Must-Read Article: Why Digital Is Not the Savior of Film Preservation

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Gendy Alimurung has an excellent piece in the current LA Weekly that's a must-read for anyone who cares about film preservation or exhibition — which is to say, pretty much everyone who cares about movies. The article methodically shoots down the arguments that have been used to advance the death of film and the dominance of digital: digital is cheaper (not in the long run), it's easier to preserve (not with technology rapidly changing), and perhaps most worrisome of all, it's safer:

Five years after the first Toy Story came out, producers wanted to release it on DVD. When they went back to the original animation files, they realized that 20 percent of the data had been corrupted and was now unusable. Granted, digital was new at the time. Surely advances have made digital storage much less problematic?

Not really.

Fast-forward to Toy Story 2, which was almost erased from history. Pixar stored the Toy Story 2 files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody's hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes.

Imagine the horror: 20 people's work for two years, erased in 20 seconds. Animators were able to reconstitute the missing elements purely by chance: Pixar's visual arts director had just had a baby, and she'd brought a copy of the movie — the only remaining copy — with her to work on at home.

Alimurung also nails the most insidious part of the digital push: that studios are not only treating their treasure troves of classic prints with indifference, they're evidently working to actively dissuade repertory theaters (like The Belcourt) from showing 35mm film by limiting access and jacking up film rentals to highway-robbery prices.

I watched the ballyhooed digital restoration of Casablanca projected in theaters a few weeks ago, and even in one of Regal's newest, highest-end auditoriums it was a noticeable downgrade from film — the grain looked staticky and artificial, the image didn't have the silvery gloss or depth you associate with black-and-white film. It definitely makes a difference — a nerve Steven Hale touched last fall in a Scene cover story.

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