Saturday, May 16, 2009

Prints And The Revolution

Film prints, it is reported, can last upward of 200 years if treated properly, kept in a dry and dark place, with a minimum of humidity and not stored next to gasoline, mold, or the vinegar.

Yet there is a move nowadays to digitize everything, and get them all saved. To preserve them once and for all. The precious visual imagery of Hollywood past, your grandmother's photos, or the paintings of the masters must be stored on computers.

Safe. Digital and forever.

But the words "digital" and "preservation" don't belong together. To preserve something is to freeze its physical state in a moment close to perfection or originality.

For a while. For a long while.

The format in which it is frozen must be stable, or it isn't preserved. Only copied. Digital formats are electronic rather than analog/object based, and aren't preserving, only changing it into another format - bits and zeros. You don't make a new digital object, only duplicate the information, elsewhere and over and again. This suggests that digital is endless; actually it's only promiscuous.

You never save a digital object - you only make successive copies, over time and from system to system.

Sure. I guess that could work. But magnetic storage devices are prone to every magnet in your home, wallet, and cell-phone, to gamma rays and the passage of time in non-predictable and catastrophic ways. It's all intangible and temperamental. Digital discs fail suddenly and fatally. A VHS tape may turn to snow over the years everytime you watch it, and even if it stretches it pulls its way through the heads. Yet a digital file will work at 2:00 p.m. then not at 2:05.

Recopying over and over has its pratfalls as well. Each migration of a digital file to a new medium loses 1% to 5% of the formatting, depending on the conversion and compression strategy.

Digital looks fantastic, when projected properly, but that is only for the short-term. There is no standardized way to keep it.

Nowadays the Hollywood studios all preserve their films, even (and especially) the ones shot on digital cameras and that have no negatives, by burning them out onto 35mm celluloid in three-color separation masters.

Analog. That's how they preserved old Technicolor films, too. "The Wizard of Oz" still looks vibrant every time it's reissued in a new digital format because they go back to the color film negatives. It's the original best copy with all visual information still intact - not the 2k scan they did in 2002.

Those film masters'll probably still be around in 200 years. All the drives the digital files are on will still be here, too. As door stops.

For now the only way to preserve those digital files is to move them to analog format. Which renders them less than they were, no longer having the qualities that makes them unique, interactive, portable, "digital" - at the cost of making them stable.

That is the crux of the revolution happening now. Do we abandon physical objects in order to look forward, or implement them into our preservation strategy, as a nostalgic and retrograde technology that prevents progress?

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