That movies used to look so good...
July 9, 2009 5:53 PM   Subscribe

Would it be correct to say that with digital technology, we don't have to worry about movies and TV becoming faded and washed out over time like they used to?

I've always understood that the loss of vibrancy has to do with the deterioration of film over time. If this is the case, will my children not have to suffer the same fate with their favorite shows and movies?
posted by SpacemanStix to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
Well, yeah.

The information is stored digitally. A copy doesn't degrade at all, because it's a bit-for-bit exact replicate of the file it came from. So long as your copies are kept on storage that remains, itself, intact, it won't ever degrade.

Before digital media, any copy suffered from degradation because of various effects the copying equipment would have on the copies. This is not the case when a file can be checked, bit for bit.

The bigger issue now is if the same file formats will survive and still be readable (which shouldn't *really* be an issue) and if the same HARDWARE used to store the digital information will still be able to be read/interfaced with...

We're phasing out IDE for hard drives, for instance, for SerialATA. That's this generation. As we progress even further, new computers won't have IDE inputs at all. And then you'll need to use an expansion card to read them. And it'll become more and more difficult to ensure that old hard drive is able to be read by new computer, even if the data on it is otherwise intact. So you'll need to move things to new hardware to prevent obsolence from getting to your data. But the data itself will never degrade, assuming the hardware holds up for the period it's storing that data.
posted by disillusioned at 5:57 PM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

Disillusioned has it. To me, this is both a welcome change and a sad state of affairs. I think older films are well-served by the way they aged. The scratches, fading, and so forth, added a sense of texture to them (or some films, anyway) that is really a wonderful thing. I'll miss it.
posted by Nonce at 6:05 PM on July 9, 2009

Is this really true for TV? Cheers looks really old if you watch it now, but did it look any better originally?
posted by smackfu at 6:21 PM on July 9, 2009

I just wanted to add that, in the case of digital media that incorporates some kind of error correction mechanism, a copy can actually be *better* than the original. If the original has degraded somewhat in storage, it may contain errors, but as long as there aren't too many for the error correction to handle, a copy of that media won't have those errors.

I tend to think of this like re-typing a book where some of the letters have faded so much you can't read them. As long as you can tell what they were from the surrounding context (pretty much what error correction does), your re-typed copy of the book can be perfect even where the original was damaged.

Now if it happens to be in a language nobody can read any more... well, see comments above from others, because that's often the problem these days.
posted by FishBike at 6:27 PM on July 9, 2009 [1 favorite]

By the way, this is one of the best arguments for open source: you can't beat the backwards compatibility of having the source code when it comes to obsolete device drivers and media codecs.
posted by idiopath at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2009

Is this really true for TV? Cheers looks really old if you watch it now, but did it look any better originally?

Well, I'd guess Cheers was probably stored on tapes. Since it's now available digitally, it shouldn't get any worse. Well in video quality, anyway.
posted by codswallop at 7:01 PM on July 9, 2009

I would say that the bigger question is one of color fidelity to the original. One of the reasons for preserving the original negatives is so that we have an accurate reference to the color (or bw tonalities) of the original image. Without that original reference, it's very easy to imagine subsequent digital copies ending up with pronounced differences in tone, saturation, contrast, etc...either by errors inflicted when transferring from one future format to another, or by some future "expert" who believes the colors in movie-X were originally intended to be much more saturated/subdued/whatever.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:20 PM on July 9, 2009

Actually, there's a big issue with bitrot on physical media over a long period of time. CDs and DVDs degrade over time, and while they may have a long lifespan (I believe something like 15-20 years), most people are unaware of this, so they probably assume they can keep those digital home videos forever.
posted by spiderskull at 8:45 PM on July 9, 2009

It won't look quite as good, because we won't be watching it on the same equipment.
posted by devnull at 12:27 AM on July 10, 2009

When you watch old TV, it looks different than new TV for a few reasons. Digitization (mostly) solves the problem of storing old TV shows and movies, but the digitization has to be done well in order for it to be useful for many generations to come. That's expensive, and it's not something a lot of studios are willing to invest time and money in. Just having the show or movie on DVD doesn't quite count either, because sometimes those are rushed jobs with poor transfers. Just think of all the crappy prints of movies studios put on DVD when the format was first gaining steam. Backwards compatibility is certainly an issue, but it's less a problem for studios than it is for you.

But there's a bigger issue: original source. Cheers looked like that when it first aired; you just didn't notice it, because everything looked like it. Different networks use different film stocks and have different broadcasting standards; ever notice how NCIS and CSI look similar? How Lost has a color saturation and sheen to it that it shares with Gray's Anatomy and Desperate Housewives? That's because ABC and CBS and the other networks all strive for some consistency across their shows. All the shows of yore were made with smaller televisions and antennna broadcast in mind, rather than satcasting and flat screens and TiVos. Were you to pull out your old television from 1988 and hook up your old cable box, Cheers would look really good, actually.

Your children will think that Lost looks pretty boring, because their eyes will have adjusted to new styles of shooting and new filming techniques and new HD cameras as well as new televisions to view them all on. Movies of today will look faded and washed out (or way over-saturated and garish) because image technology is always getting better and cheaper and we're able to capture more 'image' in the image and do more with that image than ever before.

I think older films are well-served by the way they aged.

If you'd like, I can come over to your house and scratch up your TV screen and hiss in your ear while you watch the restored Vertigo, but I'd much rather be able to see Kim Novak's face when Judy is revealed rather than the muddy shadow we got before the restoration work.
posted by incessant at 12:56 AM on July 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Digital media does degrade. It does not stay perfect forever. This article pretty much explains it.
posted by JJ86 at 5:41 AM on July 10, 2009

JJ86, as the article says, worries about digital media degrading is more a problem for the private sector than studios and media companies. Individuals don't have server farms and back-ups and IT departments like companies do; although Hollywood had a mediocre record of preservation over the last 50 years, that record has improved markedly as companies see the value of film libraries and as preservationists have made a push to save old movies.
posted by incessant at 8:55 AM on July 10, 2009

Yes, when you can sell sitcom re-run rights for hundreds of thousands per episode, you take good care of that tape.
posted by smackfu at 9:51 AM on July 10, 2009

Good feedback everyone. Thanks very much.
posted by SpacemanStix at 12:30 PM on July 10, 2009

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