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  • How to Preserve Your Films Forever
  • David Walsh (bio)

Back in the days when film was film, television was television, and computers were bigger than the desks they now sit on, preserving film meant printing the best possible master copies from deteriorating originals, and then sitting back and allowing nature to take its course, until the originals were deemed to have lived out their usefulness and were, very often, unceremoniously burnt. Very often too, the "best possible" master copies were not really that good but, hey, at least the film had been preserved. The culprit in this rather dispiriting tale, needless to say, was cellulose nitrate. The archive world had grown up with the certain knowledge that nitrate film would decompose, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Echoes of this way of thinking can still be heard rumbling about the community: a question to the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) forum along the lines of "I have found this little film, how should I preserve it?" will elicit a number of helpful replies setting out the best way to make a nice new copy of it. The correct answer to the question, "How should I preserve it?" is, of course, "Store it in the right conditions."

What brought about the shift from this copy-and-destroy culture to something more in line with other branches of museology, that is, preserving the original artifact? Improved knowledge of the long-term storage behaviour of film, based on research by the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) and others, was certainly part of it, but the main factor was the grudging realization that copies made of films are, frankly, just not that good. This is not to disparage the skills of laboratory technicians—the expertise and experience that goes into extracting as much quality as possible out of aging negatives is often something to be marveled at—but these laboratory geniuses are fighting against the severe limitations of photochemical technology. Good results take real skill to achieve—and more often than not, the output of the labs of old was not even good—whereas perfection is simply unattainable; this is the harsh reality of an analog copying process. It is digital technology, the brash new boy in the class, which has forced us, rather sheepishly, to look again at those old preservation copies and admit that, all right, maybe we did lose a bit of resolution going from that original negative to a new fine grain master, and, yes, perhaps this new dupe negative has lost some of the detail in the shadows and highlights. Digital scanning might be some way short of perfection itself (and the argument about resolutions and bit-depths and terabytes will run on for some time yet), but the step improvement in capturing, manipulating, and displaying the data lays bare the defects of the traditional technology. The message is clear: the easiest way to hold on to all the information locked into the original film is to hold on to the film.

While we are damning film for its inadequacies as a duplicating medium, we might consider where else it falls down. It is often said that the great thing about film is that you can read it using the most primitive technology, even, at the extreme, just your hand and eye. In reality, the problem with film in the current age is how poor an access medium it is. Film is cumbersome to transport, easily damaged, and unsuited to random access. To view film, you are required to leave your computer and travel to a cinema or viewing room, where the chances of being presented with pristine images and sound are inversely related to the age of the copy. The thing about digital access, [Begin Page 38] on the other hand, is how simple it makes everything—at least for the user—and how perfectly it suits the user's needs: well-produced DVD quality is perfectly fine for a TV screen at home; easily streamed, low-resolution material is ideal for YouTube devotees; and for the big screen, high-quality digital images derived from good masters will inevitably outshine a traditional print when properly...