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Digital Preservation

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and SciencesThe motion picture industry is rapidly changing from film to digital media, and within the next decade it is likely that most movies will be shot, edited, distributed and projected digitally. As the industry embraces new technology, there is concern that they are not doing enough to address the long-term preservation of digital productions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (external link) is working quickly and diligently to remedy the situation and save valuable works before they become lost.

Since the Academy was founded in 1927, it has influenced and helped develop motion picture industry standards in areas such as sound recording and reproduction, projection, lighting and cinematography. The Academy has also played an important role in film preservation, helping set standards for stable film stock and storage environments, guaranteeing 100-year access. Digital preservation is turning out to be one of the Academy's most daunting technological challenges since silent movies converted to talkies.

There is currently no widely accepted solution for digital motion picture preservation. Alarmed by the industry's lack of preparedness, the Academy asked its Science and Technology Council to study the state of digital preservation worldwide.

Andy Maltz

“We've gone to the storage providers and developers and asked them to take migration off the table, to stop promoting technological obsolescence...and see what else they can come up with.” – Andy Maltz

The Council consulted with motion picture technicians and archivists, and digital preservation experts from military, medical, and scientific and government institutions, and presented their findings in The Digital Dilemma (external link). The report draws a sober conclusion: "There is no digital archival master format or process with longevity characteristics equivalent to that of film."

Andy Maltz, Director of the Science and Technology Council and co-author of the report, said the challenge is huge. "The industry is pretty clear that it needs a preservation plan at least as good as what it has right now for analog film, which meets a 100-year access requirement," he said. "We see no reason to abandon this goal even in the absence of a technology that satisfies it at the moment."

That goal is complicated by – among other things – the potential volume of storage. With a born-digital movie, a director might keep the digital camera rolling just because she can; it is no longer necessary to stop and load film. With all of the raw digital components added to the production, the total content associated with a single digital movie is well above three petabytes. A studio must weigh its potential future income from the edited, final version of the movie along with various ancillary products associated with that movie – such as ring tones, stills, bonus footage and potential future consumer products – against preservation costs.

Milt Shefter

“When we go to pure digital projection in the theaters, the need for a 'film out' version will not be as important. That frightens me.” – Milt Shefter

Milt Shefter, co-author of The Digital Dilemma and lead on the Digital Motion Picture Archive Framework Project's follow-on report focusing on independent filmmakers and small archives, stresses that motion picture owners are motivated by financial concerns and will be reluctant to invest large amounts of money for storage and future access to preserve a movie after it has already generated most of its expected revenue.

The Academy also questions the strategy of data migration from one storage platform to another. In addition to the projected staggering cost of migration and storage, there is risk of human error or hardware failure each time the content is moved. "We're asking people to think differently about that," said Maltz. "We've gone to the storage providers and developers and asked them to take migration off the table, to stop promoting technological obsolescence as a solution for the moment and see what else they can come up with."

Shefter is concerned that eventually studios will cease producing film copies of movies from digital masters. "When we go to pure digital projection in the theaters, which is not that far away, the need for a 'film out' version will not be as important," said Shefter, "because it means we may only end up with digital versions in the present technology and that means no guaranteed long-term access. That frightens me."

Thanks in large part to The Digital Dilemma, the industry is becoming aware of the need for collaboration to help solve its problems. As part of the Academy’s collaborative work, it has partnered with the Library of Congress on the Digital Motion Picture Archive Framework Project (PPT, 1.93MB), part of the NDIIPP Preserving Creative America initiative. The project explores archival strategies for digital motion pictures and will recommend specifications for image data formats.

In keeping with the goal of interoperability, the Academy is developing the Image Interchange Framework (external link), an architecture with supporting tools for digital motion picture mastering applications. "We need the robust digital image file interchange because so many different companies work on a single movie," said Maltz. "We are designing and implementing an architecture for this and will standardize its pieces. And if we think about 'archival' along every step of the way, by the time you get to the end where the file goes into the archive there's very little additional work that has to be done."

The Academy prefers open-source software over proprietary software for cost-effectiveness. Maltz said of proprietary software, "Getting locked in to a proprietary solution from a single vendor gets very expensive, and it also carries the risk of complete obsolescence should that vendor go out of business."

The Digital Dilemma documented the state of digital preservation and alerted the motion picture industry to what it needs to provide proper stewardship. The Academy is driving the process, encouraging industry stakeholders to collaborate, take action, put their best resources to work and produce timely results.

Looking to the future, Shefter anticipates that eventually studios will outsource their digital assets to trusted service providers and leave the studios to do what they do best. He said, "Somebody will step up if they think the market is big enough and say, 'Give me your content. I will store it for you, distribute it and guarantee it will always be accessible.'"