Films deserve preservation in their authentic form

Published on website: October 27, 2009
Categories: Archiving , The StoryBoard Blog

headshot_shefter.jpgMilt Shefter is president of Miljoy Ent. Inc., a company that offers media asset preservation and access strategies to those who own large libraries of moving image, recorded sound, and video content. Miljoy helps them to preserve and protect what they now have and develop strategies to deal with issues and problems that may arise in the future. On ‘Film. No Compromise’, the recent Kodak DVD, Shefter talks about preserving images for the future. Here, he expands on those comments.

When I started college, I had an aunt who asked: “What are you going to study?” I said, “Television”. And she said, “That’s wonderful! Television repairmen make so much money. I just had a tube changed last week.” And, then a few years later I got involved with media asset preservation, and my aunt asked: “What is that?” I said, “It’s preservation.” And she said, “Oh, that’s much better. Funeral directors make more money than television repairmen.” She never quite caught on.

But I have always been a movie fan, and the great director Sidney Pollock, who recently passed away, once said something I printed out and actually carry around with me.  He said:  “Films are part of our cultural history. They help us locate ourselves in time and give us a sense of the geography in our lives. We need them in order to point us accurately in the future.  Like all accurate representations of who and what we were, they deserve preservation in their authentic form.”  I just think that really sums up the whole purpose of preservation.

Film is a medium that captures nuances – which makes it a fragile medium; that’s why we have to handle it carefully, protect it, store it under the proper environmental conditions. But until someone can come up with a better system – one that has a guaranteed access and with a ‘life’ equal to, or better than, film and offers other advantages -- the analog film system is the best we have.  Someday there may be a better system. It’s not here today and until it is, film, in my mind, will not be replaced.

People talk about costs, as in “film is so much more expensive…” because you obviously have to pay for every frame and you have to pay for processing, but the question is:  What happens after that?  What we’re making today has to be available for more than today or next week, or next year. It’s gotta be something that the future generations can have access to.  If they can’t access the work, then all of the effort was wasted, regardless of what it cost.  And with digital, ‘access’ is the missing ingredient because there’s no standardization in the field.

No one had ever analyzed the cost of storing a 4K digital master – all the material you would need to make up that master – compared to analog film.  And so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did that analysis because   they felt it was necessary for the industry to understand exactly what they were getting into as they went into digital.  They found it was twelve to sixteen times more expensive to store the information on digital media than it was to store it on film. 

And that’s a conservative number.  With film, it’s cheap to save everything, to put it in boxes in storage under environmental conditions. You can’t do that with digital.

We put that analysis in ‘The Digital Dilemma’, a publication that the Science and Technology Council of the Academy did as a result of as summit they had where they brought together all the archivists and chief technology officers of all the studios and other organizations, including the Library of Congress, UCLA, and so forth, to identify potential problems and solutions with the onslaught of digital.  And every one of them said the same thing: “We don’t know how long we’ll be able to access the material, and we haven’t been able to get people to understand the problem.”

So the Academy, which is not an advocacy organization, hired consultants and sent them out to other industries that had similar problems over the years, to try to get some answers.  And they found the others did have similar problems, but no answers, no solution.  And, in my view, the only way we will get a solution is to do a complete ‘needs analysis’ of what is required to store and access digital information and present it to vendors as a business opportunity – not just for the motion picture industry, but also for science, government, other industries, and so forth.  It’s a huge problem and a huge opportunity.

But meanwhile, I, for one, don’t want to be in a position of having to verbally describe – for future generations -- the ‘noir’ of Casablanca. Or the shear scope of The Sound of Music or Lawrence of Arabia.  Those are magnificent images, captured by motion picture film. You can’t describe those verbally. We can’t afford to lose them. That’s why they’re being preserved on film.  That’s why I’m a preservationist.

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