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What about those old files?

Is the future of film digital? What are the benefits of digital film production and distribution? The documentary „Side by Side“ takes a look at the history and the future of cinema. One question remains unanswered though.

I recently watched the documentary „Side By Side“ on iTunes. It is available there online and also in some movie theaters. This is part of the new distribution dynamic now available to us in the digital age. It had its theatrical debut in February 2012 at the Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin. In essence, the movie is about the transition of motion pictures from photochemical production and physical film distribution to primarily digital production and distribution.

As a moving image archivist, and someone who really lives her life in that arena, I hadn’t consciously thought about why or how the digital revolution has taken place in the motion picture industry. This seems odd to me now, but I live far from Hollywood, and the collection I work with is primarily based in television. This film (dare I call it that when it was shot digitally?) does a really nice job of giving us the historical background for the changes to digital production and highlighting the filmmakers who really pushed for those changes with George Lucas of „Star Wars“ fame on one end representing the big budget spectrum and development of digital technology for motion pictures and independent filmmakers such as Robert Rodriguez who started out shooting 16mm film and now likes being able to use digital technology for his much bigger budget creations today. The push also occurred because lower budget filmmakers began using digital videotape to create films like „The Anniversary Party“ in 2001 shot by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason and „28 Days Later“ shot by Danny Boyle. The stage was set for creating motion pictures in something cheaper to shoot and easier to edit than film.

So many important directors, directors of photography, colorists, and editors were interviewed in this film that you get a real sense for the changes and advancements that have been made, absolutely transformative changes, in a roughly-twenty year time span.

How Hitchcock worked his way around technical limitations

One of the changes is the timing of shots. Because film has historically been captured on ten-minute magazines, filmmakers have had to contend with this constraint for most of the history of the medium. Take a look at Alfred Hitchcock’s „Rope“ from 1948. It’s basically a stage play shot in four- to ten-minute segments – ten minutes being the maximum length of the film magazine and the maximum length of any shot. Hitchcock skillfully worked his way around this by cleverly disguising the break in action by moving the shot to darkness as the film in the magazine came to an end. With the start of the next magazine, he would then bring the shot back into light.

With the invention of videotape, longer segments could be shot, and moving image creation changed again. Cameras also became lighter, enabling camera operators to shoot closer to the actors, and to jump and turn with the action. Directors mounted video cameras next to their film cameras so they could have access to immediate playback of their shots rather than wait until the next day to view processed film in dailies (though film dailies were still kept to analyze film quality).

Computer-generated imagery, or CGI, comes into play with special effects that are created digitally on computers and then transferred to the final film print for distribution. This is where the big change takes place, and George Lucas is instrumental, he pushed for CGI and then pushed for digital filmmaking by investing in the technology to make it possible to do by investing in its infrastructure and artisans, and helping to create state of the art CGI facilities. He created a place where we could work entirely digitally.

The advanteges of digital production

Working digitally has enabled directors to work with fewer scene time constraints, in other words shots can be longer. Cameras weigh less and shots can be accessed and reviewed immediately. The technology is also relatively inexpensive, and there are no longer charges for processing film – a huge benefit to creators. Editing and colorization can be performed digitally (although these processes can take longer now that directors shoot so much more footage than they did previously). And now that distribution can be handled digitally, there are no more damaged prints that deteriorate over time and repeated use. The digital file will look the same night after night, no nasty scratches in the emulsion to ruin the viewing experience.

So it’s all great, right? Everything is easier on the creative and distribution end, but what about preservation of the final digital product? This was the last question covered in the documentary, and, in my humble archivist’s opinion, given short shrift.

Amazingly, film over its history has been a capture, storage, and playback medium all in one, which is great for archiving. You can always hold a piece of film up to a light and see the images on it. Of course, this is impossible for videotape or digital files. If those items are not labeled adequately, or the film name is unfamiliar, you don’t know what you have. So in order to discover the item, you need some technical intermediary to play the images back on. Without the right equipment, you don’t know what you actually have.

What about all those old files?

George Lucas proclaims that someone will solve the problems related to digital preservation, which are many and complex, and include – but are not limited to – storage, digital data rot, format changes, technology changes, etcetera. I have no doubt that with the investments made in entertainment media that better strategies will be developed for preservation. We have some of those now, but like all technology, they will continue to change. But what about all those files in one format that need to be transcoded to another format? Or moved to another storage medium? We are getting into petabytes of information and beyond. Today’s archive of digital objects requires constant vigilance, or the data can be lost. This makes a reel of 35mm film sitting in a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault that could last for more than one-hundred years seem very appealing. Which is why filmmakers, especially independents, should consider investing in a print of their final product.

Lana Wachowski, of „The Matrix“ film franchise, says that if people want the content it will survive. This is the „someone will take care of that“ approach, everyone assumes, for good or for bad, that someone is taking care of the thing we don’t want worry about, like clean water, new fuel types for our cars, and preservation of the audiovisual material that many of us look at every single day. For the most part, this is probably true. But I worry about historically important audiovisual material that is orphaned. In the digital age, there is a lot of it being created.

But the more important question is: Who will be able to provide the extensive resources that will be needed to care for it?

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