Digital Dilemmas: Future-proofing the Motion Picture Collection

Posted by on Aug 27 2012 | Motion Pictures, Technology

When you hear the words “digital” and “cinema” together, you probably think about special effects and the kind of computer-generated imagery seen in a Michael Bay summer blockbuster: Explosions! Robots! Spaceships!

While our work here in the Motion Picture Department isn’t quite as heart-pounding, “digital” is still a word we’re using more and more as we face the challenges of preserving and maintaining access to one of the major moving image archives in the United States.

It’s a fact that motion picture film made with organic materials such as nitrate and acetate, no matter how well preserved in the proper conditions, will eventually deteriorate and no longer be projectable. This creates an enormous dilemma for moving image archives all over the world: how best to apply digital solutions to the preservation, storage and exhibition of collected films.

As the digital film technician, it’s my role to help prepare the motion picture collection for a future based on pixels in addition to perforations. Over the coming months, I’ll be writing posts here to talk in more detail about the tools and processes we’re using in the various functions of the department, such as:

  • Preservation: a large amount of materials related to the motion picture collection are not on film, but on legacy analog media like U-Matic and VHS (hey, remember those?), and need to be digitized and stored before the tapes oxidize and before the professional-grade equipment necessary to play them is no longer available.
  • Restoration: during the preservation process, films are often scanned at a high resolution (2K or 4K) and brought into a powerful computer system here in the department to be digitally cleaned of dirt and scratches prior to being reprinted to film.
  • Exhibition: as more and more theaters make the transition to digital cinema, it will be necessary for us to prepare and distribute titles  from our collection in the form of digital cinema packages, or DCPs, to venues who have traditionally been loaned physical films.

There are many hurdles ahead as the world of motion pictures goes through this epic shift, but I’m excited to be straddling the line between film and digital and looking forward to sharing our work with you. -Tony Delgrosso


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