Looking to the Future by Protecting the Past
The Disney Digital Studio Services Film and Digital Services Department is coming to the conclusion of an important 5 year project. Under the watchful eye of a knowledge-rich team including Theo Gluck, Director – Libary Restoration, Sara Duran-Singer, Senior Vice President, Studio Operations, Joe Jiuliano – Director of Disney Digital Studio Services Film and Digital Services, and Dave Bossert – Creative Director of Special Projects at the Walt Disney Animation Studio; over 16 million frames of deteriorating Nitrate Negative from the Walt Disney Studio’s library is now safely preserved for generations to come.
This complex and important task included 394 shorts and 18 feature films made between 1928-1952, that had been carefully stored in temperature and humidity controlled vaults at the Library Of Congress (LOC). Before 1952, all Disney projects were shot using a Kodak film stock commonly known as Nitrate. As the name suggests, the nitrate based negative stock ) which shares chemical characteristics of “guncotton”) is highly volatile, combustible and become perilously unstable as it decays.
In 2006, The Walt Disney Studios made a decision to work with the Library of Congress to actively restore and preserve the film within these vaults. Because Disney had always attempted to store its historical film legacy to the best of its ability, Disney and the Library of Congress undertook a project to scan each of these negatives as digital data. To begin the process, the negatives were shipped from the Library of Congress site in Dayton, OH in two separate refrigerated trucks to the old RKO nitrate vaults, which are still in operation in Van Nuys, CA. From there only small batches of the negatives were inspected by Kodak’s ProTek to ensure their integrity and then they were scanned at a facility selected by Disney’s Library Restoration team. After the completion of the scanning, the film was sent back, again in two trucks, to the Library of Congress’s new vault and facility located in in Culpeper, VA.
Sequential Exposure (SE)
Instead of having three Y-C-M (actually captured as Red-Green-Blue) linear records (three rolls of film), an SE negative can best be described as: Y1-C1-M1-Y2-M2-C2-Y3-C3-M3 and so on (albeit through RGB filters). This means that the linear length of an SE negative is three times that of the print that it generates.
The two key advantages to shooting SE as opposed to three-strip photography is that the optical path is far simpler resulting in a single focal plane for each frame, and the alignment of frames back into color from a single strip of film as opposed to three separate records is far easier and considerably more accurate, especially when working with negatives that could be as much as 80 years old.
Once scanned, this digital data was compared against the best-preserved picture print of the same title, to make sure that all the frames were preserved within the digital file. Once the digital image data was verified, a new Black and White/Successive Exposure (SE) negative was created from the scanned data by the Disney Digital Studio Services Film and Digital Services Department.
The Disney Digital Studio Services Film and Digital Services group has been hard at work creating SE negatives of not just our historical library, but also has employed the SE process as an important aspect of the Studio’s long-term archive strategy for films that have been finished digitally. The digital image data is separated into the digital equivalent of the film Yellow, Cyan and Magenta “records” for output onto a single piece of black and white negative film using a Laser Film Recorder. Just as in the original film process, in the digital SE process, each color record is written using an laser in succession onto black and white negative stock. What makes this process so important to our archive strategy is that that this single continuous strand of black and white stock, when properly stored, has proven to last over 100 years. There is not any digital media storage format that currently holds this same promise, and thus, the ability to convert our aging and deteriorating Nitrate film as well as our currently digitally finished motion pictures to a single stand of black and white negative, may be one of the most important steps we can take today to preserve our library for the future.
In the future, these digital black and white negative will be able to be scanned and then digitally recombined to create new masters from these archival elements. Throughout its history, The Walt Disney Studio’s has indeed treated its library like the “crown jewels” that it is. The result of this foreword thinking care has meant that generation after generation have been able to enjoy classics from the Walt Disney Studio library and for generations to come, will be able to enjoy our future classics.