The Lost Picture Show

After embracing magnetic tape storage, Hollywood archives struggle to keep pace with technology.


| Fall 2017



Lost Picture Show

If technology companies don’t come through with a long-term solution, it’s possible that humanity could lose a generation’s worth of filmmaking, or more.

Photo from "The Red Shoes" (1948) Collection at Alina Dance Archives

When the renowned cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki began planning to shoot the wilderness drama The Revenant, he decided that to capture the stark, frozen beauty of a Canadian winter, he would use no artificial light, instead relying on sunlight, moonlight, and fire. He also planned to use traditional film cameras for most of the shooting, reserving digital cameras for low-light scenes. He quickly realized, though, that film “didn’t have the sensitivity to capture the scenes we were trying to shoot, especially the things we shot at dawn and dusk,” as he told an interviewer.

The digital footage, by contrast, had no noise or graininess, and the equipment held up much better in the extreme cold. The crew soon switched over to digital cameras exclusively. “I felt this was my divorce from film—finally,” Lubezki said. The film, released in December 2015, earned him an Academy Award for cinematography two months later.

Lubezki’s late-breaking discovery of digital is one that other filmmakers the world over have been making since the first digital cameras came to market in the late 1990s. Back then, digital moviemaking was virtually unheard of; according to the producer and popular film blogger Stephen Follows, none of the top-grossing U.S. films in 2000 were recorded digitally.

These days, nearly all of the films from all of the major studios are shot and edited digitally. Like Lubezki, filmmakers have switched to digital because it allows a far greater range of special effects, filming conditions, and editing techniques. Directors no longer have to wait for film stock to be chemically processed in order to view it, and digital can substantially bring down costs compared with traditional film. Distribution of films is likewise entirely digital, feeding not only the digital cinema projectors in movie theaters but also the streaming video services run by the likes of Netflix and Hulu. The industry’s embrace of digital has been astonishingly rapid.

Digital technology has also radically altered the way that movies are preserved for posterity, but here the effect has been far less salutary. These days, the major studios and film archives largely rely on a magnetic tape storage technology known as LTO, or linear tape-open, to preserve motion pictures. When the format first emerged in the late 1990s, it seemed like a great solution. The first generation of cartridges held an impressive 100 gigabytes of uncompressed data; the latest, LTO-7, can hold 6 terabytes uncompressed and 15 TB compressed. Housed properly, the tapes can have a shelf life of 30 to 50 years. While LTO is not as long-lived as polyester film stock, which can last for a century or more in a cold, dry environment, it’s still pretty good.

The problem with LTO is obsolescence. Since the beginning, the technology has been on a Moore’s Law–like march that has resulted in a doubling in tape storage densities every 18 to 24 months. As each new generation of LTO comes to market, an older generation of LTO becomes obsolete. LTO manufacturers guarantee at most two generations of backward compatibility. What that means for film archivists with perhaps tens of thousands of LTO tapes on hand is that every few years they must invest millions of dollars in the latest format of tapes and drives and then migrate all the data on their older tapes—or risk losing access to the information altogether.