celluloid is far from a perfect medium, but it can survive even if some frames or reels are damaged or missing. Not unlike with books, the simplicity of the physical medium held the key to its longevity.