Digital computing – swallows film up 30 years after first taste? Not quite.

An early 1980s computer-aided densitometry system at Colorfilm

I’ve been attending SMPTE conferences for 30 years this year, and giving papers for just as long. My first one was in Los Angeles where, as a young upstart, I spoke about the computer we had just installed in the film laboratory I worked for. We used it for managing the quality control system in the lab — the chemical analysis and the colour measurements — and we stored the data (and the program itself) on audio cassette tapes (remember those?).

Images and computers had little to do with each other in 1981, although I was lucky enough to visit Walt Disney Studios where they were making the first version of Tron, one of the first films to attempt computer animation. While my computer -– a Tandy TRS-80 — boasted 16 kilobytes of RAM, the supercomputer at Disney had access to 2 Mbytes, which is about what we can expect in a mobile phone within the next year or two. I guess we were seeing the first glimmerings of the digital era.

Thirty years on, computers and digital data have all but swallowed up that photochemical film world. At this year’s SMPTE Australia conference (Darling Harbour, July 18-22) my paper was about the problems of a rapidly disappearing film technology. Over the century or more of film production, archives like NFSA have learnt a lot about how to preserve films for the future. Unfortunately, the film industry is, at long last, going digital, and many cinemas can no longer run film. Film stock manufacture and processing facilities can’t be too far behind, so the future usefulness of the film we preserve so carefully is becoming a little problematical. Perhaps we should digitise it all, but there is, as yet, no certainty about how long we can expect to keep digital data.

A low-resolution display for the computed results in an early film  lab system

It was back in 1956 that Hollywood’s Variety newspaper greeted Ampex’s first video tape recorder with the headline ‘Film is Dead’. In 2011, film isn’t dead yet, but may be moving into a retirement home. Meanwhile, video is all but lost in a cluttered graveyard of formats. At last month’s conference, another presenter showed off his collection of old video equipment, especially obsolete storage media (one-inch reel-to-reel videotape, Betamax tape cassettes, laser disks etc), most of which flourished just for a decade or two before being replaced. As for digital technology, it is certainly burning bright right now: but perhaps we should keep in mind my current favourite tagline:

‘Keep your analogue copies – they may be all that’s left after the digital era is over.’


One response to this post.

  1. Thanks for this Dominic. I am screening an 11 min film on artist Tacita Dean (Zara Hayes, UK 2011) and her Tate Modern installation in a doco seminar (UTS) this week: “She explains how she hopes to create something magical and spectacular to carry her message: film is beautiful – let’s keep it”.

    I posted a link to your “Digital computing – swallows film up” on “Issues in Documentary” on fbook (loosely connected to the course I am teaching at UTS- casual 12 years!!!)
    I am developing an essay (?) based on a recent paper I did at the Visible Evidence Conference (ANU 2012) “Documentary, the database and the global archive of the internet: implications for teaching documentary film history”. I am in process with this, not sure yet where I will seek to publish, but I am aware of a gulf in documentary film studies scholarship between the previous era (film) (Bill Nichols, Michael Renov, say) and the ‘new era’ – where the data-base theory (Manovich etc) rules- there’s not much thinking between the two streams– connecting them- opening it up (there’s a few, including Adrian Miles (RMIT) Craig Hight (Waikato NZ, Faye Ginsburg NYU – her forthcoming. “Mediating Culture: Indigenous Identity in a Digital Age”. Duke University Press. regards Jeni


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