Tragic losses and miraculous recoveries


An excellent article on film preservation challenges has been posted to thedissolve blog site.

by Matthem Dessem

The history of film preservation, like every attempt to save the past for the future, comprises a long string of tragic losses and miraculous recoveries. We know the stories: Studios destroying their silent films wholesale to recover the silver in nitrate prints; Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan Of Arc, presumed lost, moldering in the closet of a Norwegian mental institute; the fires at Fox’s warehouse in 1937 and the MGM vault 30 years later; James Mason discovering Buster Keaton’s archive in a shed at the back of his new house. There have been brief victories measured against slow, grinding defeats, just as in any field ruled by time and entropy. 

As the death of film accelerates, the terms and stakes of the battle are changing rapidly, in ways that aren’t well understood outside the small community of archivists working directly in the field. Digital technology offers a chance for perfect, lossless preservation, but only at significant financial cost, and higher risk of catastrophe. Unless the unique challenges of digital preservation are met, we run the risk of a future in which a film from 1894 printed on card stock has a better chance of surviving than a digital film from 2014.