Film vs. Digital: Archivists Speak Out

Pros and cons of “perforated plastic with photographic emulsion”

Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Marvel’s The Avengers
Captain America (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in Marvel’s The Avengers Zade Rosenthal © 2011 MVLFFLLC. TM & © 2011 Marvel. All Rights Reserved

News that a press screening of The Avengers had to be delayed over two hours because the digital file was accidentally deleted spread through a number of film and tech sites: Slate, Tecca, Y!Tech, etc. For some, it was further confirmation of the warnings raised by Gendy Alimurung in a recent LAWeekly article: “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm.

Not everyone agrees. For example, Leo Enticknap, a film historian with the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, pointed out on an archivists’ listserv the many times film screenings had to be postponed due to prints not arriving on time, or being spliced together incorrectly, or falling off their platters, or any number of mechanical failures with projecting equipment.

Still, digital failures, as opposed to analog ones, seem to stir up more publicity, perhaps similar to the alarmed newspaper accounts of horseless carriage accidents before the rise of automobiles. For many theater owners, Film vs. Digital has become a moot point. As the March/April 2012 issue of Screen Trade points out, “The pace is fast and the pressure tightening. At a very near point, if you do not have digital, you will not show movies.”

The recently concluded 8th Orphan Film Symposium was not just a chance to see movies from around the world, but an opportunity to catch up with historians and archivists to talk about the state of film preservation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, funding continues to be the most significant factor facing archivists. What surprised me the most in the two years since the previous symposium was how quickly digital has dominated screenings.

Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project and the author of a forthcoming book about the orphan genre, agreed that more and more presenters “were opting to choose a high definition digital transfer and not even bother with film.” Streible agreed that digital files were easier and cheaper to duplicate. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he went on. “The piece we’re about to watch wasn’t shown yesterday because a file was missing. And definitely all the examples I have seen here verified for me that film prints are always superior to the digital transfers.”

For Dwight Swanson, a founder of the Center for Home Movies, making 16mm prints, often a condition for preservation grants, is becoming prohibitively expensive. “We were just working on a grant proposal, and it turns out we couldn’t do a project because of the costs of film,” he said. “We could make a digital file, but what then? Our organization has no IT structure. We’d end up with a hard drive on a shelf. Who knows how long that would be viable?”

To screen a 16mm film, Swanson would very likely have to supply a projector and someone who knew how to operate it. “And what is the point of spending thousands of dollars to get a 16mm print that might be projected once?” he asked. “Everyone else will watch it on DVD.”

“Our experience was that a lot of the new 16mm prints we had made for the 7th Orphan Symposium got damaged in their first showing,” Streible revealed. “Was it worth that extra few hundred dollars, or would it have been better for a ten-minute film which never looked very good to begin with to just be satisfied with digital?”

Eli Savada of the Motion Picture Information Service believes that, “Film will be presentable for another few years—it depends on how much equipment can be kept in shape.” David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, told attendees that his staff had to send to Uruguay for a replacement bulb for an Elmo 16mm projector.

From The Best-Fed Baby (1925) by The Children’s Bureau
From The Best-Fed Baby (1925) by The Children’s Bureau The Best-Fed Baby

Anka Mebold, a film archivist and restorer with the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, Germany, believes that film will continue to serve as a preservation medium. “As archivists, we are in a double-bind. Do you allow film to be projected or keep it on a shelf?” she asked. “Perforated plastic with photographic emulsion is probably the most stable carrier, so I think film is not going to go away. It will probably vanish from exhibition, however. Digital projection doesn’t threaten possibly unique film elements.”

But as Walter Forsberg, a research fellow at NYU Libraries, points out, “Digitization is more expensive than film. The long-term costs of paying someone to be a digital custodian, to exercise the drives, to perform ongoing management files, to migrate from format to format indefinitely into the future, is way more expensive than film, than preserving materials on celluloid.”

Skip Elsheimer, a media archeologist with A/V Geeks, believes that access to materials is key. “Access is the first step toward preservation,” he said. “When films are online, people can access them and identify areas for research. You can say, ‘You know what? That title’s important because it was made by a special company, or it’s the first time a musician scored something, or it’s an early appearance by an actor.’”

Digital answers some of these access issues, but also raises other questions. “Videotape is going away,” Elsheimer pointed out. “The crushing blow was the tsunamis in Japan last year that hit the Sony tape manufacturing plants. A lot of people changed over to file-based formats at that point.”

But what format do you use? “When YouTube came out, it was a pretty big deal,” Elsheimer said. “We’re still talking to archives who want a YouTube channel, so that’s what the bar is. And that bar’s not very high. But a lot of people just want to see something, even if they’re seeing it in the worst possible quality.”

Elsheimer believes how we watch movies determines the delivery format. “With High Definition, video has gotten bigger, but people are watching it smaller—on iPhones and iPads,” he said. “What’s changing now is the software for reading video files. Final Cut was a big thing for a while, but we’re shifting to another format. Are QuickTime files going to be valuable anymore? Probably not.”

Some are still holding onto film, grimly, stubbornly, perhaps out of a misplaced nostalgia. Still, Elena Rossi-Snook, the moving image archivist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, received an enthusiastic round of applause when she delivered this manifesto:

We’re preserving the experience of watching analog film being mechanically projected, and then we’re also preserving the social and cultural role of the public library film collection. Which means that regardless of economy, age, political affiliation, religion, race—you will have access to the mechanical projection of 16mm motion picture film onto a white screen in the dark. That is your right as a patron of the library.

Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.