‘No Longer a Matter of Film Versus Digital’: What Film Preservation Means Today

Jim Hemphill 05/03/2024

Martin Scorsese and archivists from the Library of Congress, UCLA, MOMA, and elsewhere tell Indiewire why it's important not to leave film behind in the digital age.

A highlight of 2024’s TCM Classic Film Festival was the world premiere of a pristine restoration of John Ford‘s “The Searchers,” one of the greatest Westerns ever made and certainly — given its impact on directors like Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Paul Schrader — one of the most influential. “The Searchers” was photographed in VistaVision, arguably the best of the widescreen formats that emerged in the 1950s to combat television’s encroachment on the film business, and to see it projected on the big screen is a transcendent experience — especially if one is lucky enough to view the 70mm print that premiered at TCM’s fest and is currently making its way around the revival circuit (it screens in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque on May 3 and 4).

The 70mm print is the end result of a meticulous restoration project overseen by Warner Brothers Discovery and Scorsese’s Film Foundation, who went back to the 8-perf VistaVision camera negative to preserve every bit of detail and beauty in Ford’s original frames. For Scorsese, keeping the experience of viewing a film like “The Searchers” on celluloid alive is a crucial part of the Film Foundation’s work. “The majority of all the films ever made were shot and finished on film — and there are still many people, myself included, who shoot on film,” Scorsese told IndieWire. “For the artists who made the pictures we love, the ones at the heart of cinema history, film was their canvas and their brush, their paper and their pen, the material that they handled and held up to the light, cut and spliced, and watched passing through a constant beam of light 24 times per second. It was how they created the art of cinema. So, film itself is still vital to restoration and crucial to preservation.”

Like most restorations these days, “The Searchers” benefited from a combination of photochemical and digital technologies. “It’s no longer a matter of film versus digital,” Greg Lukow, who runs the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, told IndieWire. “That kind of thinking needs to go by the wayside. It’s really a matter of film and digital.” As Rajendra Roy of the Museum of Modern Art pointed out, “Current restorations generally are a combination of digital and analog processes: scanning film materials, digitally editing, integrating and cleaning the images, outputting to DCPs and in some cases 35mm prints. We’ve embraced the digital era while not leaving celluloid behind.”

Most archivists agree, however, that when it comes to preserving classic films, celluloid is still the ideal. “Film stock remains the most stable medium for long-term preservation,” Jeff Lambert of the National Film Preservation Association told IndieWire. “Storage is one of the most important reasons to continue to preserve and archive films on film stock. Stored in cold, dry conditions, contemporary film stocks will last hundreds of years. It is cost-effective and, once properly archived, requires little more than climate monitoring and scheduled inspections. For restoration, digital methods can be amazing tools, but for long-term preservation, analog film remains the standard for reasons both financial and practical.”

Margaret Bodde, executive director of the Film Foundation, agreed with Lambert’s point about the cost-effectiveness of film preservation. “While there may be a hefty upfront cost to preserve film on film, with digital, there’s a longer-term cost of constant migration,” Bodde told IndieWire, adding that the stability of celluloid is remarkable compared to digital formats, whose durability is still questionable given that film has been around for around a hundred years longer. “We have films from the earliest years of cinema. You can take a film strip, hold it up to light, and see the images. You can still project it. You can still put it on a flatbed and take a look at it. You don’t have any roadblocks to being able to see what is on that film. The ideal is that there’s temperature and humidity control, and that films are being inspected and cared for. But there are many, many instances of films that have been dug up from places like bomb shelters in England — they have mold on them, but you can still see that image.”


Film vaults at the UCLA Film & Television Archive Juan Tallo

May Hong HaDuong of the UCLA Film and Television Archive concurs. “Properly stored, film can have the lifespan of paper as an archival medium, lasting hundreds of years,” she told IndieWire. “Compared to LTO tape, which has a lifespan of 15-30 years, the long-term preservation benefit of film is still unmatched. Digital preservation requires ongoing stewardship and infrastructure to ensure the integrity and health of the files created. At the end of the day — or rather, at the end of a century — the film is still recognizable.” “Digital storage mediums are costly and less reliable,” Lambert added. “Films can be stored on a hard drive, but a backup is also necessary. Constantly changing digital formats creates conundrums regarding data migration and backup plans. Instead of storing a new film negative and keeping it safe in a vault, digital asset management can be a complicated and expensive proposition.”

