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From the Wire: Bye Bye Celluloid, Hello Digital

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by Matt Singer
April 12, 2012 5:34 PM
3 Comments
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"Citizen Kane."

Every self-respecting cinephile should read Gendy Alimurung's exhaustive and disheartening piece in LA Weekly about Hollywood's inexorable march toward a fully digital cinema and what it means for the rest of the motion picture industry, from arthouses to post-production facilities to film manufacturers and processors.  I strongly encourage you to check out the entire piece but the gist is this: by switching from celluloid to digital prints, Hollywood studios save a lot of money on shipping in the short term and, in the process, screw over most of their partners.  For example, small independent movie theaters must pay exorbitant fees to convert their projection booths to digital -- exorbitant fees they can't afford -- because once the studios convert completely many will stop renting out 35mm film prints.  Movie fans lose out too: theaters that can't afford the conversion will likely go out of business, and many of the more obscure titles currently available on 35mm won't make the costly transfer over to digital.  In other words: you'll have fewer titles at your disposal and fewer venues to watch them at.  It's like Hollywood's cutting off its nose because they think they'll save money on makeup without ever considering where they're going to put their glasses.

Though much of this information has been examined before, I was particularly alarmed by the section of Alimurung's report that warns about the unreliability of digital storage as a medium of film preservation.  As anyone who's dropped their laptop and lost the entire contents of their hard drive will tell you, digital information is somewhat less than permanent.  You might think the experts at this stuff would be better at it, but no, not really.  Take this story about a near-disaster that almost befell Pixar Animation Studios:

"Five years after the first 'Toy Story' came out, producers wanted to release it on DVD. When they went back to the original animation files, they realized that 20 percent of the data had been corrupted and was now unusable. Granted, digital was new at the time. Surely advances have made digital storage much less problematic? Not really. Fast-forward to 'Toy Story 2,' which was almost erased from history. Pixar stored the 'Toy Story 2' files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody's hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes. Imagine the horror: 20 people's work for two years, erased in 20 seconds. Animators were able to reconstitute the missing elements purely by chance: Pixar's visual arts director had just had a baby, and she'd brought a copy of the movie — the only remaining copy — with her to work on at home."

This isn't some low-rent operation we're talking about; this is Pixar!  All they do is digital!  If they can occasionally get it wrong on such a potentially catastrophic scale, what chance does a studio transitioning from film to digital have?  

A movie's permanent erasure seems inevitable at this point; it's not a matter of if, just a matter of when and which one.  I'm just crossing my fingers that when some boob at a studio archive accidentally spills his coffee on a movie, he destroys "Jaws the Revenge" and not "Jaws."

Read more of Gendy Alimurung's "Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film.  But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling."

3 Comments

  • Lighthog | April 13, 2012 7:53 AMReply

    I'm with TheDoctorJones on the archiving part, at least. Those stories sound like absolute horsecrap (although, I think the author is clearly joking about Woody fading out one article of western wear at a time). I've heard forever how quickly digital degrades even when burned to ROM discs but the very first CDs I bought 30 years ago still sound sharp with no detectable dropouts despite my very lazy, indifferent care of them.

    I worry more about the projection part of this. Some of the art house cinemas I know have made the transition to DP, others will probably founder.

  • Peter Labuza | April 13, 2012 2:23 PM

    The Pixar story is a bit extreme, but the part that follows about the cost of electronic archiving is not as "cheap" as it sounds. This is because there is the constant need to upgrade software/hardware to keep up with technology is always increasing, as old forms of media become defunct. This is why UCLA, like the Library of Congress, preserves film, because the cost of running a big refrigerator is much less.

  • TheDoctorJones | April 12, 2012 10:33 PMReply

    just a quick note on the Pixar story.

    bullshit.

    someone accidentally hit the "delete key sequence" and Woody was deleted, one item of clothing at a time? and the studio was saved by someone who brought a copy of the entire movie (probably petabytes of data) home with them? meanwhile, there was absolutely no backup system in place?

    forgive me for ignoring the rest of this column after reading that pile of complete garbage.

    i understand the nostalgia for film...and yes, we will lose some tiny, local theaters, but resorting to some bullshit, wildly hyperbolic story about the Dangers of Digital kind of undercut your point.

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