Preservation of Born-Digital
More Questions Than Answers
Defining “born-digital” for films is not
The move from film reels to image files,
cinema theatres to desktops and light to
algorithms supports a general cultural
trend where future technology allows
content to exist without artifact.
--Dylan Cave (4)
• Film faces many of the same challenges as
other analog formats when it comes to
preserving digital objects
• Industry is aware the problems exist
• Several efforts are underway to find solutions
• Not much in the way of definitive results as of
• In the past a film was shot on 35mm stock.
• An editor took all the raw footage and literally
cut (with razor blades) together the chosen
pieces into the master.
• That was “the film.”
• Digital technology upended film production in
the 1980s with digital audio and non-linear
• Now all footage is scanned into a computer.
Editors use a software program like Final Cut
Pro to select scenes and assemble the edit.
• “The film” is a set of digital files.
• No Hollywood film released in the last 2
decades has not been created on a computer,
even if the film was shot on analog film stock.
• The edited film comes into being through
• Some films are shot entirely digitally with no
analog stock used at all.
• Films with a lot of
special effects obviously
have many elements
that only exist digitally,
often created by
companies. (Look at the
credits of any major
animated films also
have no analog
Image credit: fanpop.com
Hollywood caught on in the 1950s
• Preserving films became a vital business
practice in Hollywood in the 1950s.
• Up until then only scattershot efforts to save
films. Majority of pre-1950 film has been lost.
– Also the film stock was dangerous to keep.
• 1950s brought television, a secondary market,
creating an economic incentive to preserve
your studio’s library.
• Important to remember: studios see film
preservation as an economic imperative, not a
cultural heritage one.
• Independent producers, documentarians, etc.
who do not have massive corporations behind
them lack the resources to do what the
Film as object
• A “film” used to be a
• There was a set of
physical objects that
• Preservation of analog
film, while imperfect,
has procedures and
practices that are
widely adopted and
What is the object now?
• As with all digital
media, the physical
object to preserve has
begun to disappear.
• Now a “film” is a set of
files that exists on a
• Including mine.
• The imperative to
Current preservation practice
• “The message is clear: the easiest way to hold
on to all the information locked into the
original film is to hold on to the film.” -- David
• Right now studios create physical prints even
of purely born-digital films to put into their
archives. This is the safest and cheapest way
to store a film for a long period.
• There is never one version of a film. You may
have one or all of the following:
– The theatrical release
– A director’s cut/extended edition
– A version for television
– A version for airlines
– A version for foreign markets (Iron Man 3)
– A video edition for WalMart, etc.
• A single feature film can take 4 or more
canisters of 35mm film stock to hold it.
• Preservation masters for analog film are “YCM
separations” plus the interpositive print (akin
to an “access copy”).
• That’s 4 copies of a single version of the film
for one set of masters.
It gets worse
• Digital projection and distribution of film
complicates things further
– A film opening on 2,000 screens needed 2,000
physical copies to be made and shipped.
– Theaters with digital projectors can just download
a Digital Cinema Package (DCP).
– Right now we’ve got a mix of digital and analog
projection still, so analog copies still need to be
But film stock may disappear
• Companies like Kodak used to get a lot of film
stock sales for those 2,000 release prints. That
business has vanished.
• Producing film stock only for archival purposes
may become too costly for companies.
• If 35mm film stock is no longer produced, you
have no choice but to preserve film masters
• This has not happened yet, but it’s a concern.
• When a BluRay of an old movie comes out, what
is one of the key criteria reviewers use to judge
whether it’s worth buying?
• The extras. The interviews, behind the scenes
pieces, etc. You’re reselling a movie to the same
people, you need to add something new.
• Some of that material isn’t even filmed until
nearly at the release date. It’s not kept with the
feature film itself, even digitally.
Long tail in action
• First with television, then home video, now
DVD and streaming and cable, film is one of
the best examples of a long tail of value.
• That long tail depends on the extras as much
as the quality of the film image.
• But those extras exist only in digital format.
They are not preserved with the analog film
So about that “BluRay” image
Image source: AMPAS
“High definition” has no definition
• 4K is the current high end standard for digital
resolution. It may be roughly the resolution of
analog 35mm film stock (no one is sure).
• Imagine you shot a film digitally only at 2K
resolution. You can’t upgrade. You’re already
behind the curve.
• If you have the analog masters, though, you
can go back and rescan at higher resolution.
• Economic incentive to have analog masters(?)
So what do we save?
• Even in the analog era, film studios saved the
theatrical version master, not all the raw
• The theatrical version is obviously a priority,
but do we save every version? If not, which
ones are most important?
• Do we save ancillary materials? How?
• What about digital effects files?
How do we save it?
• What resolution do we use for digital materials?
• What file formats?
– Remember this is an industry that’s dealt with both
Betamax and LaserDisc failures. No one wants to pick
the wrong technology.
• A feature film can be upwards of 2 petabytes of
data just for the film itself. How do we cope with
file sizes this large? Tape, disc, cloud storage?
Most crucial questions
• How do we make preservation decisions in an
environment where the technology is never
stable and is designed and developed to
• How do we preserve the potential future
profits from these films?
Progress so far
– Digital Dilemma 1 and 2
– Case Study
Digital Cinema Initiatives
Academy of Motion Picture Arts &
• (AKA “the people who hand out the Oscars”)
• Science and Technology Council is working
hard on digital challenges
• Two major publications: Digital Dilemma 1
(2007) and 2 (2012).
– Digital Dilemma was an alarm being sounded to
the industry that these problems needed to be
AMPAS Case Study
• “Long Term Management and Storage of
Digital Motion Picture Materials: A Digital
Motion Picture Archive Framework Project
Case Study” 2010
• Attempt to use a small film project to see
what would be involved in creating a digital
archive for films.
• Helped identify the challenges
What would a digital film archive look
Image source: AMPAS
Surprises in the Case Study
• Digital film shot in 2004 on a Sony format was
already inaccessible by 2009.
• Much more collaboration needed with IT
• “Job descriptions and educational
requirements for digital motion picture archive
professionals do not exist.” (57)
• Metadata is going to be an enormously vital
Workflow just for metadata
Image source: AMPAS
We note that in the digital world, a misplaced
asset is even less likely to be rediscovered than
an analogue asset, since there is nothing
physical to look through in order to try and find
--Randal Luckow and James M. Turner, 170
• National Digital Information Infrastructure and
Preservation Program > National Digital
Stewardship Alliance (NDSA)
• Partnership includes AMPAS, major studios,
archives and more.
• Library of Congress formats
– Special section for professional film (shows
influence of studios and AMPAS on the work).
• Everyone is aware that standards are needed.
• The LOC offering is one set of options, but there
likely will never be a single default format. It will
be a group of formats, wrappers, codecs, etc.
• Metadata standards are the next big obstacle.
• Commercial developers don’t see film
preservation as a key market for digital asset
management, so alternatives will need to be
• Perhaps the biggest achievements in digital
film preservation so far are
1. Raising awareness of the problems.
2. Getting the industry to grasp the size of the
3. Prompting studios who are normally bitter
rivals to work together to solve the problems.
I am kind of wondering if I am the only one
who has noticed the lack of a coherent long
term vision and strategy for film
preservation or perhaps better said for the
content on film. I don't see it. A cold vault is
not a preservation strategy for film, it has
become a procrastination strategy for the
preservation of film content.
--Jim Lindner, CEO at Media Matters LLC, 2/17/13