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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 1:42PM   |  44 comments
Still from Dr. Zhivago

Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles

Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.


That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at


At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.    


Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.


I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.


The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965).  Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.



In regards to "The Real Thing", I think what is capable of being attained her is amazing. Being able to take film, and as we can see decently old and aged film, and converting it to a digital format is incredible. We will be able to preserve so many old movies that otherwise, seeing how film is an organic substance, would eventually break down and be gone forever. But what happens to the film afterwards? Is it discarded? Or do they keep the film in case of a computer system meltdown in which all the data was lost (even though that's not very likely)?

Actually, even the big motion picture stuios are preserving their all digital productions to 35mm film, because they know that film will last hundreds of years, while digital files last not more than a few years before they must be migrated. Digital preservation is 11 times more expensive than film preservation.

People will eventually just get used to the digital format. Of course, you cannot forget your roots (in this case, 16mm / 35mm film), but the shift to new technology in both photography and cinema is apparent.

When HDD camcorders were released onto the market, I was skeptical. Years later, I wish I had purchased one instead of my Canon GL-2 MiniDV camcorder.

Digital is just more convenient. It's reality, the "reel thing". Sure, it takes more 'skill' to shoot film, but shooting digital is much easier. You need to put technology to your advantage.

People will eventually just get used to the digital format. Of course, you cannot forget your roots (in this case, 16mm / 35mm film), but the shift to new technology in both photography and cinema is apparent.

When HDD camcorders were released onto the market, I was skeptical. Years later, I wish I had purchased one instead of my Canon GL-2 MiniDV camcorder.

Digital is just more convenient. It's reality, the "reel thing". Sure, it takes more 'skill' to shoot film, but shooting digital is much easier. You need to put technology to your advantage.

Of course, you are right, the digital is here to stay. And sooner or later everything will migrate to a digital format. That train has arrived.
All we archivists are saying, though, is that until someone comes up with a digital preservation medium, we will only have two choices: continual migration to newer digital formats or analog preservation on film.

This is a good point. Yes, digital is so much easier to shot, and much more cost effective. Also the quality is increasing with every new release of technology. Some would even say that the quality is becoming better then film. As far as i know the only big thing being shot on film is Imax which is 85mm. I presume that eventually even Imax will be shot digital. However, chris, you bring up a great point. How can we securely store everything on digital. Film can all be stored away and last an extremely long time, but digital is risky. Hard drives can crash, files could accidentally get discarded. Until they created a way to securely store digital, film will still be used.

I can agree that digital format is an important part of how "films" will be made in the present time and in the future. Not only is this way of making movies less expensive, on many levels it is easier. To say that 16/35 mm is going to be out phased is not reasonable because I believe that there will always be people who choose to work in old fashion ways. 16 mm and other types of film are the roots of so heavily based in film it is impossible to escape working with or learning about the different basics.

When it comes to deciding how to preserve films, I understand that digitally storing them is risky, but I think it makes more sense. Of course I believe in storing and protecting all the original film, but migrating it to digital formats will only increase the chance of success the film has of being preserved. Why not keep it in two formats for maximum protection? That way, if one format fails the other will be there as a back up. The media is constantly finding new updated on technology, look at the music industry- we went from records, to CDs, and now to ipods! The film industry is the same way, but that doesn't mean someone shouldn't have a storage room of records and a record player just in case.

I believe that developments in digital format are quite impressive and very exciting for the film maker. Not only does it give the film maker more options for their "palette" but it opens up a whole new perspective to shooting a film. Another, great aspect is the fact that with these new technologies we can preserve films shot on film. Now, in regards to whether or not digital format is superior to film- I believe it would be like comparing pastel paints to water color paints. If you want to shoot film, yes it while eventually break down and be lost but not in your lifetime so is that really an issue? It will be transferred to a digital format and that surely has a very good chance of standing the test of time. Michelangelo's frescoes won't stand the test of time so why should your film?

The thing with digital, even with its convenience, is that it just doesn't have the same effect as 16/35mm. Watching Breathless is 35mm gave more of a spectrum of grays to look at. Its almost as if digital is a faux way of doing film. The gradient and imperfections that came with 35mm made the film feel used, loved and even lived in. This made the film feel real. With digital is looks almost too put together, especially with blu-ray. However, I wouldn't be surprised if sometime in the near future adaptations will be made to digital film that will give it that traditional reel feel.

Obviously, digital is much easier to work with from a filmmaking standpoint. It allows a filmmaker to review the footage for mistakes and reshoot if necessary without all of the guess work. However, I agree with Brennan that watching something on 16 or 35mm film makes it seem more real and accessible.

There is a convience and time-saving appeal to digitization and the ever-growing rapidness of production methods, which is fascinating to say the least when comparing to the film stock process and production of even twenty years ago. The fact that we have the ability to end our reliance on manual cuts through the REM and Moviola when they have been our faithful servants for so many decades gets me excited to think about what the future could bring. However, there is an unfortunate side to this issue. I keep thinking to myself "How far can we go?" At some point I feel that the literal molding and crafty romance and dedication between the film and the filmmaker is lost when things become less oriented and more point and click, and I believe that the qualities of our films and our societal standards of films suffer because of the fact that there is no more natural selection process to weed out those who are talented and those who arent. The fact that everyone can make anything nowadays I think takes a little bit of the magic away, to speak candidly.
Also, fun fact. I'm currently reading Walter Murch's In the Blink of an Eye, and I thought it was very interesting when he points out the astronomical number of ways to edit a piece, if you think in terms of factorals of the order of each shot to illicit certain feelings. For example, a scene with 25 shots could be edited approximatly 39,999,999,999,999,999,999,999 different ways. In miles, this is twenty-five times the circumfrence of the observable universe.

