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Digital proves problematic

Industry lacks method to store footage

As far as movies are concerned, digital, like diamonds, was supposed to be forever.

No more dyes to fade, no more film stocks to decay or catch fire. Just pristine digital data, preserved for all time, and release prints as clear and sharp as the images caught by the camera.

Just one problem: For long-term storage, digital is — so far — proving to be a time bomb, more permanent than sand painting but not much else.

Simply put, there’s no generally accepted way to store digital “footage” for more than a few months. After that the industry is using a hodgepodge of improvised solutions, some rather costly, others not very reliable.

That looked like a small problem when digital filmmaking was limited to low-budget indies, animation houses and tech pioneers like James Cameron and George Lucas.

Now, though, that small problem is growing geometrically as the major studios shift away from film to digital capture. Such recent releases as “Apocalypto,” “Zodiac” and “Superman Returns” were shot on digital. Their digital masters could be seriously degraded if the problem isn’t addressed quickly.

In fact, the problem is so severe that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ Science and Technology Council warned in 2005 that within just a few years films shot with digital cameras could be lost.

Two years on, digital is going mainstream, but “The problem is still there,” says Phil Feiner, chairman of the Acad Sci-Tech Council’s archiving committee. And those few years the council warned of are nearly up.

It’s not that there’s no way to store digital data. On the contrary, there are dozens of ways to store it, most of which go obsolete in just a few years. Remember 5″ floppies and Zip disks?

And the disks that have stuck around? Not so reliable.

Data tapes are balky and can fall apart. Data DVDs and CDs have a history of “rotting” and can’t be counted on to last as long as their commercially pressed cousins.

Plus there’s no reason to expect that the computers of 20 years from now — never mind 100 — will be able to plug in to today’s hard disks.Some private companies are jumping in as awareness of the problem grows, and Feiner’s committee will be launching several initiatives over the months to come.

But the amount of digital footage that needs to be archived is growing faster than ever.

More than one tech expert, including the Academy’s Sci-Tech Council director Andy Maltz, told Variety they had found archival tapes unreadable just 18 months after they were made.

Feiner, the former longtime prexy of Pacific Title, says when he worked on studio feature films he found missing frames or corrupted data on 40% of the data tapes that came in from digital intermediate houses.

The tapes were only nine months old.

“On certain pictures we had to go into the DI negative and re-scan the data,” he says. “You couldn’t retrieve it. Gone.”

Milt Shefter, who is a team leader on Feiner’s digital archiving committee, warns that “Long term, it’s possible that we’re looking going back to the early days of motion pictures, where films are made, put out for a week or two, then thrown away.”

With acetate or polyester film, the typical approach to archiving has been summed up as “store and ignore.”

Color film can be turned into black-and-white color separations on polyester stock. Properly stored in cool vaults at low humidity, such film can last centuries. But there’s no way to “store and ignore” digital.

Instead, digital data has to be copied, or “migrated,” to new storage every few years.

Migration, however, takes computers, an IT staff, software and a lot of labor. In short: money.

While indies may lack the funds to do regular migration, studios are plunging in.

Sony’s VP of asset management and film restoration, Grover Crisp, says the studio has put in a program of migrating every two to three years.

“The motion pictures and original material, those are primary assets of the company,” says Crisp. “We all want to do whatever we can to protect those assets.”

Disney’s VP of production technology Howard Lukk, says as the studios’ digital archives grow, migration becomes a bigger job.

“It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge and it getting a foot longer every year.”

Not only are more films shot digitally now, but digital filmmaking encourages directors to shoot more footage.

Mel Gibson told Variety, “Here’s the horror. In the average film, it’s 900,000 feet to 1.2 million to make a film, roundabout.

“(‘Apocalypto’) was the equivalent of 3 million feet, so it’s a lot of stuff that you don’t use but it’s recorded.”

“The technological issues here are not going to be solved by the entertainment industry,” says Shefter. “It’s going to take big business, big science and maybe big government.”

In the meantime, the Academy is stepping in to make the motion picture industry’s voice heard in any big business initiative to solve the problem.

The digital archive project is the broadest initiative launched since the Acad decided in 2003 to fund the current incarnation of the Science & Technology Council.

Maltz expects a report that will pin down what the industry needs to do to be released in a few months.

Meanwhile, private industry is attacking digital archiving, too, with at least one announcement in the field planned for NAB.

At NAB, Elektrofilm Digital Studios and Sun Microsystems announced a service to manage and archive the vast amounts of video from feature film production.

Many tech experts expect the studios to eventually outsource all their archiving and migration to companies like Elektrofilm rather than try to do it themselves. Feiner says what is happening is, in effect, the birth of a new business: digital archiving.

He speaks from experience. Earlier this year, three companies received Science & Technology Awards for their work on archiving. Feiner and his Pacific Title team were among the winners.

Their solution takes the data from a digital intermediate and turns it into three-color separation negatives.

In other words, they take the digital movie and turn it into good old-fashioned film.

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