Acad sounds alarm about fragility of digital prod’n

Sci-Tech report spotlights short lifespan of non-film formats

On the day that Sundance kicked off and Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy, the Motion Picture Academy threw a bucket of ice water on the digital filmmaking revolution.

Preserving movies is an ongoing issue for the entire industry, but a new report from the Acad warns that movies shot or finished digitally face a lifespan so short they can be lost even before they get distribution. Worse, indie and docu filmmakers, whose work is most vulnerable to this risk, seem oblivious to the danger.Those grim conclusions, found in the long-awaited Part Two of the Acad’s Science & Technology Council “Digital Dilemma” report on the problems of digital preservation, will likely make for some somber chatter in Park City.

Where part one (released in 2007) focused on the studios, the second installment looks at indies and docs and finds “the technology that makes it easy to make the picture also underlies the lack of guaranteed long-term access to it.” And while the Acad found those communities still ignorant of the fragility of digital files, it may not matter — those sectors lack the resources to attack the problem anyway.

“The bottom line is we’re running out of time,” Sci-Tech Council member Milt Shefter, co-author of the report, told Variety. “The time for studies is past. We have to find some solutions or we’re going to lose a lot of material.”

In short, digital storage, be it on hard drives, DVDs or solid-state memory, simply isn’t on a par for anything close to the 100-plus-year lifespan of film. The life of digital media is measured in years, not decades, and file formats can go obsolete in months, not years. As the report explains, that affects movies still looking for distribution, not merely library titles. “In general,” the report says, “independent films that beat the odds and secure some form of distribution do so after a much longer time period than movies produced by the major studios. This time period quite likely exceeds the ‘shelf life’ of any digital work; that is, by the time distribution is secured, the digital data may become inaccessible.

“Most of the filmmakers surveyed and interviewed for this report were not aware of the perishable nature of digital content or how short its unmanaged lifespan is compared to the 95-plus years that U.S. copyright laws allow filmmakers to benefit from their work.”

Much indie content, the report says, is in danger of being lost before it can receive the full benefits of those 95 years of protection.

Shefter called filmmakers’ ignorance of the issue “probably our biggest surprise.”

“They were concentrating on the benefits of digital workflow,” he said, “but weren’t thinking about what happens to their (digital) masters. They’re structured to make their movie, get it in front of an audience, and then move onto the next one.”

Also a surprise to the Acad’s researchers: Documentarians also were unaware of the vulnerability of digital files. On the contrary, documakers were generally excited about the easy access to footage in the digital age. When Acad interviewers raised the idea that there might be “a black hole for the last 25-30 years” because digital files aren’t being preserved, said Shefter, “they really didn’t get that.”

“The main difference between analog and digital is, analog was store-and-ignore,” said Shefter. “Digital has to be actively managed.”

Such active management is expensive, however, vastly more expensive than putting film in a vault. Even when they take such steps, however, filmmakers and producers are up against an insurmountable problem: The only reliable method for archiving digital images is to go analog. The best archiving solution today is to print out to film, ideally with a three-color separation printed onto black-and-white archival film. That’s a very expensive solution.

The Academy is doing what it can to help address the problem, said Andy Maltz, director of the Sci-Tech Council. “One of the keys to preservation is to have file-format standards, so if you can recover the zeros and ones, you’ll know what they mean and know what they’re supposed to look like on the screen.” The Acad’s Image Interchange Framework project is helping create such standards. SMPTE will be publishing the first of them later this year.

The Acad is coordinating Hollywood’s efforts to work with the Library of Congress and with other industries to find a method for archiving digital data. But, said Maltz, “It’s up to the manufacturers to incorporate archival lifetimes into their products.” Fortunately for the entertainment industry, it’s not alone in facing this issue. Banking, medicine, energy and other fields all need to preserve digital data for more than a few years, and they’re all looking for the same elusive breakthrough.

The report says that unless preservation becomes a requirement for planning, budgeting and marketing strategies, it will remain a problem for indie filmmakers, documentarians and archives alike. “These communities, and the nation’s artistic and cultural heritage, would greatly benefit from a comprehensive, coordinated digital preservation plan for the future.”

The report includes proposals for more education, sharing of information and collaboration among archives and other orgs.

Shefter was careful to say that the Council and the report are not attacking digital, which offers “tremendous benefits” in some areas. Said Shefter, “The broader issue is (that) as we embrace the benefits of the newer technology, one thing is missing: long-term guaranteed access. That’s what the analog world had and we think any replacement should have at least as much.”