Are we losing the picture?

film projection

Cinema Paradiso

Three years ago I wrote “ask most cinema-goers how the images they are watching get onto the screen, and they will probably suggest some kind of industrial-grade DVD on a digital projector. They are astonished at the truth, which is that even now, the majority of movies they see are projected from 35mm film – yes, the same technology that’s been in use for over a century. The truth is that digital projectors capable of filling a screen as big as a bus are seriously expensive, and there’s been little reason for cinema owners to abandon their tried and tested film projectors”.

But at last, nearly a decade after the first few digital projectors were installed to screen Star Wars Episode 2, the change to digital is gathering speed very rapidly indeed. Driven by the success of digital 3D movies such as Avatar, cinemas in the USA are installing digital systems as fast as manufacturers can supply them. After a hesitant start, the same is happening in Australia, where the switch to digital also means that independent regional cinemas will at last be able to screen features at the same time as the metropolitan chains. Across Europe, the change is almost complete.

And so here is the dilemma: film archives around the world have developed expertise in preserving film : many expect their collections to last for 400 years or more, stored in carefully-controlled conditions. The old problems of inflammable nitrate film, of shrinking and decomposing acetate film, of fading colour dyes, are all understood and controlled. But how will we screen these prints in the future? And when will that future arrive?

Sooner than we suspect: A correspondent writes: “all screens in Belgium will be digital by the end of the month. No more film prints. They have dismantled the film projectors from the booths. They plan to keep perhaps one per multiplex, just in case, for one year or so.” In Australia, nearly all cinemas will be digital in 3 to 5 years, and few of them will still be able to project film.

attack of the D movies

attack of the D movies

So why don’t we simply digitize everything? There are so many answers to this question.

For a start, no-one knows how long digital data can be preserved, or how much more it will cost. Best estimates for most digital formats are around ten years, while a couple of years ago the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (the organization behind the Academy Awards or Oscars) in its seminal report The Digital Dilemma estimated that long-term, secure digital preservation would cost about twelve times as much as conventional film preservation.

And do we trust the technology? All you need to see a film image is a light source. Once the equipment to retrieve a digital image is lost, the image is lost too. Then there is the question of security . Digital copies of commercial feature films are encrypted so that they can only be shown on specific projectors at specific times, in an effort to reduce illegal copying. Who knows when or where an archival copy will be required for screening?

And then the moral dilemma: we we want to see films the way their makers meant them to be seen. An archive needs to preserve film as film, even if we make digital copies as well. So what are we to do? Film? Digital? Both?

More later.

This blog was also published on the NFSA website on 2nd January 2011.


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