The long, hard winter has finally broken, and spring is once again at hand. Given the awful slog so much of the country has just been put through, it’s no wonder that thoughts now turn toward rebirth, renewal and fresh starts. At the same time, it’s critically important for us to give good consideration to the past, more specifically in terms of preserving our work for future generations.
Archiving and preservation refer to the saving of master elements or unique copies of motion pictures by storing them in environmental conditions that prevent deterioration and extend the life of the material. A couple of other relevant terms require clarification. Restoration is the process that returns the master elements to a condition as close to the original as possible. Metadata, which is often confused with archiving and preservation, is information that goes into a catalog; in no way does it imply a moving image or recorded sound.
A quick Web search reveals just how much of our cinematic heritage has already been lost. Right now, you’re probably not too concerned about the fate of some obscure silent short from 1914. You’re also probably not worried about who’s saving a half-hour sitcom from just a few years ago. But because no one can predict the future historical or cultural significance of anything we photograph, there needs to be a bulletproof system in place for saving, well, everything. The marvels of digital technology have led some to think this problem has already been solved. It hasn’t, and thinking otherwise is sure to turn an already-bad situation into a catastrophe.
Until now, and despite every effort to replace it, film has been the only effective medium for protecting and preserving the physical embodiment of what we do. Its remarkable longevity is due in part to the standard of universal interoperability — in other words, everyone in the world can use the same tools and techniques to do the same processes. (This is sure to strike fear in the hearts of digital-equipment manufacturers everywhere.) The problem is that the support needed to preserve on film is disappearing just as quickly as the emulsions themselves.
Nonetheless, a genuine future-proof solution may be at hand: ASC associate members Rob Hummel and Dan Rosen have spent the past few years developing the Digital Optical Technology System, or DOTS. All the requirements for long-term preservation are built in: it has a more-than-100-year life expectancy, it is not subject to deterioration, it is easier to store and protect than film, it is easily accessible, it shows a lossless quality of reproduction, and it is cheaper overall than film.
DOTS records data, visible text and images visually at microscopic density on a patented phase-change metal-alloy tape. It is non-magnetic, chemically inert and immune to electromagnetic fields (including electromagnetic pulses). The temperature range of its storage is 16°F-150°F; it is tamper proof, so it cannot be erased; and it supports external compression and data encryption, making it a secure and robust archival technology. Best of all, it is designed to ensure the saved information will be available and recoverable for as long as cameras and imaging devices are on hand, whatever their form. Finally, we might be back to where we started with film: a universally interoperable system that will be available to everyone.
And a note to the bean counters: DOTS eliminates the need to migrate digital assets every three to five years. The cost savings alone will make this system irresistible to even the lowest-budget productions.
I have always avoided endorsing any particular product or service in this column, and I am not endorsing DOTS. But because archiving and preservation are seldom the first topic of conversation in our industry, it’s important to encourage innovations like it. (More information about DOTS can be found at http://youtu.be/J-jAqdXdSx8.)
For an in-depth assessment of where we stand at the moment, I urge you to read The Digital Dilemma and The Digital Dilemma 2, published by the Science & Technology Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. You can find them at: http://www.oscars.org/science-technology/council/publications/index.html.