Archiving in the Digital Age

It’s no secret that there’s a hole in the digital filmmaking workflow when it comes to archiving. In the days when film acquisition was the only game in town, your negative was the archive, it stayed in the can ready for whenever you needed it. In the days when videotape ruled the land, each tape was the archive, you put it on the shelf and it was waiting there for you years later. In memory based recording, there is no physical object on which your media lives permanently. It’s shuffled from expensive media card to inexpensive hard disk, where it’s edited, and when it’s done, perhaps laid off to tape, or more and more these days, delivered on a another hard drive.

Some people are using hard disks as an archiving solution. Shane Ross of Litte Frog in High Def fame, has come up with a nice system, but it’s really more of a 3-5 year medium term solution rather than a true archive.

Hard disks are intricate mechanical devices, not designed for long term storage. And who’s to say when the data interface will be obsolete? (Try to get data off a SCSI II drive these days).

Some people archive using DVD’s and Blu-Ray discs, which on the surface seems more reasonable. But what happens when disc players start going the way of VHS decks? I think anyone can see that the physical disc format is near the end of its life commercially. Besides it’s well known that burned discs are much less robust, than those that are commercially pressed.

I think that the best solution at the moment for medium term archiving are memory cards. SDHC, thumb-drives, Compact Flash, all of these memory devices are coming down in price where it makes sense to store data on them permanently, like tapes. This should have the benefit of a robust, non mechanical media, with a cheap interface, and a huge installed base.

However, the most alarming thing about digital acquisition from an archival standpoint is not media, but data formats. Currently we can record to mxf, quicktime, avi, mpeg2, mpeg 4, avchd (the list goes on), what if any of these formats stand will stand the test of time? Which will even be readable 20 years from now?

Taking a look in my “personal archive” which is what I euphemistically call the cardboard box in my closet, I have the following formats: SVHS, Hi8, Digital 8, Mini DV, MicroMV (WTF?) BetaSP, Digital Betacam, 16mm film, DAT, and Mag Film. Out of all these formats, most of the tapes have long outlived the hardware that is capable of reading them. The BetaSP and DigiBeta material I could still get at from just about any post house, but say 10 years from now, will that still be the case?

The only format that I can be sure of reading in the future is the 16mm. In fact, I was able to still transfer 8mm home movies my grandmother had made in the 1940’s to DVD, 60 years later. Those 8mm films will still probably outlast the HDV tape I recorded to, and the DVD I burned of them.

The answer to Archiving in the Digital Age, is to go all the way back to the beginning, and output your master to film. Film’s major benefits as an archiving solution are:

  • There is an optical record of each frame in your movie that’s visible to the human eye, not locked away as magnetic pulses on a drive. You can be reasonably sure that one thing that’s not going to change in the next 200 years is how the human eye works.
  • Film’s an already proven archival media in terms of durability. Properly stored, film has a shelf life measured in decades, rather than simply years.
  • Image transmission and capture technology will only get better over time. As technology improves, you can re-scan the analog film and get better quality each time.
  • To retrieve the image, you only need a light-source. You don’t need special cables, interface chips, or software to make sense of it.

Doing a film-out is still an expensive process, but the infrastructure is there. I can’t help but think the equipment will be less and less utilized as digital cinematography and projection become the norm. It may be that when all is said and done, movies will be made end to end digitally, but still saved for future generations in celluloid.

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