DIRT IN MY EYE
There is a lot to be thankful for a career on the digital edge of the motion picture industry. Providing for a fun and fruitful living while getting paid to learn, the revolution was above all very interesting times.
Chief among the benefits of the sharp and painful transition from film to digital was the massive reduction in physical product manufacturing, distribution and disposal of assets. Thanks to new technology, the movie business is polluting the planet to a slower and lesser degree now than before.
One of the few projects remembered from grade school was a Grade 4 report on pollution. Relying solely on magazine-type sources for pictures to cut out and glue paste, I easily found more than enough photographs of smoke spewing stacks, poisoned rivers and ruined landscapes to make the grade.
The research and images burned my eyes, though; turned my stomach; confused my mind. I couldn’t believe mankind could do such a thing to the same planet we eat and breathe from. I swore (durn, I think) I was never in my life going to be a polluter.
SMUG CONTROL DEVICE
Nevertheless, my first big job was at a smoke-chugging chemical plant – complete with tailing ponds of acidic waste as large as a small city. My resistance to harming the earth melted away as fast as I could cash away that big paycheck, even after daily corrosive dust coatings and breathing does of deadly chemicals.
Over time, activist-style “memo to the management” essays earned me a reputation as a writer who could reasonably put words together for the big picture. A short-term assignment to create a training program for a key transportation function of the plant was the start of big change for one grunt worker.
Working with Wang Word Processor (archive.org) (ha!) and video equipment conveniently needed to be performed in an office. Insulated from the noise, fumes, dust and shift work - this was living life in the fast & fresh lane. After the project was completed, a clean body and unwilling brain was dumped back out into the pollution and night shifts.
The thought had been planted, though. Working with computers seemed to have an interesting future beyond typing. Some day they might be able to do pictures and sound - it was just a matter of time. It wasn’t too long before cleaner living became this young man’s priority; large paycheck and rational pension plans be durned.
Scrub forward much later in the timeline - post Y2K. I worked for a Deluxe kinda company that once processed and distributed a BILLION feet of acetate-based film (used for movie release prints) per year. There was a competing company with a Technicolor name that produced a similar volume over the same long time frame - together, they made mountains of movies.
Film started off on the wrong feet - the original type of film product was self-destructing and highly toxic to boot. Many a studio film storage facility burned to the ground if the film stock didn’t disintegrate into powder first. Cellulose-nitrate film was used until about 1952, when it finally became apparent that basing your business model on a highly flammable product derived from military-grade explosives was not working out.
New chemical processing technology in film manufacture enabled the film industry to shine through into the future, rather than fade into the past. At least for a while.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON
By the turn of the 21st century, a SKU count of 7,000 copies of the master print was required for the average big budget Hollywood movie. Gradually peaking to that high point over 90 years of films, this volume was needed in order to get films out to theaters around the world continuously.
Each print moved from city to town to village to overseas on pavement and diesel or by air and jet fuel. Multiply that by the hundreds of movies produced for theatrical release each year, and that adds up to many tons of product. That product needs massive resources to go places on a strict timeline; by truck, by plane, by hook or crook. The movie plays on release date, or there is hell to freeze over.
With a billion of anything by any measure, massive revenue ensues. With revenues come jobs, development, tax sources, and good stories – but also causing permanent blindness in one eye (just the one looking at potential problems). Thar’s gold in them thar hills o’ film, until the shine rubs off.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON… TO THE DUMP
When the rolling film reels fail to draw in enough paying customers, the product is declared dead. Spent reels may have worked just fine for another 100 years (just shine a light), but they were good for nothing when the next film came to town.
Those billions of feet of film? Where does all that non-biodegradable hazard go to rot slower than a McDonald’s Big Mac? Straight to the garbage dump, as there is no recycle code number for acetate film. We hope you really enjoyed those movies.
TRADING ANALOG DOLLARS FOR DIGITAL DIMES
The century old analog company long had foresight that the digital revolution was coming and was a real thing. The writing was on the projection screen for the physical film distribution business. While enormous costs were invested to seed new replacement media technologies, the inevitable and more sudden than expected decline in revenues was jarring. The old school sales team used to joke that we were “trading analog dollars for digital dimes.” It was not a joke - the days of chemically printing dollars were over.
The billions measure went from feet to bits inside a decade. Still - with one good eye I saw no smokestacks obscuring the sun, and none of that film threw dirt or burned lungs. Though the irony curtain fell, we are feeling ahead of the game and plan at this point. Now if only one could live as long as a master film print - one that does not get thrown away so soon.
Masses of containers with millions of feet of film are still sitting out there in paid, climate controlled buildings. The magical era of movie-making serially ushered in different post-film physical products to hold the movie for processing and posterity: videotapes, data backup tapes, hard disc and solid state drives and memory devices are now legion. We have made a continental range of new mountains with new media. At least it is not as flammable.
You cannot shine a light through to see the content with any one of these newfangled technology items, and you will always need electricity and a specific operating machine to function. This data will be stored only until costs greatly overcomes its value, or product failure determines its fate. Note that every spinning hard drive ever created will stop working one day. Who knows when that will be, other than when needed most?
MYSTERY IN THE MAKING
There is a lot of future garbage sitting neatly in stacks and rows in warehouses across the world. Like switching from gasoline to electric cars, with Digital Everything we have just shifted the pollution up and down stream to where we really don’t have to think about it. The movie meat comes nicely packaged down the cloud pipe so you have no need to think of the dead bits left at the factory, nor the scene at the dump when you are done.
The new model forward is hot stuff, as well. Giant server farms and data centers are water wasters and coal eaters; heat generators; climate changers so you can watch 57 movie channels with nothing on. We will ruin a lot more Earth before we figure out the next something better using less energy and materials.
Direction of motion from here is unknown, but feature film movies will always be trashed to a matter of degree - by critics, by necessity, or by design. In the meantime, there will be a lot of new movies coming along to watch and help us cope.
xyz digital inc.
Nitrate Films (American Museum of Natural History)
Movies Released in 1985 (The Numbers)
List of Photographic Films (wikipedia)
List of Motion Picture Film Stocks (wikipedia)
Managing Waste in the Film Industry (Recycling Magazine)