March 16, 2011  |  Conservation, Film
Film Preservation in the Digital Age

With Turner Classic Movies (TCM) celebrating MoMA’s film-preservation work with a special 24-hour festival (all day today!) featuring 14 preserved films, I thought it made good sense to write about our efforts to preserve films, the background and importance of film preservation, and about the Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center, where this valuable works take place and where the Museum stores all of its films in climate-controlled conditions to prevent any further deterioration. I hope the tour in the video above, led by me, is interesting and helpful.

In this era of digital storage and viewing of moving image materials and films, I’m sometimes afraid that the public at large will think that the problems of preserving films have all been solved—or worse, rendered irrelevant. I feel this most acutely when I speak with younger people, from schoolchildren to 20-somethings, and they’re stunned when they realize that we have to preserve and protect film materials. I find myself explaining that, despite every new wonder of electronics or digital format that comes along, the best source material for older works is still the film itself.

35 mm film roll showing shrinkage from prior storage conditions

In the early days of film preservation, it was a simple matter to replace worn-out film prints with new ones made from the original negative or fine-grain masters, or color interpositives. When widespread use of videotape came along, those early films were transferred to videotape, but the wise archives and studios saved the original film elements, because each successive copy made from video was degraded somewhat from previous copies. When new video copies were necessary, it was a relatively simple matter to go back to the original film elements (still pristine), and make more video copies.

The same thing happened when DVDs and Blu-ray discs became popular. Once again, studios and archives were searched for original film elements to copy to digital format. Videotape could have been used for source material, but they did not always have the image quality to match the film originals or the color values. Some video formats had become obsolete and unavailable, as had the equipment required to play or copy them.

Just as DVD and Blu-ray have mostly replaced videotape for home viewing of motion pictures, sooner or later a new format will come along to render even these obsolete. The answer for these new and yet-unheard of formats is, once again, to go to the source: the film elements stored at studios or archives. By preserving to the best of our ability the quality of these moving images on film, we can be assured of the best-quality formats in the future. That’s exactly what the Film Preservation Center was built for.

For well over 100 years, filmmaking and film preservation have led us to realize that keeping film elements relatively cold and dry in a storage environment will enable them to last for 200, 400, or even 700 years, depending on temperature and humidity. The film elements stored at MoMA’s Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center should last at least that long at the temperatures and humidity levels we store them at, so future generations can continue to enjoy these works, just as they were meant to be seen.