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Formatting and archiving in the digital age

The first in a semi-regular series of articles from this Nice Shoes colorist.

By Lenny Mastrandrea

Recently, I read an interesting commentary by Keith Phipps at The Dissolve, regarding the ongoing dispute between film and digital aficionados.

While being interviewed about his new feature Mr. Turner, director Mike Leigh claimed that the aversion of directors, like Quentin Tarantino, to digital as a format for feature films has no justification at this point. Leigh chooses to embrace digital because of how it has democratized filmmaking, creating vast potential for innovation among the young crop of filmmakers who previously had large barriers to entry.

The main issue for those who still want to shoot on film is its availability, as the widespread adoption of digital has led to those who produce film stock to cease production, only making enough to satisfy the diehards such as Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson and J.J. Abrams.

From grain to color depth to camera weave, film does and will always have a distinctive look and feel. But to ignore the advances in digital cinema at this point is pointless (pun intended). The latitude we are provided by cameras akin to the Alexa and Red are almost that of film stock, not to mention all the distinct advantages of a workflow involving digital media. Combine that with the toolsets available to the modern artist and you have a truly comparable, finished product. These tools improve every day. Within a decade, it might be impossible to differentiate between the two.

While we still have one of the top film scanners at Nice Shoes, we rarely have use for it anymore. Less that 15 percent of our projects come from film. We went from our hallways being full of stacks of film to a very neat vault filled with shelves of hard drives. This is commonplace in the commercial world at this point.

While we would love to see a resurgence of film, it is highly unlikely to ever happen. There are still a few directors and DPs who still insist on the use of film for its inherent look, but digital cameras have just become too accessible and cost effective to ever really justify a film workflow. I also feel as a colorist that we have so many tools at our disposal to help a digital project echo the look of a film project.

But What About Preservation?
On the other side of the spectrum is the argument that digital cinematography is finite. Not that it will come to an end, but that all new technology suffers from the same symptom. It will expire… usually only lasting a few years. Every digital medium you currently know of will become obsolete, probably within your lifetime. This is part of the reason that the Library of Congress has no approved digital archival medium and only accepts 35mm prints for their storage.

On top of that, “preservation masters” of film can last several centuries with stored properties. On the other side of the spectrum, a digital file archived today has no guarantee it will be playable in the years to come if it’s not constantly converted as new formats emerge. It’s one thing to consider never seeing a movie projected on film again, but imagine a movie being lost forever because of a corrupted file.

According to Vicky Gan’s article at The Washingtonian, both the costs ($12,500 is the rough cost of preserving a feature film digitally) and the lack of an agreed upon format are the main barriers to establishing a consistent method for digital preservation. The decreasing availability of film will likely hasten a solution, but it would be terrible to see any classics lost because of indecision or technical errors.

I’d love to hear from you all about your experiences and preferences in the comments are below. Are you Team Film? Team Digital? Team D-1?

Lenny Mastrandrea is a colorist at Nice Shoes in New York City.

One thought on “Formatting and archiving in the digital age

  1. Jamie Wilson

    As a post production professional working in TV I have a different perspective: the advent of file based acquisition and workflow has vastly improved the image quality and agility in TV production. That said, I can see why one might want to hold on to film workflows as a creative choice, but it’s really about the story, right? So, if Chris Nolan will feel that he can’t tell his best story by shooting Red, and might be distracted from doing so for that reason, he should shoot on film. At the end of the day the film will end up as a digital file somewhere. In fact, all the beautiful footage he will have shot will be digitized in order for it to be effected in the way that it must be for his stories to be told, so for someone like him film seems highly impractical. In the end, he, and Mr. Tarantino, and the others, have proven themselves to be master story tellers. What makes them great is what was on the page before a camera of any type was involved so they might be giving too much credit to the medium and not enough to their own gifts.


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