The Effects of Digital on Motion Picture Library Assets

Published on website: October 09, 2009
Categories: Archiving , Digital Hype , Richard Utley , The StoryBoard Blog

In 1986 Ted Turner turned the motion picture industry up side down by purchasing the icon studio Metro Goldwyn Mayer for $1.3 billion dollars. This studio in existence since the early 1920’s with titles in its film library like Gone With The Wind, Wizard of Oz, Dr. Zhivago, 2001 a Space Odyssey and many other classics was falling into the hands of what many said was a crazy man with far too much money. Ted didn’t want the studio lot, nor the film laboratory Metrocolor, all Ted wanted was the vast library that MGM had amassed over the previous 60+ years.


During the next few years Ted Turner proceeded to show the industry what could be done with their library and the literal gold mine that was before them in a fledgling consumer market. By 1990 with Ted’s cable network booming and home video sales growing the other studios were now starting to assess their own libraries in order to emulate what Turner Entertainment was accomplishing.

The studios were now starting to pour millions of dollars into these film libraries forming a boutique industry for the restoration and preservation of motion picture titles. Small film laboratories starting springing up, primarily in the Hollywood area, with expertise in the restoration of film. Studios were not only restoring the titles in their libraries, but new preservation strategies was put in place calling for proper storage standards to insure their investment in restoration of older titles and new production titles would be secure for long term keeping.

In 1991 the ANSI IT9.11 was introduced to the moving image film libraries and archives calling for lower temperatures and humidity. Paramount and Warner Bros. studios immediately built new state-of-the-art film preservation archives with storage temperatures and RH standards meeting the new ANSI criteria.
In that same year Kodak set their EI Business Planning unit into action looking at the state of film preservation through out North America doing a comprehensive report on the storage environments within the film libraries and archives. The results of that report came back with a statement that said much of what was being stored is in jeopardy and certainly there was opportunity for a new service business to be developed.

In 1992 the approval for building what would become the state-of-the-art motion picture film preservation facility PRO-TEK was given and in March of 1994 PRO-TEK opened its doors on the second floor of the Kodak Distribution building on the Kodak campus in Hollywood.


By the mid-1990’s studios were well on their way to restoring the films of years past and insuring there was a preservation strategy in place for new films being produced. These same libraries took on even more importance with the DVD boom soon to be encountered when revenues from library DVD sales at times eclipsing new production revenues.


As Y2K rolled in so did the unveiling of a new Kodak service call Digital Intermediate at its Los Angeles visual effects facility Cinesite. Little did we know that this new way of approaching post production would have a dramatic impact on the preservation standards and practices established during the previous 10 years.

Since this first digital intermediate on the production title “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou” in 2000, over 90% of all feature production titles shot on film are scanned into data for daily viewing, editing and post production completion today. Feature deliverables range from a Digital Intermediate Original (DIO) to a Linear Tape Optical (LTO) tape. All consumer markets are satisfied coming from the digital source master stored on an LTO tape and down converted. Most TV shows today are captured digitally, posted digitally and finished on High Definition SR (HDSR) tape. Those still captured on film are posted in digital with a digital deliverable.

Why the impact on the preservation strategies established in the 1990’s? There are many issues to discuss such as resolution, file formats, media types etc. But, simply said, digital is not archival. As technology advances and Moore’s Law dictates a change in hardware, software and media every 18 months and with the studios receiving petabytes of information on both features and TV production on various media types and file formats, it’s an over whelming issue.


A perfect example of this is the LTO tape that features are delivered on. Currently we’re at LTO 4 with 5 coming up within a few months. LTO tapes are only compatible back two (2) generations. What does this mean to the studio, migrating tapes every 4-5 years.

The studio’s have protected themselves on the feature side by recording out the final cut with all color timing, effects and titles onto film. Not only recording out the DIO but also recording out B&W separation masters which will last for 100’s of years in preservation storage. These separation used in the future can be scanned back into data for later use when (not if!) the date file becomes obsolete.

But this leaves TV programming, independent features and many other types of programming that will be lost due to obsolescence or discretionary decision making by the content holder who does not or will not spend the money required for constant migration to the next contemporary format.

Two weeks ago I held a day long symposia on the subject of Digital Asset Management (DAM) inviting all of the major studios for a day long discussion on digital assets and how will they be preserved for long term keeping. It was a sobering day with all studios being represented to understand that much of what we had established to protect our moving image assets has been undone by a new technology where the answers for long term keeping remain elusive.

We are nine years into the DI era, feature titles shot as little as five years ago are being rescanned to meet today’s higher criteria for consumer markets. Thankfully for feature work we have film to go back to, but TV and other markets are not as fortunate. Some studios are looking at taking their HD masters and recording back to a DI for preservation, but this will be a discretionary decision process. Some programming will be lost.

There is much work ahead to get us back to the solid strategies of working with an archival media such as film, everyone has hope that there is an answer for digital preservation, but how soon is the question.

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