Pixar stored the Toy Story 2 files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody's hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes.
Imagine the horror: 20 people's work for two years, erased in 20 seconds. Animators were able to reconstitute the missing elements purely by chance: Pixar's visual arts director had just had a baby, and she'd brought a copy of the movie — the only remaining copy — with her to work on at home.
There's been a lot of talk about the changeover from film to digital in the world of filmmaking and film preservation. Many people have ignored the concerns of the 35mm fans, likening us to hipsters who still want to listen to everything on vinyl. But the realities are far more complex; while there is an aspect of the 35mm fanbase that simply prefers the analog warmth of the format, the digital format is dangerous to anyone with an interest in film beyond what's opening this weekend.
The above quote is an excerpt from a long article in the new LA Weekly that you must read. The article sort of buries the most important stuff about the danger of digital many pages in, well past when casual readers (and your average digital fan) will have stopped reading.
Our film history has always been in danger. It's estimated that we only have about 25% of all silent films ever made - this means that three quarters of all silent films have disappeared forever. You may not be a silent film person, but it should be obvious to you why this is alarming. The only reason we have many films from the sound era is because independent archivists stepped in when studios, looking to make space for new movies, tried to get rid of their original negatives. The studios, having already made inferior copies of those negatives, figured they could dump them. Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz are among the movies that might have been lost.
You might think that digital preservation is better than physical preservation. That turns out to be not the case AT ALL. From the article:
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently released a study, "The Digital Dilemma." It discovered that it's actually 11 times more expensive to preserve a 4K digital master than film.
Moreover, most filmmakers surveyed for the study were not aware of how truly perishable digital content is. Digital technology makes it easy to create movies, the academy concluded, but the resulting data is much harder to preserve.
Meanwhile, all film needs is a cold, dry place to spend eternity. Under these conditions, archivists say, a black-and-white print on polyester-based film stock can last 1,000 years.
The problems with digital storage are legion - going back to Pixar, they discovered that 20% of the original Toy Story files were corrupted - but it's the speed of technological change that really makes digital storage an issue.
And even after the films are converted to digital, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, calls the challenges of preserving them "monumental." Digital is lousy for long-term storage.
The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, Horak's every sentence requires an exclamation mark. "In the last 10 years of digitality, we've gone through 20 formats!" he says. "Every 18 months we're getting a new format!"
So every two years, data must be transferred, or "migrated," to a new device. If that doesn't happen, the data may never being accessible again. Technology can advance too far ahead.
Migration, alas, is a laborious process. Professional labs have automated the process of migrating data from one storage tape to another with robots that shuttle tapes into drives. But a big collection requires a big robot. Then you need someone to maintain the robot.
There are films that never made it from celluloid to VHS. And then there are films that never made it to DVD. Even fewer will make it to Blu. And while there may be more that make it to digital - the demand for content to fill cable channels and streaming services is enormous - many, many movies will never make it to that next step. And then even when they do, they may not make it to the next file format, since the costs of migrating are too high.
As the technology advances it leaves movies littering the sides of the road.
This is an interconnected system. Physical media remains the best way to store films, but the fact that just about NOBODY is using film anymore means that Eastman Kodak, the main source for film stock, is going bankrupt. The push to digital is so strong that 35mm will likely be wiped out before anyone has time to really consider whether that's a good thing.
You should read the entire article, because there's a lot more to the argument. I've just highlighted the film preservation aspects. We could argue all day about how the unwieldiness of film makes for better filmmakers, or how the warmth of 35mm makes for a better viewing experience. But what can't be argued is that the switch to digital is going to have a very huge, very negative impact on our film history.