Why is Film the archival media of choice?

Published on website: November 05, 2009
Categories: Ana Castro , Archiving , Digital Hype , The StoryBoard Blog

The Society of American Archivist defines Archival Media as ‘resistant to deterioration or loss of quality, allowing for a long life expectancy when kept in controlled conditions’.
If we try to apply this definition to the different types of storage media currently used in the motion picture workflow as it is structured today, it is highly unlikely that we will be able to find many media that fit this definition: other than film, that is.

Whether the production in question uses hard drives, CD’s , tapes or DVDs to store their content, there is always the very real probability that a hard drive will crash, that a tape will get scratched, that the format used will be obsolete and render the information unreadable in a few years (even if the information is still intact). What good does it do to have perfectly good information that you cannot access?

Film is a very mature technology compared to “digital.” We have had a long time to learn and apply those learnings along the way in order to make products that best meet our customers’ needs. Many years of research have gone into understanding and optimizing film formulations to ensure its archival properties. Motion picture film, if properly processed and kept under recommended conditions can last for several hundred years, no other currently used storage media comes anywhere close to that.  In addition, the “filing” system is very simple and does not require much maintenance. Entire productions can be stored away for many years until someone decides it is time for a re-release or a special “coming out of the vault” edition. 

One key feature of film has always been the long term stability and usefulness of the images. Three factors that make this possible are: 1) the stability of the image itself; 2) the stability of the base/support; and 3) the means to extract the image/information.

For well processed B&W films, the image is actually made up of metallic silver, which is VERY stable... providing Arrhenius predictions in terms of centuries.  Color films use organic dyes for their images. Improvements in the dyes themselves and in the methods to incorporate these dyes into the films, have yielded large improvements in the stability of these images.  Although not as stable as metallic silver, these new dyes can provide stability of many decades based on Arrhenius predictions. 

The use of polyester for the film base provides a very stable material for the images. This has greatly extended the stability of films.  Finally, since film images are optical (meaning what you see is what you get) it is VERY easy to see and extract the image... no complicated electronic format (that usually becomes obsolete) is needed.

For productions that originate digitally the amount of data that is generated is very large (much like me taking 15 still pictures of my daughter with my digital camera, whereas in the past I would probably have taken 2 with my film camera). The volume of data only helps compound the dilemma that follows once the production is finished and now content decisions have to be made as to what will be kept and what will not. If the ultimate intention truly is to preserve the content, then this content will likely be transferred back to film and be tucked away safely in a refrigerated vault until needed again. If the production was originated on film and the entire flow went through a traditional optical film process it is significantly easier to archive all the elements.

Furthermore, according to “The Digital Dilemma” report released back in 2007 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, it costs almost 12 times more to store the digital master of a movie than it costs to keep a conventional film master. If, as mentioned before the production was originated digitally the cost of preservation becomes significantly higher especially when compared to the low cost of storing several reels of film and sound negatives from an all film production.

Not only is film the highest quality media, with the longest life expectancy and guaranteed access, in the long run, it is also the most inexpensive. So you tell me, why would you NOT choose film as your archival media?

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