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Digi-Tell Me The Truth?

The Big Assumption That Everyone is Making about the “Future” of Digital Media May be Wrong

independent film, entertainment, film festival, film events, film reviews

By Ron Merk

There’s a rumor floating around that digital preservation is a real way of saving things that exist in the “real world” such as photos, sound recordings, films and videos. The assumption that many people are making is that digital is an archival medium, and that there’s no reason we can access those files in the future and retrieve these analog resources.

I’m not quite sure how this idea got started, and I’m not even certain if it’s a “conspiracy” or simply a lack of information and the facts. Even Pixar was surprised with what happened to a large percentage of its original digital files on the movie “Toy Story,” and how easy it was for someone to accidentally hit the delete button on the files for “Toy Story 2.” I recently came across a very interesting article on this subject which I think bears reading. You can find it at the URL:

The internationally accepted “definition” in the archive community of a medium being archival is that (and I simplify) it can be retrieved and reproduced in more or less in its original form for a period of one hundred years. We’ve had motion picture film for more than a century, videotape for about 60 years and digital forms of recording for about 20. The only one that “passes the test” of a hundred years is film. We have a history with film that can be quantified. We know its strengths and its weaknesses, and we know how we can prolong its life almost indefinitely. The history of other recording media needs to be qualified by the fact that it has problems that were never anticipated in the past and can’t be accurately anticipated for the future.

Video and digital formats have changed and changed over the course of their respective existences, and they have gone from bulky 2” quad videotapes to mini-DV, DVD and other forms of digital recording. Their Achilles heel is the medium on which they are recorded and the equipment on which they need to be played. Video tape and audio tape both suffer from what is called “sticky shed syndrome,” where the recording medium (some form of magnetic oxide) starts to separate from the plastic base on which it is fixed. This causes drop outs, tape heads clogging, and loss of sound or picture information.

Digital files, too, can be corrupted, just like any computer files, and they also suffer from equipment obsolescence. As technology races on, old formats are abandoned and become (and I say this with some irony) “legacy formats” as the labs now call anything that is not present state-of-the-art/technology. The answer to this problem has been “we can just migrate these formats to current formats.” But the question is “when and where does this migration end, and in the end, do we still have the original project or has some of it been lost to migration. Think of a hear of wildebeest crossing the African savannah, and which ones are picked off by accident, sickness or lions! What is the cost of this media migration, and who will supervise it, quality control the copies and make sure the “original” is still safe and with us? In ten years, twenty……a hundred. Migration is easy to “say” but really not practical to “do.”

So, what is the answer? While I cannot assume that some form of digital recording media will be invented that will equal the staying power of film, for now I say that film is our best bet. If it’s important to you, then find a way of outputting to film whatever it is that you want to save for the future. Call me old-fashioned if you like, but I prefer to bet on the front-runner. For now that’s film. That may change. But no one knows when or if or how digital can catch up with film as a safe place to store one’s history and dreams. I prefer one (film copy) to zero (digital copy).

P.S. Yes, I have scanned the post card and photo of myself and Audrey seen above, but only to make it possible to put them electronically at your fingertips. The originals are stored safely in a temperature and humidity controlled vault, and I can take them out any time, hold them in front of my eyes, and just enjoy them. Do you still have those photos you took with your first cell phone?

P.P.S. And yes, every film and TV program that I ever made, starting when I worked at the legendary Film Center Building in New York in 1967, has been preserved on film, and now resides in my collections at The Academy Film Archives and The UCLA Film and Television Archives.