Digital vs Analogue for Film Preservation and Presentation

A much-vexed issue in moving-image archiving, as among movie aficionados, is the relative merits of analogue and digital film.

The secret life of celluloid: the microscopic T-grain cells that are part of the magic of 35-millimetre film. Micrograph image courtesy of Kodak.
Plenty of archivists viscerally cringe at digital projection, and wax fondly over the “analogue” medium of celluloid, for reasons that are not merely nostalgic. (See, for example, Brian Guckian’s post on the magic of celluloid.) But the reality of preservation is that films are transferred to a digital medium for access, for streaming and public presentation, while the original films are archived and safeguarded even in cases where digital preservation copies are made.

Still, when Richard Wright was at the annual conference of the South East Asia Pacific Visual Archives Association (SEAPAVAA) in March, he had occasion to pause and reflect over the debate, and to find himself advocating a counterintuitive solution to a particular, relatively common archiving challenge.

Wright is senior research engineer for archive research at the BBC. An acoustics, speech, and signal-processing engineer specialising in audio and video, he was one of the prime movers behind an ambitious project to mount a Preservation Factory model to save Europe’s moving-image heritage.

The result has been PrestoSpace which aims to provide technical solutions and systems for digital preservation of all kinds of audio-visual collections. Its philosophy is that while large broadcasters have begun to digitise their huge holdings, the costs are also enormous, and require complex technology. So, the project has developed a preservation-factory approach to try to provide an integrated, semi-automated solution. That is saving costs, and permitting small-to-medium collections to save their holding by using common, standardised services.

The services are tailored to accommodate a wide variety of audiovisual collections: economic and social models, storage and software costs, and human-resources costs. It also recommends standard policies and practices that collections can adopt.

More information on the digital-preservation project “PrestoPRIME” and the PrestoCentre is available online.

Here’s what came to Richard Wright’s mind, and that he originally posted on the Association of Moving Image Archivists’ AMIA-L listserv, where debates on the issues rage:

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Richard Wright, senior research engineer for archive research at the BBC

Regarding the fortunes of analogue and digital film processes:

I had the splendid opportunity to be at the SEAPAVAA meeting in Ho Chi Minh City two weeks ago [March 12 2012], where I could see the rapid progress in various places in South East Asia and the Pacific, including of course with our hosts the Vietnam Film Institute (VFI). They have acquired two Spirit datacine machines, and were reconsidering whether their next step would be a new conventional film lab, or to put their preservation effort and funding into digitisation.

If they go the digital route for preservation, it leaves the issue of what they will do with existing film (real film) prints. As with many other postings on this site [the AMIA-L listserv], they are facing the decline in film projection equipment – which could be accelerated if the VFI themselves convert to digital projection in their facilities.

I found myself recommending that whatever they do, they should consider maintaining ways to project their existing stock of prints, even if they have no plans to make future prints (or ‘new masters’ or any other film components). In doing so, I was conscious that I was advocating  “digital for preservation, real film for access” – which is a total reversal of the standard mantra of “film for preservation, digitisation for access.”

Because of the need for translators, I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was getting across, much less making sense. I’m not sure I’m getting my message across now – but I find it interesting, if no stronger word, that I’m now an advocate of digital for preservation, but “real film” (while the prints and the projectors last) for access – so people in Vietnam, as well as in North American and European art houses and everywhere else for that matter, can continue to experience “real film.”

Categories: Shorts

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