That said, Lukow points out that digital preservation is far more reliable at this point than many people understand, emphasizing that pieces like a recent Hollywood Reporter article on the dangers of “decaying” digital files are needlessly alarmist. “That was a lede 15 years ago,” Lukow said, noting that robotic data tape libraries, which are neither online nor totally offline, ensure that footage will not be corrupted or lost. “When our files are ingested or migrated, there are SHA-1 verifying and checksumming procedures to make sure that nothing ever goes wrong, so we feel very comfortable with our digital preservation infrastructure at the petabyte level, and I know several of the studios do as well.” Lukow is more concerned with independent filmmakers who are struggling to get their movies finished and out into the world. “They’re preparing their films for festivals, and once those festivals are over, they don’t have the resources to put attention into a proper celluloid or digital preservation.”

Bodde says that independent filmmakers should migrate their files at least once a year and make sure that they always have multiple copies in case a drive crashes; she adds that there are also relatively low-cost ways of making celluloid prints such as the Cinevator, a machine that scans digital files and outputs to 35mm positive stock. “I’m not saying that everyone should go out and do that, but you need to be conscientious,” Bodde said, adding that the Film Foundation’s website has DIY preservation guidelines for independent filmmakers. “If your film is on a streaming platform, as we all know, the platform can decide to take it down all of a sudden and you’ll discover your film is not there. Then you’re faced with trying to get your film back out there, and sometimes time is of the essence and if you haven’t already taken care of it, you can put yourself in a stressful situation trying to track your elements down.”

Lukow says that for archivists who are committed to preserving film as film, one of the great challenges — and one of his biggest concerns — is simply the dearth of laboratories that can do the work. “We built what will probably be the last wet photochemical archival preservation lab in the United States,” he said. “There are only three of us left: the Library of Congress, FotoKem, which is basically the only lab servicing the industry, and a boutique lab in Rockville, Maryland called Colorlab.” While filmmakers like Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino have helped keep film alive by continuing to shoot on celluloid and, in some cases, insisting on 35mm or 70mm exhibition, that only takes care of the capture and projection side of the celluloid infrastructure — in terms of preservation, it’s important to keep not only film stock alive, but also the laboratories that can do the work. “There are vendors that support the photochemical equipment infrastructure that have gone out of business, and I don’t see them coming back,” Lukow said.


Altman's '3 Women' in 35mm
The New Beverly Cinema New Beverly Cinema

Yet the hunger for film exhibition is, if anything, at its peak among cinephiles, with theaters like Quentin Tarantino’s New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Metrograph and Film Forum in New York, and hundreds of others around the world drawing large audiences for 35mm presentations. Making sure those audiences see movies that look as close to their makers’ original intentions as possible remains a primary goal of preservationists, and a key argument for preserving and archiving on celluloid. “Finding the source material for any film is critical in a restoration process,” Roy said. “Every generational reproduction represents a step away from the original. By the time you get to contemporary digital versions of an old movie, you risk creating a version that has little to no resemblance to the original.”

Indeed, Bodde says that one of the challenges of restoration in the digital age is making sure one doesn’t deviate from a film’s original aesthetic. “There’s a lot you can do with digital, so it’s an exercise in restraint,” she said. “You don’t want to take it to the point where you’ve removed every nuance of the grain — the actual nature of the film should still come through.” As a matter of policy, even when restoration work has a digital workflow the Film Foundation always outputs to film at the end, both for preservation purposes and to make the movies available to filmgoers who want to see them projected in their original format. “There are a lot of archives, museums, and repertory theaters that want to present film, and audiences will come out for that. It’s a way of continuing that engagement and dialogue with the audience, especially with younger generations.” Roy concluded, “We place so much value on the vision of the artist, and preserving film is the best way to ensure that future technological advances are able to represent that vision. And let’s face it, movies still just look better shot and projected on film!”


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