As the death of film accelerates, the terms and stakes of the battle are changing rapidly, in ways that aren’t well understood outside the small community of archivists working directly in the field. Digital technology offers a chance for perfect, lossless preservation, but only at significant financial cost, and higher risk of catastrophe.
The end product of the production pipeline isn’t an analog print, but a file known as the Digital Intermediate (or Digital Source Master). In the long term, the DSM has one huge advantage over a photochemical negative: as long as the data is preserved, it’s perfect.
If an analog version is preferred for aesthetic reasons, producing a new analog print from the digital information will yield better results than trying to preserve a photochemical print over the very long term. But in the near-term, preserving that information is significantly more difficult and expensive than preserving film.
The added costs haven’t been a secret—as early as 2007, when the death of photochemical film remained an open question, the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences surveyed the major studios and published its findings in a report called The Digital Dilemma. And yet what the report found was an environment in which long-term planning for preserving digital information was not being done, in which the existing technology wasn’t adequate for archival needs, and finally, in which film preservation would require “significant and perpetual spending” far above what was necessary for analog preservation.
The added cost and difficulty arise from a major conceptual difference between digital and analog preservation: In digital preservation, the media isn’t itself the object that needs to be preserved. The original camera negative of a film is a unique, irreplaceable object—any copy is inferior to the original. With a digital production, it doesn’t matter in the slightest whether the digital files are written to a hard drive, magnetic tape, flash drive, or Jaz disk. Archivists can use whatever media best suit their needs. But right now, there aren’t any great options.
The most commonly used format for digital archiving is Linear Tape-Open (LTO) technology, a magnetic tape format that is most commonly used for enterprise data backups. LTO tapes are more stable than hard drives, which are subject to mechanical failure, but they’re far from ideal. Although it’s estimated that they have a 15-to-30-year lifespan, most studios assume a practical lifespan of five years. It isn’t simply an issue of tape degradation, either: The drives that read the tapes are also subject to obsolescence. Since 2000, new generations of LTO technology have been released every two years or so—new tapes and new drives—and they’re only backward-compatible for two generations. So a film that was archived to tape in 2006 using then-state-of-the-art LTO-3 tapes can’t be read by the LTO-6 drives that are for sale today.
The practical result of this is that a digital film archive needs to invest heavily in data migration to maintain its assets. Every five years or so, each film needs to be copied to new media, in a constant race against magnetic-tape degradation and drive obsolescence.
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