in movies

Losing a generation of movies and TV

Over at IEEE, Marty Perlmutter has written a sobering assessment of the current state of digital preservation efforts at major studios:

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.

That costly, self-perpetuating cycle of data migration is why Dino Everett, film archivist for the University of Southern California, calls LTO “archive heroin—the first taste doesn’t cost much, but once you start, you can’t stop. And the habit is expensive.” As a result, Everett adds, a great deal of film and TV content that was “born digital,” even work that is only a few years old, now faces rapid extinction and, in the worst case, oblivion.

Until a solution that is better than costly, quickly obsoleted LTO tapes is found, original versions of all of the cultural work we value is in danger of being lost forever.