Facing the Digital Dilemma


It was still the dawn of the motion picture industry in 1913 when a newspaper critic asked Sarah Bernhardt why she was wasting her precious time acting in films produced for “lowbrow” movie audiences instead of concentrating on performing in stage plays in the “legitimate” world of theater. Her prescient response was that she performed in movies for posterity.

The legendary actress must have had a crystal ball; there are at least 10 documentaries featuring clips of her performances in films, beginning with 1900’s Hamlet.

Try this experiment: Ask your next-door neighbor if he or she remembers the last name of the Lucy who starred in “I Love Lucy.” You can bet the farm he or she will know that the answer is Lucille Ball, who portrayed the zany housewife in the long-running television series. Though the last new episode aired half a century ago, the memory of the seminal sitcom endures because that series—and other programs produced by Desilu Productions—have lived on in syndication for five decades.

“Consolidated Film Industries had the edited negative and outtakes for ‘I Love Lucy’ and other Desilu Productions in its vaults,” says film preservationist Milt Shefter. “That was standard practice, though I don’t think anyone realized how valuable those films would become both as a record of the early history of television in the United States or as a revenue producer in syndication.”

Industry historians estimate that half of the motion pictures produced in the United States from the 1890s until the early 1950s have been lost. The tide began to turn domestically during the 1960s, when a burgeoning television industry created a lucrative marketplace for repurposing films that were produced for the cinema. That trend has gained increasing momentum with the evolution of home theaters, which have steadily evolved from laser discs to VHS tapes, DVDs and now Blu-ray discs.

Shefter observes that the seven major Hollywood studios have been archiving their films in humidity- and temperature-controlled environments for the past 40 years, and in some cases longer. He supervised the design and construction of a 40,000 square-foot archival vault on the Paramount Pictures lot in 1987 and implemented a strategy for preserving the studio’s film assets. He subsequently assisted various other studios with the same process.

Shefter says that today it is standard practice for the studios and other mainstream producers to archive all of their original negatives (including outtakes), the intermediate film used to generate release prints and YCM (yellow, cyan and magenta) separations that are recorded on stable black-and-white polyester film. Shefter notes that properly archived negative and intermediate film will generally retain the original imaging characteristics for at least 100 years.

He explains that YCMs are a comparatively inexpensive insurance policy that can be used to create a new negative that is an accurate reproduction of the original film. Each YCM contains a record of the density of one of the three primary colors. Put them together on a contact printer and you can make a faithful duplicate negative. The current cost for making YCMs for a 90-minute movie in 35mm format is approximately $33,600, according to Beverly Wood, vice president of technical services at Deluxe Laboratories.

Journalist Michael Cieply put this issue into perspective in an article published by The New York Times on December 23, 2007. He cites a report issued by Global Media Intelligence stating that approximately one-third of the $36 billion in annual revenues earned by the seven major Hollywood studios comes from re-releasing films in their libraries to broadcast, cable and satellite television outlets and on DVD. It is widely anticipated that the rapid emergence of HDTV will create a ravenous new marketplace for repurposed films.

That was the upside of Cieply’s story about “The Digital Dilemma,” a 75-page report issued by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November 2007. The foreword to the report succinctly describes a primary motivation for the project: “Even some of the artists who are the most evangelical about the new world of digital motion pictures sometimes seem not to have thoroughly explored the question of what happens to a digital production once it leaves the theaters and begins its life as a long-term studio asset.”

The report was co-authored by Andy Maltz, director of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council, and Shefter himself. It compares requirements and costs for archiving motion pictures produced in film and digital formats. The report also explores the effects of the growing use of digital intermediate (DI) technology for mastering content.

“The Digital Dilemma” report seems to have struck a nerve, says Maltz. “It has sparked a lot of interest and raised many questions. That was one of our primary goals. We wanted to make people both inside and outside of the industry more aware of this vitally important issue.”

The research project was launched during the winter of 2005 after Phil Feiner, chairman of the Academy’s Digital Motion Picture Archival Project Committee, proposed a summit conference with studio archivists and technology leaders and their counterparts in other organizations. The list included government agencies, the health care industry, universities and astronomers.

“It was the first time that the chief technology officers and archivists from the studios and other peer public institutions, including the Library of Congress, UCLA Film and Television Archive and the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), met to discuss this issue,” Shefter says.

film archives

They shared concerns about the need for a better understanding of the issues related to digital archiving. For example, in 1999, scientists at NASA discovered they were unable to recover digital files documenting images that a Viking space probe sent back to Earth in 1975. Those irreplaceable images of mankind’s first exploration of the universe are gone forever.

“The Academy is not an advocacy organization,” Maltz stresses. “We brought together people who know and care about the importance of archiving our heritage to discuss the issues and to determine the questions that needed to be asked and answered. More than 70 experts were subsequently interviewed. ‘The Digital Dilemma’ report is a summary of our findings with the goal of shedding light on an issue of general concern, so appropriate steps can be planned and taken.”

The dimensions of the challenge can be found in an annual report produced by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). More than 600 films were released to cinemas in 2006, approximately 91 percent of which were produced in 35mm format, with another three percent in Super 16 format and the remaining six percent on digital media. The unofficial estimate is that at least 350 of those films were digitally mastered, and while there are notable exceptions, the number is increasing annually.

“It is important for producers to understand that the digital master files being generated today are not an archival medium that you can take off the shelf in five to 10 years with a reasonable expectation that content won’t be lost,” Shefter observes.

The Academy report cites a consensus that, because of the degradation of signals and obsolescence of formats, digital media should be migrated every four to five years. It also cautions that a digital media hard drive can “freeze up” in as little as two years and that DVD files will eventually degrade—about half are not expected to last for longer than 15 years.

Shefter calculates that the average feature produced on film generates enough edited negative, B-roll outtakes, YCMs, interpositive film and sound tapes to fill 300 boxes along with the script and notes. The Academy report cites the annual cost for archiving those records at $1,059.

The report also cites case studies which indicate that it requires more than two petabytes (2,000 terabytes) of computer files to store all the image information generated for a movie produced in a high resolution digital format. A single terabyte is equal to a trillion bytes of computer data. The Academy report tabs the annual cost for archiving all relevant elements of a motion picture produced in digital format at $208,569 per year. It also states that a typical digital master file can be archived at an annual cost of $12,514.

“It is reasonably affordable for independent producers to archive a digital master file and protect it with YCMs,” Shefter observes. “The question that it raises is: What is going to happen in the future when someone wants to re-release a director’s cut of your movie with outtakes in the DVD format of the future?”

digital dilemma

There are various remarkably successful endeavors designed to ensure that today’s films will endure for posterity. In 1999, the Directors Guild of America negotiated an agreement with the MPAA under which DGA members are entitled to an original, pristine 35mm print of every film they direct. Prints of more than 1,000 films made available under this agreement are being maintained at the UCLA Film and Television Archive in Los Angeles.

Feiner says that “The Digital Dilemma” was the first chapter in the quest to find practical solutions to the issues defined in the report. The next step is a continuation of the dialogue with the goal of creating universal practices and standards for digital archiving. The alternative is stated near the end of the report: “If we allow technological obsolescence to repeat itself, we are tied either to continuously increasing costs, or worse, the failure to save important assets.”

The conclusion of Cieply’s article paints an even more vivid picture: “We could be watching Wallace Beery long after more contemporary images are gone.”

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