[Tig] Film .vs. digital archiving

Richard Kirk richard at filmlight.ltd.uk
Mon May 20 10:28:07 BST 2013

If you have an old film, and you want to preserve it, there are, 
perhaps, three options...

(a) Keep the film safe

Stick it in a vault and don't let anyone touch it. This is cheap if you 
stick it in a cave in the Rockies at -5C. In a hundred years, someone 
should be able to open the can and find the film. They may have not got 
a projector, and they may not be able to read the soundtrack, but they 
will probably be able to figure out some way of reading it. Of course, 
if they open the tin in a hundred years and find the wrong film, or the 
film has been ruined, then it will have gone for good. We know how to 
preserve nitrate film now, but that is only after losing most of it.

(b) Digitize the film and keep a copy of that data

This is not just taking a scan, sticking it on a tape, and putting that 
in a vault. We know that magnetic tapes will typically have less life 
than film, so that route makes no sense. A professional archive company 
will have at least three sites in different parts of the world and in 
different economies, with a fourth side keeping a copy of the data in 
escrow in case the archive company goes bust. Each site has a copy of 
the whole archive, and a rolling program for reading, checking, 
correcting, and re-writing each archive entry. This has been going on 
without fuss since 1990, if not earlier. Old archives have outlived four 
or five storage formats and tape machines.

(c) Make a permanent copy of the film and keep that safe

Colour film may lose its colour, but you can print colour film onto 
black and white stock, which is probably as stable as you can get. A 
black and white print can be done by a conventional film lab, if you can 
still find such a thing. Or you can go for some fancy storage method 
such as writing digital data on metallized film. This, for me, would be 
the worst of all possible worlds.  The costs of making a digital copy 
are similar to the costs of maintaining a digital archive for 100 years 
at current prices, but you have to pay almost all the costs up front, 
while the costs of digital archiving may drop dramatically. Finally, 
your archive is still something in a tin that you don't touch for 100 
years, and then may be unreadable for some reason that no-one foresaw.

This cycle of copying and copying the copies is something that libraries 
and museums have been doing for years. Suppose you are Trinity College, 
Dublin, and you have the irreplaceable Book of Kells. You photograph 
every page of the original as carefully as you can. You have a copy on 
display. You may have a lower resolution copy on the shelves or in the 
souvenir shop. You have digital copies with varied lighting on archive, 
so scholars can distinguish gold leaf from yellow, and mine the data for 
details. Everyone who is satisfied with a copy is someone who does not 
have to touch and degrade the original.

Maybe those who distrust digital archives have not seen professional 
digital archiving. A disc system that deletes everything with 'rm -r *' 
is not a professional archive. A warehouse full or films that gets 
destroyed in the summer bush fires around LA is not a professional 
archive either. We should If compare good archiving techniques of all 
kinds. (a) keeping the original is the obvious choice: it is cheap and 
will tell the historian the most provided it survives. It is 
complemented by (b): the digital archive should survive local media 
corruption, replacement of the holding technology, economic failure of 
the holding company in all the countries, EMP, and total destruction of 
any data site by giant meteors. If the stump of civilization still 
clinging onto survival after all that can continue to watch 'I Love 
Lucy' then there is always (c) if they can figure out how to read it 
with Bedrock technology...

Just my 2p's worth.

Richard Kirk

FilmLight Ltd.  	Tel: +44 (0)20 7292 0400 or 0409 224 (direct)
Artists House,		Fax: +44 (0)20 7292 0401
14-15 Manette Street
London W1D 4AP

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