The Elephant In The Digital Dark Room


“Six major Hollywood film studios have gotten together to help Kodak remain in the movie business. Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Warner Bros. have all signed deals on advance purchases of Kodak’s film stock, which will help keep the company’s production plants operational. Kodak is the last company to make motion picture film, which some filmmakers prefer for aesthetic reasons.“We were very close to the difficult decision of having to stop manufacturing film,” said Jeff Clarke, Kodak’s chief executive, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Now with the cooperation of major studios and filmmakers, we’ll be able to keep it going.”” TIME, Feb 5, 2015

The qoute above is deceptive. It presumes that the ongoing demand for film is a result of certain filmmaker’s “aesthetic preferences.” And it is, as far as that goes. But that’s not the whole story about why the motion picture studios want to “save” film production. It’s not even the main reason. The main reason will surprise you, but, like the proverbial elephant in the room, nobody is talking about it.

In the “analogue age,” a movie studio would bundle up a completed master of a motion picture and ship it off for physical storage somewhere cold.  Twentieth Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures, Universal Pictures, Walt Disney Pictures and Warner Bros. have for decades been archiving and storing their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material in salt and limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania.

It’s an inexpensive archiving system, a highly effective means of preserving the motion picture heritage. Archived 35mm film stock remains stable for centuries under proper climactic conditions. With digital, however, the film industry is discovering that its core assets, its digital motion picture masters, aren’t as permanent as the film stock they’ve replaced. It’s a BIG problem, but studios, in their shortsighted quest for the bottom line, at least until recently, haven’t really been paying much attention.

And there’s an object lesson here for photographers, or at least those paying attention.


Hasn’t digital made information of all kinds more available, and less expensive to produce? Isn’t it so much cheaper to shoot digitally, without the need for the expense and bother of film and the ridiculous analogue processes that sustain it? Well, it does, and it is, but unfortunately at the expense of the media’s permanence.

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In 2010 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business titled “The Digital Dilemma.” Their findings: To store a digital movie master costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master. And to keep the enormous amount of ancillary data – outtakes, alternative scenes, assorted ephemera –  produced when a picture is produced using digital processes, rather than on film — increases the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, exponentially higher than the $486 it costs to dump the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the Kansas salt mine. A film preservationist who helped prepare the academy’s report claimed that the problems with digital movie storage could cause the film industry a return “ to the early days, when they showed a picture for a week or two, and it was thrown away,”  what he referred to as “digital extinction” over a short span of years.

At present, copies of almost all studio movies, even those shot using digital processes, are still stored in 35mm film format, giving the movie 100 years or more of shelf life. Most modern motion pictures are edited digitally, and then are transferred to film, which results in images of lower quality than a pure film process, and this is what becomes stored for posterity. But the ongoing conversion of theaters to digital projection is sharply reducing the overall demand for film, eventually making it a problematic market for Kodak. If film were to go away, pure digital storage will be the norm, and with it the persistent problems of digital’s lack of permanence.

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In addition to digital’s lack of tangibility, digital hardware and storage media are much less stable than 35mm film. Hard drives fail in as little as two years when not regularly used, and even the most archival grade DVDs degrade and become unreadable within 2 decades. According to the report, only half of “archival quality disks” can be expected to last for 15 years. Digital audiotape tends to hit a “brick wall” when it degrades and becomes unreadable. Constant changes in technology only add to the digital confusion: as one generation of digital storage replaces the previous, archived materials must be transferred to the new format, or they eventually become unreadable. My graduate thesis, written on an 80’s era IBM and saved to one of those giant floppies, is unrecoverable 30 years later. There’s no equipment to read it. Meanwhile, every negative I’ve ever sleeved from 1971 onward is perfectly preserved in binders, ready to be wet-printed or scanned. Before your faith in technology causes you to dismiss this as anecdotal hysteria, consider this:  recently NASA discovered that they were unable to read digital data saved from a Viking space probe in 1975 because the format was now obsolete. Think about that.

“It’s been in the air since we started talking about doing things digitally,” Chris Cookson, president of Warner’s technical operations, said of the quandary facing motion picture archivists.  As the report put it, “If we allow technological obsolescence to repeat itself, we are tied either to continuously increasing costs — or worse — the failure to save important assets.” I would submit that it’s not just a quandary faced by the motion picture studios, but one faced by all of us who document our lives for the benefit of posterity. And it’s one you avoid or ignore at your own peril.

But, more so, a cultural peril. Each successive generation is the steward of its cultural memory. We bear the responsibility of handing down our memory to the future, but that stewardship can be problematic given the ephemeral nature of current digital technology. Digital technology may put the transmission of this knowledge at risk. Ironically, when the world is saturated with images, we run the concurrent risk of no image enduring. Our digital memories, the evidence of our lives,  now ‘exists’ only in a virtual world, a patter of 1’s and 0’s not really located anywhere, and, because of the accelerated pace of technological change and obsolescence, increasingly susceptible to degradation, erasure and loss. Meanwhile, traditional media, paper and film, is tangible, real, and can still be filed away and retrieved without the mediation of technology.


When I was 12, my father bought me a camera. Crazy with my new found love of photography, I’d photograph the neighborhood kids at play. A year or two ago I pulled those early negatives from the shelf and found pictures of a young neighbor boy, a sweet little child I used to babysit, who had died suddenly and unexpectedly at three years of age from a viral infection. Confronting those pictures after 45 years, I realized I had in my possession something incomparably precious to someone somewhere, the recorded memory of a life tragically taken from a father, mother and siblings. The right thing to do was to see that they were returned to his family. To that end, I did an internet search and found his brother, and emailed him what I had found. Would he want these negatives I had of his brother, now 45 years gone?

Within minutes of sending my email I received a response. With it was attached a picture:

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It was a picture I had taken of his brother which I had given his mother shortly after his brother’s death. He told me he had had this picture on his bedside table for the last 40 years, and it was one of his most important possessions, something he had found comfort in since he was a child, since it perfectly captured how he remembered his brother, with a shy smile and happy eyes. Yes, of course, he would be incredibly grateful for any others I could send.

It was, even for me, an emotionally powerful experience, full as it was with the power of a simple photograph to memorialize the ineffable and conjure distant memory. I had given a profound gift to another human through the simple intercession of a photograph.

Photographs allow us to give this gift to the future. In 50 years, will your heirs retain possession of your photographic patrimony?

For a related post go here.