Will the shift to digital destroy movies as we know them?

Illustration for article titled Will the shift to digital destroy movies as we know them?

Digital movies are becoming more and more popular, but some people are saying the move could destroy movies as we know them. But it's not issues of film quality that have them worried — it's film preservation.


In response to this post on the remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that almost was, a conversation began about looking at the forgotten art from past movies — and just what the switch to digital film might mean for how easily that art is saved:


I wonder if anyone makes an effort to preserve the art and scripts of projects that are cancelled. There's a lot of striking art out there that could be monetized by someone. Even if the artists and writers don't get much out of that, it would still be great to have their work more widely seen.

Also, there's a big article in this month's IEEE spectrum about movie preservation,"Will Today's Digital Movies Exist in 100 Years" by Andy Maltz. He's leading a committee of the Academy of Motion Pictures to develop standards for saving all-digital movies. Given that movies need tens of terabytes to hold everything, and that they have to be moved to new media and checked for deterioration every couple of years, it can be expensive, especially since a few thousand new movies are made each year. One of the cheapest and safest ways turns out to be to record them on color-separated film!


In the linked article, Maltz lays out some of the problems future archivists could face with digital movies, especially with the problems of updating for new technology:

Digital movies are not nearly as easy to archive for the long term as good old film. In 2007, the Science and Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences estimated that the annual cost of preserving an 8.3-terabyte digital master is about US $12 000—more than 10 times what it costs to preserve a traditional film master. (This figure is based on an annual cost of $500 per terabyte for fully managed storage of three copies. While this cost has declined since the report was published, it remains significant.) And that doesn't include the expense of preserving alternate versions or source material for a movie or the ongoing costs of maintaining accessibility to the digital work, as file formats, hardware, and software change over time.

If you take pictures with a digital camera or record video on a smartphone or store files on a laptop, you face the same problem, albeit on a smaller scale. Every few years, you have to transfer all that digital content to the latest recording medium or risk losing it altogether.

Of course, there's also the flip possibility that more digital content could open up the film-viewing process, making it easier for people to watch that content outside of a theater.

Plenty of filmmakers have laid down their allegiance on one side or the other and now we want to your opinion. Do you prefer your movies run on digital or film? And how worried are you about the problems of preservation that the move might present?


Image: British Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer, 1941

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old Shuck ate bob_d

I've read that we've already lost most of the silent films because the film stock has decayed. Thanks to copyright extensions they're still under copyright, but the copyright holders are difficult or impossible to find, so no one has done the necessary preservation work to keep them alive. That being the case, digital formats have a much greater chance of being illegally copied, which is probably what will end up saving them.