I certainly agree that photographers and film makers must use technology to their advantage, especially in this fast-paced, competitive world. However, some of the value of these mediums as forms of art is being lost with the advancement and availability of new digital technology. With digital cameras becoming ever cheaper and simpler to use, anyone can be a photographer or film maker. Everyone can be, it seems, and regardless of actual talent. This idea makes it frustrating to be an aspiring artist in the photography or film industry. With a hugely increasing body of work, growing every day with the help of the internet, it is difficult to create something unique, meaningful, and noticeable amongst the endless video clips and uploaded photographs.

I believe the genuine nature of a photograph or film is inevitably diminished by the use of digital technologies. This is because with a digital recording or still camera, you can take millions of exposures to your satisfaction, or you could shoot the same scene over and over until you get it right. This is certainly easier, but the purposeful and truthful nature of the piece can quickly be lost. This is the sad reality of the digital trend in artistic mediums.

I feel that the digital age has been upon us for many years now and with each day that passes some new and fascinating technology is being developed and perfected. Though the new advances in digital technologies for film are far more accessible and inexpensive, in some respects i feel that some of the intimacy of making a film is being lost with the coming of digitalized media.
I recently completed a short film using a bolex camera and 16mm black and white film, and for the first time i felt like i was actually making art with a camera. When shooting digital footage or on tape, i only feel that i was producing yet another "home movie" or youtube viral video, something that was meaningless is the sea of ever common amateur video. Sure, film is more expensive, takes longer to produce, and lacks the expediency or digital film, but it offers more colors, more texture, and in my opinion has a noticeable difference aesthetically when being projected.

I agree with Ian. The digital age is not a random and new idea, it is one that the entertainment industry has been working towards for what i inperet as quite some time.
I however do not agree that the intimacy or magic of film making is being pushed aside in order to make room for these developments. The entertaiment industry is always constantly evolving. New techniques and strategies in order to tell a story are being utilized all the time. In Breathless it was the first time portable sound equipment was utilized, allowing for much more location shooting. The locations and settings of that movie are part of what make it a classic. Why should technological advancements be treated any differently? All these advancements, no matter their implications to some, are part of what makes this industry so dynamic.

While making my first film for Cinema Production 1 using the Bolex with 16mm film, I began to realize how much I took digital video cameras for granted. The fact that I could not go back through and watch my footage made me very nervous, however it also made me pay much more attention to all the details that I would not normally have to pay attention too. The newer technology sometimes allows users to "cheat" and they do not get the whole understanding of what really goes (and went) into movie making. The use of film made me realize how much I take the newer technology for granted so it was very cool to see how film makers used to have to do everything and how some still do. The newer technology definitely makes things easier and is not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it is very important to see how film makers in the past had to make movies so that you can appreciate great movies from the past even more.

The debate of film vs. digital is a topic that I feel is not going away any time soon. There are advantages to both and both allow you to do different things. Using a digital camera makes filming much easier and can be done rapidly. If you don't like something you have just filmed, it is much easier to redo. With film, you have to make sure you have everything right or you will end up wasting a lot of film. This means that there tends to be a much greater attention to detail with film. When using film, filmmaking feels like more of an art form then just using a digital point and shoot camera. However, the ease and accessibility of digital filming is what makes is so increasingly popular.

The interesting thing about the debate between film and digital is the direction New-Age Art Cinema is heading in. Many independent filmmakers today continue to use film stock to shoot their work, although several big names have converted to using a digital setup. The new age of film technology certainly allows much more to be done with film, opening avenues of ingenuity and creative filmmaking. But does this modernization of film detract from the innate artistic value many still see in filmstock?

I feel technology is pushing us to constantly switch to the newest gadget or level that products have evolved into. However, as much as I find new things fun and exciting, I feel in some cases technology is changing possibly too fast. In my lifetime I have seen the change from VHS to DVD. As easier, more compact, and overall smoother using a DVD is the fact that in a few years one will not be able to play a VHS is a bit daunting. My family has loads of old family films from when my younger siblings and I were younger, and having them all converted would take time and money. Also, the general population has been forced to buy duplicate copies of everything they once owned on VHS if they ever want to watch it again.

The thought that this brings to my mind is whether or not the constant turnover and surfacing of new technologies will continue to increase at the rate at which it has been recently. People talk about how at the rate its going now that even the digital medium will be replaced many times over over the course of our lifetimes but I've always felt that things will level off soon. Even if the new technology can increase at such a rate will the need for increased convenience and portability also increase?

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i just saw the The Reel Thing XXV film. it is really fantastic. i really enjoyed that film. it is a very good movie and i surely refer this film to all my friends. thank you.

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