Feb 3, 2014

On "The Artworks Formerly Known as Prints"

by Diana Ritter 

The most disturbing quote in chapter 8 of David Bordwell’s book, Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies (2012) comes from Chris Horak, director of UCLA’s Film & Television Archive.  He says:
If I find a cache of Blu-rays and DCPs in 500 years, what do I have? Plastic waste. How do you reverse-engineer those media? Impossible. Without an understanding of the software and the hardware, you have zip. No way to look at it, no way to know even if it has any information on it. (p. 191)
Prior to reading this chapter, I knew nothing about conservation, preservation, or restoration of film prints and digital matter. Never did I think about what type of format I was watching a movie on at the theater, what happened to that object after it left the theater, or what was happening to films and digital platforms from movies of the far and recent past. It was not until I began working at the NYU Film Study Center's archive that I learned how much labor and skill goes into maintaining and caring for film reels.   

Reading this chapter opened my eyes to what Bordwell means by “the future of movies." What strikes me the most is the conservation, preservation, and restoration of digital platforms. Though Bordwell does share a disclaimer in his introduction that he’ll “make some errors of fact, inference, and judgment” because he is “working from early, sometimes contradictory information,” he provides some very hard-hitting facts that can not be ignored. The elevated cost of storing a digital master, the short lifespan of digital platforms, the ongoing changes to software and hardware for digital matter, and the amount of labor and time needed to maintain digital archives are just a few of the issues. I think Horak is being quite generous in giving the cache of Blu-rays and DCPs a 500-year lifespan.  With all those issues to consider, I fear that if someone were to find that cache in 50 years, much of it would be plastic waste if it has not been properly maintained.  

I took this class to learn about curating, thinking more so in terms of programming. However, after our initial meeting and reading this chapter, I am feeling a passion for cinema in a way I had not before -- a desire to be a part of the process of ensuring there is a future for film and digital matter.  A desire to preserve and conserve. This chapter really depresses me, but it also inspires and pleases me that Bordwell is drawing attention to this topic early on. At this point, I still have a lot to learn and am curious whether any “damage” already done to films or digital files in archives, can be reversed. The question I am left with now is, what can I do to help?

-- Diana Ritter

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