Preserving Creative America: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

(NOTE: This is a reprinted and updated article from our website.)

The motion picture industry is rapidly changing from film to digital media and within the next decade most movies will be shot, edited, distributed and projected digitally. Yet even as the industry embraces new technology, they may not be doing enough to archive their digital productions. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is working diligently to remedy the situation and save valuable digital works before they become permanently lost.

Oscar statue

Academy awards statue, the Oscar. Photo courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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 that films will be accessible for at least 100 years. Digital preservation is turning out to be one of the Academy’s most daunting technological challenges since the transition from silent movies 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 research the state of digital preservation worldwide.

The Council consulted with motion picture technicians and archivists, and digital preservation experts from military, medical, scientific and government institutions. It reported its findings in The Digital Dilemma, which draws a sober conclusion: “There is no digital archival master format or process with longevity characteristics equivalent to that of film.”

Andy Maltz

Andy Maltz

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 staggering volume of storage required for each digital motion picture. Since it is no longer necessary to stop and load film, a director might just keep the digital camera rolling. When you add up the file sizes of all the raw digital components in an average digital-movie production (footage, audio, graphics, administrative data and more) the total is well above three petabytes.

Today, many studios are converting old blockbuster motion pictures to 3D in order to take advantage of the popularity of 3D and to feed the consumer market for favorite old films. And so digital motion picture archives will include not only 21st-century born-digital motion pictures but also converted films from the past.

Milt Shefter

Milt Shefter

Milt Shefter is the 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. He 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.

A studio must weigh the preservation costs for each multi-petabyte movie against its potential future income from the movie as well as its potential future income from various ancillary products associated with the movie, such as soundtracks, ring tones, stills, bonus footage and other possible future consumer products. Technology changes so rapidly, as do popular consumer goods based on new technology, that it is difficult to predict which digital motion-picture files might someday be re-used to generate a profit. (Preservation of raw footage for its innate cultural value is a separate topic that is too large to address here.)

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 a 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 publication of 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, part of the NDIIPP Preserving Creative America initiative. The project explores archival strategies for digital motion pictures and will recommend specifications for formats.

In keeping with the goal of interoperability, the Academy is developing the Image Interchange Framework, 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.'”

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