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To Preserve Digital Film Culture—Or Lose It Forever | Conservation Lab

The challenges of digital data preservation are hitting the cinema sector, and it's a doozie.

In art institutions across the globe, time machines and investigation rooms exist behind closed doors. Dusty artworks go in and come out looking centuries younger; artists’ secrets are brought to light; and hidden, unfinished images emerge from behind famous compositions. Every week, we'll peek beneath the microscope and zoom in on the art of preservation, where art meets science and just a little bit of magic: this is Conservation Lab.

Ever since the movie industry went completely digital—from production to projection—film archives are facing the same preservation challenges as anyone looking to keep digital data alive in the long-term. “After all, from the CIA to NSA, from banks to hospitals, from Google to Facebook, there are hundreds of fields and businesses that rely on data conservation,” remarks Nicola Mazzanti, the director of CINEMATEK, the Royal Belgian Film Archive in Brussels. “Digital preservation is as old as data. There is a ton of literature starting at least since the late 80s. It is not really new. It is new for the cinema sector because it did not pay attention, as they felt safe with film,” he writes in an email to The Creators Project.

Indeed, back when film was actually film, the “analog paradigm” went roughly as follows, according to Mazzanti: “Lock them in a cold vault (5 degrees Celsius, or at freezing temperature, and with a dry environment at 30% relative humidity), and throw the key away. With stable conditions, 300 years later, we could open the door and the film would be happy and in good shape.”

“Old” problems: decayed nitrate film. Photo by EYE Film Institute Netherlands via Wikimedia Commons

The preservation of born-digital film, on the other hand, is much higher-maintenance. “In the digital world, [that paradigm] is a recipe for disaster,” says Mazzanti bluntly. “Digital preservation is based on constantly looking after the data.” The physical carrier (a hard drive, for example) can get damaged, or the file format can become obsolete (like when you can’t open a Word file created in a legacy version). The answer is migration, migration, migration. “Files stored in our repositories must be checked regularly,” explains Mazzanti, “and, if needed, migrated to another carrier or transcoded into a new format.”

When things go awry with analog film—as they often do in unstable conditions—the problem is usually decay. This calls for restoration, and does not necessarily spell doom: “They still exist,” in Mazzanti’s words. Yet there is no middle ground when it comes to preserving archives of digital-born film. In the case of neglect, “the danger for digital is not decay; it is loss,” emphasizes Mazzanti. “If you leave a hard drive in your basement for 30 years, you will not find any decay: You’ll find nothing.”

Proper protocol, unfortunately, is costly. In an article published last year in ARTFORUM, Mazzanti cites a 2007 study that estimates the yearly cost of preserving the 4K digital master of an average-length feature to be over 12 times as expensive as preserving an archival film master. As for saving all of the film’s source material (including camera originals, outtakes, etc.), the figure goes up to an incredible $200,000. “Needless to say, the danger of loss is far from being equally distributed,” writes Mazzanti, projecting that an alarming 80% of the yearly cinematic output from Africa, Asia, and South America will vanish, versus 10% for the US and Europe. Moreover, one can expect large discrepancies in the types of films that survive, even in wealthy nations. Artists’ works, independent productions, and experimental films are far more endangered than, say, The Hunger Games.

Screenshot of a minor problem that arose during a data transfer at the Royal Belgian Film Archive. “The problem was identified, the transfer stopped, resumed, and all frames recovered. But this only works if one has the system, the procedures, the software, and the care to find these errors,” says the director.

The stakes are high, and conservators are calling for bold action. If the problem is ignored or underestimated, we risk leaving huge blanks in our cultural history. “No decay, no decomposition: the eternal NOTHINGNESS,” warns the conservator in all caps.

For more information, look up Nicola Mazzanti’s October 2015 article in ARTFORUM. To learn more about the Brussels CINEMATEK, explore their website here (though you’ll have to speak Dutch or French).

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