Turning digital data into physical artifacts
With a nearly 100-year history in film and television, Warner Bros. owns one of the world’s deepest and most significant entertainment libraries. Re-releasing older films in new formats or for new audiences is an important part of the business. It’s also a tremendous cultural responsibility to preserve some of the world’s most beloved stories in perpetuity, Colf said.
“Imagine if a title like the ‘Wizard of Oz’ or a show like ‘Friends’ wasn’t available for generation after generation to enjoy and see and understand,” she said. “We think that’s unimaginable, and that’s why we take the job of preserving and archiving our content extremely seriously.”
The company has redundancy plans in place to handle multiple worst-case scenarios: an earthquake or hurricane that strikes one of the coasts, a fire where the suppression systems don’t kick in or a climate control failure that allows moisture to build up and ruin film stock.
The goal is to have three archival copies of each asset stored in different locations around the world: two separate digitized copies, along with the original physical copy on whatever medium a film or television episode or animated cartoon was created.
Fortunately, original film negatives will last for centuries if stored in the right conditions. But for some older television shows — think episodes of “Alice” shot in the 1970s — the original physical copy has a limited shelf life that requires migration to newer formats. And for today’s films and television shows that are shot digitally, the archival-quality third copy has a very short migration cycle of three to five years, which is challenging to manage.
“Let’s say a TV show is pushing directly into our digital archives; there’s nothing physical,” said Steven Anastasi, Warner Bros. vice president for global media archives and preservation services. “The digital file is going in but I don’t have something I can put in a vault or in a salt mine or anything physical coming into the building.”
Warner Bros. is potentially looking at Project Silica to create a permanent physical asset to store important digital content and provide durable backup copies. Right now, for theatrical releases that are shot digitally, the company creates an archival third copy by converting it back to analog film. It splits the final footage into three color components —cyan, magenta and yellow — and transfers each onto black-and-white film negatives that won’t fade like color film.
Those negatives are put into a cold storage archive. In these highly managed vaults, temperature and humidity are tightly controlled, and air sniffers look for signs of chemical decomposition that could signal problems. If they need the film back, they must reverse those complicated steps.
That process is expensive, and there are only a handful of film labs left in the world that can do it. And the process is not optimal from a qualitative point of view, said Brad Collar, Warner Bros. senior vice president of global archives and media engineering.
“When we shoot something digitally — with zeros and ones representing the pixels on the screen — and print that to an analog medium called film, you destroy the original pixel values. And, sure, it looks pretty good, but it’s not reversible,” Collar said.
“If we can take the digital representation of those pixels and put it on a medium like silica and read it back off exactly as it was when it came out of the camera, we’ve done our preservation job to the very best of our ability. That’s what I love about this,” he said.
It’s not economical to create archival film negatives for every digitally shot television episode in the Warner Bros. library. The company hopes Project Silica might prove to be a cheaper, higher quality alternative to create physical archives of digital content.
There’s much more work ahead to reach that scale — Microsoft researchers would need to significantly increase the speed at which data can be written and read, as well as its density. Warner Bros. envisions its own infrastructure to read data from the glass archives. But both partners see promise in how far they’ve come.
“If Project Silica’s storage solution proves to be as cost-effective and as scalable as it could be — and we all recognize it’s still early days — this is something we’d love to see adopted by other studios and our peers and other industries,” Colf said.
“If it works for us, we firmly believe that this will be a benefit to anyone who wants to preserve and archive content,” she said.