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As Kodak Negotiates Film's Future With Studios, Archivists Seek Digital Options

There's no clear answer to the digital archiving dilemma

The Day the Earth Stood Still Still - H 2014
Courtesy of Everett Collection
"The Day the Earth Stood Still"

There’s been a lot of emphasis on Kodak and Hollywood’s current effort to finalize a deal to keep film alive, with the urging of leading filmmakers including J.J. Abrams and Christopher Nolan who want to continue to have the option to shoot film.

But receiving less attention — though urgent — is archiving. Studios know that if they keep archival film prints of their movies on a shelf in a cold room, they can last for at least a century.

Archival film stock, in addition to stock for photographing motion pictures, are on the table as Kodak proceeds with negotiating a deal with the Hollywood studios to ensure that its film will continue to be available. Fujifilm, which stopped making motion picture film in 2013, also continues to make archival stock.

But with the digital age having arrived, studios now generally keep additional copies of their movies on a digital format, primarily LTO (Linear Tape-Open) tape. But at the moment this isn’t considered to be the ideal digital solution to Hollywood’s archiving dilemma, as this requires periodic transfer of the movies to new tapes. It is said that data stored on LTO tape can actually last several decades, however some Hollywood insiders have identified instances of significant data loss on these tapes in fewer than five years. In fact while nobody wants to name names, there have been whispers that some motion pictures have in fact been completely lost when stored digitally. (The film prints of these movies, however, still exist.)

Such problems are not likely to happen with the crown jewels in a studio’s vault where there are multiple backups, but could put at risk many independent films, documentaries or other productions that were shot and stored completely with digital technology.

“Everyone would love an ultimate solution for archiving of digital data. People are working on it,” said Grover Crisp, executive vp of asset management, film restoration & digital mastering at Sony Pictures Entertainment. This will be a topic at The Reel Thing, the 33rd technical symposium on film restoration and preservation, presented by the Association of Moving Image Archivists. Crisp is co-organizer of the event, which kicked off Thursday evening at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.

Presenting one potential option to this archiving dilemma at The Reel Thing are representatives from Drammen, Norway-based Piql (formerly Cinevation). Managing director Rune Bjerkestrand and product manager Bjørn Brudeli described its system, which involves using high-resolution black and white film on which to store digital data. According to Bjerkestrand, the system represents a $27 million research and development investment that included the development of a new type of film.

The company claims that testing has shown the data can last for 500 years by using this system, without the need to migrate the data to new film stock. “We take the longevity and stability of film, and combine it with the pristine aspect of digital,” said Brudeli, noting that like traditional film archiving, the prints only need to be stored at a cold temperature.

Piql is starting to roll out this system. The first to use it for motion picture archiving will be Labo Digital, a Mexico-City-based postproduction company that does restoration work and offers archival services. The need for archiving of course extends to other industries beyond entertainment, and clients that plan to implement the Piql system for other industries include companies in Brazil and Saudi Arabia.

Another archival option that is making progress comes from Group 47, a startup formed by several Hollywood’s tech veterans who are developing a Digital Optical Tape System dubbed “DOTS.” The company, which presented its technology one year ago at The Reel Thing, recently began testing a proof of concept of the DOTS system, with an eye toward fulfilling a pending government contract for archival use.

Group 47 claims DOTS has been tested and found to last at least a century, and is able to withstand extreme temperature and exposure to electrical or magnetic fields. The company asserted that once recorded to DOTS, movies need only be stored at room temperature.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the DOTS story is that the core technology was actually developed at Kodak during ‘90s — at an R&D cost of more than $80 million — but the project was abandoned in 2002, according to Group 47 CEO Rob Hummel. In 2010, Group 47 was formed and acquired the DOTS technology including the roughly 30 patents and related intellectual property.

The Reel Thing conference opened Thursday evening with the presentation of the AMIA Spotlight Award for industry contributions to retired preservationist Bob O’Neil, who spent 40 years at Universal. The event kickoff also included the premiere of Fox's newly restored 4K version of Robert Wise's 1951 film The Day The Earth Stood Still. The program will also feature recent restorations including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1921), Stormy Weather (1943) and Universal and Steven Spielberg's Duel.

E-mail: Carolyn.Giardina@THR.com

Twitter: @CGinLA