The digital picture: from reel to HD

Digitisation ensures better clarity, enhanced image projection, but it has to play a key role in preservation of films

With the promise of better clarity, enhanced projection of images and an array of technologically advanced tools to shoot with, digital cinema, most would agree, is the future. But behind the screen, there is another area in which digitisation has a key role to play: preservation of films and archiving.

Noted film director Balu Mahendra says the two movies he made from his heart, Veedu and Sandhya Raagam were lost, as was Shyam Benegal's Trikaal . The National Film Archives of India, Pune, has space for storing just 4,000 prints. “So unless the movie is really well known or has won some awards, there is no way of getting [it] into the archives,” says filmmaker K. Hariharan, who has directed movies, including Ezhavathu Manithan and Dubashi .

Officials of the National Film Archives of India (NFAI) point out that due to the space occupied by the film rolls, producers and distributors even abandon prints in railway warehouses. A few years ago, the NFAI received 500 cans of films, including 12 Hindi ones, from the Railways' lost property warehouses. “Even then, we get only parts of movies. The shortage of manpower is also why we cannot look at all the material available to us,” says an official.

In spite of all this, the National Film Archives has managed to restore and digitise films of Dadasaheb Phalke, Satyajit Ray, Mehboob Khan, and V. Shantaram, among others. Many other filmmakers, however, have not been so lucky.

Besides the National Film Archives, which stores movie prints, the 15-odd laboratories across the country store the negatives of 1,100 movies released annually in India. Most negatives are barely salvageable. “For the government, preserving the legacy of cinema does not seem to be important,” says Mr. Hariharan. And, storage doesn't necessarily mean preservation, he notes, given the poor conditions in which prints are maintained.

And one can't fault companies like Kodak or Fuji, since they never experience such weather problems in their countries, and Indian film stock business is not big enough, experts say.

Preserving of negatives is a humongous task, say experts. They have to be stored at 10 degrees Celsius and 20 degrees humidity. And since most ‘film' cities, barring Hyderabad and Bangalore, are on the coast, the prevailing humidity acts as a deterrent. “When you open them after a year, the reels are stuck to each other,” Mr. Hariharan explains. Western countries have devised elaborate preservation techniques. For instance, while Los Angeles, home to Hollywood, is a coastal city, the archiving is done in Nevada. Most are stored in air-conditioned underground vaults with no humidity.

A movie such as The Dark Knight had nearly 14,000 film prints released across the world. Almost all of them are useless now, ending up often in landfills and, being non-biodegradable, become a huge hazard to the environment. It is in this context that ushering in a strategy would necessitate digital methods of archiving soon.

The digital restoration and preservation has just started in most laboratories in India. “What most of us do now is scan the original prints and store them in digital files,” says S. Sivaraman, general manager, Prasad Film Labs. “For very high-end purposes, we store in 2k resolution.” Methods like Liner Tape Open Drive-4 (LTO 4) that help to store digital data in a tape format are also being used.

However, there are impending dangers to digital archiving, too. For instance, files get corrupted and their shelf life is not as long as well-preserved celluloid. “Digital archiving is an evolving technology. Decay for at least 10-15 years can certainly be prevented, and it is also cheaper than earlier methods,” says Mr. Sivaraman. Rules of preservation apply to digital tapes too, including storing them in recommended temperatures, running them at least once every three years, and re-copying them into the contemporary format.

Film laboratories in western countries and some in India have started digital restoration with digital-to-film recording. “The prints of old movies are taken and their colours enhanced, defects removed, after which they are transferred back to celluloid to be preserved for 100 more years,” says Mr. Sivaraman.

With most digital devices giving way to modern advancements, there is also a need to standardise formats, say experts. With a host of formats, including beta, digibeta, different versions of jpegs and now, mpegs, filmmakers say one standard format would really help the process. “The versions of the same format are not upgradable. They have to be redone again. And while a few archives are getting digitised, the resolution of digibeta is not so high as HD, often leading to an unsatisfactory experience,” says Mr. Hariharan.

Is cloud the answer?

There are also questions of capacity. Raw files occupy a lot of space. So would the cloud provide the answer here and if so, what are the encryption methods necessary and what about the ownership concerns? After six years of hosting and playing videos, Google Videos is expected to shut down soon, hence the storage and licensing questions remain a concern.

“IT companies and labs that store negatives, or even filmmakers need to work hand in hand to come up with an easier way of storing their films,” suggests Mr. Hariharan.

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