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Hollywood faces degradation of digital film and television archives

Hollywood faces degradation of digital film and television archives

 


While David Zaslav and Bob Iger's tax-optimization strategy of removing movies and TV shows from their streamers has sparked much unrest among creators, Hollywood's guardians of the digital age have a fear even greater: the massive degradation of feature films and episodic files. Behind closed doors and NDAs, the fragility of archives is a perpetual A-story, with pros fearing the possibility that the master archives of contemporary pop culture could be veritable ruins, destined to the same fate as so many lost silent films , including Alfred Hitchcock's second feature film. , The mountain eagleand Ernst Lubitsch's Oscar-winning film The Patriot.

This is underlined by initiatives such as Martin Scorsese's Film Foundation. “The preservation of every art form is fundamental,” the industry icon says in a video posted on the organization’s website. For the company, these are valuable studio assets – to take one example, the MGM library (around 4,000 film titles, including the James Bond franchise and 17,000 series episodes) is worth around 3.4 billion of dollars for Amazon – but there is a misconception that digital files are safe forever. In fact, files end up corrupted, data is transferred incorrectly, hard drives fail, formats change, and work simply disappears. “It’s a silent fire,” says Linda Tadic, CEO of Digital Bedrock, an archiving service that works with studios and independent producers. “We find problems with every show or movie we try to preserve.” So, what exactly is missing? “I could tell you stories, but I can’t, for confidentiality reasons.”

Scholars around the world do not speak publicly about specific lost works, citing privacy concerns. So only disturbing rumors circulate – as well as rare and heartbreaking stories that break the public conscience. One infamous example: In 1998, a Pixar employee accidentally typed a fatal command function, instructing the computer system to delete Toy Story 2, which was then almost finished. Luckily, a supervising technical director who worked from home (she had just had a baby) had a backup file that was 2 weeks old.

Experts note that independent filmmakers, who operate in limited financial circumstances, are at greatest risk of seeing their art disappear. “It’s a whole era of cinema that is in serious danger of being lost,” says screenwriter Larry Karaszewski, a member of the board of directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. His board colleague, historian Leonard Maltin, notes that this era could suffer the same fate that befell so many mid-century silent films and B-movies. “These films weren't considered at the time – they weren't properly archived because they weren't the product of major studios,” he says.

The digital crisis for independent filmmakers can partly be attributed to inadequate storage guarantees. (Countless USB drives and hard drives sit half-forgotten, only to age and corrupt, in closets, under beds, and on garage shelves.) But it also speaks to the fragile ecosystem that ostensibly supports filmmakers , from overwhelmed financiers to ephemeral distributors. “They are worried about seeing the project resume and broadcast it; we don’t really think about good preservation,” observes Gregory Lukow, head of the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center at the Library of Congress, which now digitizes physical media.

The sheer volume of digital material now available can be overwhelming, both from a practical standpoint (storage costs add up) and from a curatorial standpoint. But it has also been a godsend. In the realm of unscripted nonfiction, there is often a new wealth of pre-release excerpts and interviews, and with features and scripted episodes, scenes that have not previously been subject to a theatrical cut or which did not debut on television, but provide invaluable insight into the development of the work. “When we focus only on the end product, we miss the creative process,” says May Hong HaDuong, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Those in the preservation community say it's better, in terms of time and money, to have proper protocols in place up front. (Too often this doesn't happen.) “It's a different budget and model when it's done later,” says Lance Podell, senior vice president at Iron Mountain Entertainment Services, a storage and catering company of data. “Going back and making something searchable, retrievable, and localizable is a more expensive and time-consuming process than if you had done it from the start. And there is a loss of institutional memory, because the people involved in the creation of the works are often no longer there.

The SciTech Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been concerned about this issue for years. Still, Andy Maltz, co-author of the council's reports on the subject and now director of the consultancy General Intelligence, notes that the situation “is not as dire as it was, the industry is is really mobilized.” This includes the development and increasing use of the Academy color coding system, used to communicate colors and other information.

Andrea Kalas, Paramount's senior vice president of asset management, who leads the SciTech Council's preservation initiatives, points out that the best practice for preserving a film shot digitally is “to have a copy of that final film in the best resolution possible, in the widest color gamut. , so you have the most original material associated with this film. She adds: “If you're moving your files to any infrastructure, whether it's a data center or a cloud array, people think about storage policies like keeping multiple copies. There are also people who choose to store things offline, like on LTOs, referring to a tape format that has been used for decades. The good old – and time-tested – film also remains in use.

Maltz cautions that with the nature of digital, preservation efforts cannot stop. “The data you protect requires consistent migration. You really can never take your eyes off the digital ball. That's why you have backups, it can happen at any time. The chances are pretty low [of losing a film] – but there are still chances.

Migration is also necessary as file formats evolve. “If you have a Zip drive containing TARGA files, do you know how to open them today? » asks Alex Forsythe, director of imaging technology at AMPAS, referring to a file typology from the 1980s that has since been eclipsed by newer, more efficient methodologies. “I don't think anyone expects these file formats to last a dozen years, let alone 50.”

Some conservatives are more optimistic. Larry Blake, longtime sound supervisor and postproduction advisor to Steven Soderbergh, who is writing a book on digital preservation issues, believes concerns about changing formats are overblown. “I have no fear that the Library of Congress won't have the intelligence to decipher in a century,” he said. “Whatever the change in standards, the DCP [a standardized file package format] isn't going to go away,” adding, “Also, there are other ways to survive cockroaches, such as keeping an image sequence of 150,000 TIFF files, numbered in order, for the image, then a sequence corresponding broadcast wave sounds for audio. . You give that to any archive and it's game, set, match.

Experts hope that evolving technology will help more than hinder, often emphasizing the idea that artificial intelligence could soon aid rediscovery. “It would be a game changer,” says Arthur Forney, head of postproduction at Wolf Entertainment. His colleague Mark Dragin, supervising producer of three of the company's films Law and order series, notes that Special Victims Unit began in 1999 and was shot on film, so shooting a flashback — for example, of star Mariska Hargitay pursuing an old case — can be laborious, especially if it's an excerpt. He says: “It might make it quicker to find that needle in a haystack.” »

This story first appeared in the March 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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