July 13, 2012

The Art of Digitizing Pop Culture Content

The migration of a number of key elements in popular culture, notably music, and more recently newspaper and print media, as well as film and TV content, has occurred as the benefits of digitizing content are realized. Initially, based on the Napster debacle back in the 1990s, the entertainment industry was somewhat reluctant to move in this direction based on how that impacted the music industry's business model. But from the shooting process of a movie or TV show, to cinema projectors, the future seems to be in digital.

And beyond the risk of widespread content theft (hence the Napster reference), there are actually a number genuine benefits that the entertainment industry can realize from digitizing its content.

For example, digital content can be stored in brand-new condition forever (it doesn't deteriorate), and what's more, it can be delivered most anywhere (and there's an opportunity for content producers to charge for that!), which also happens to be where consumers want this stuff! With digital content, there is no need to worry about old celluloid film reels deteriorating in a warehouse someplace, and in the case of TV and movies, the resolution and colors on a digital version will remain in perfect, like-new condition regardless of the content's age. It also opens old content to new audiences who might never before have encountered it, in effect, stretching the income stream for old content over decades or longer.

Of course, over the years, Hollywood (by that, I mean the entertainment industry, which may or may not be based in Los Angeles) has produced tons (indeed, it may weigh tons in analog formats!) of content since the advent of "talkies" (meaning moving pictures with accompanying soundtracks). Given this huge vault of content, entertainment companies like Sony's Columbia Pictures (among others), Time Warner's Warner Brothers, Viacom/CBS Paramount Studios, Newscorp's Twentieth Century Fox studios, NBC Universal Pictures MGM/UA, Disney and others have been working to migrate their massive libraries of entertainment content to digital formats. The process of migration has been done with different speeds.

For example, music was the first to go digital with the advent of the compact disc back in the 1980s, which made converting music to MP3's and a host of other digital formats incredibly easy. Outside of music, a lot of movies and television content was already converted to digital format to create DVDs. This means that if it's already on DVD, the content has been digitized  someplace.

Not too long ago, I wrote about a specific television show, notably "Alice" which ran on CBS TV from 1976 to 1985 (catch my post HERE) whose first season was recently digitized for the first time ever. I noted in that post that Warner Brothers has a unique capability, specifically something called manufacturing-on-demand for DVDs. This means that digitized content can be transferred to a host of mediums, whether on a physical discs as DVDs, but may also easily be uploaded to a server someplace (if the producer doesn't already have it on a server already!) to be streamed to a PC, mobile device or tablet, or converted to another medium. This was one of the shows that had not been digitized, but Warner Brothers has a large library, and that digitized content exists on a website called "Warner Archive", which has many movies from Warner Brothers, as well as other studios including Sony and MGM. Television content also exists. Warner's Manufacturing-on-Demand also produces DVD on demand for Amazon.com.

What about all the non-digitized content?

Well, they're working on it, but in some cases, it's not merely a simple transfer. In many cases, the studios struggle to keep the content true to the original producer's intent, which can be challenging. What's more, much of the content was created prior to high-definition video, so there is what can be called a "translation" process involved. That's where the term "Digitally Remastered" comes from. It means they have painstakingly reviewed the content, in most cases, literally frame-by-frame. The good news is that once the content has been digitized, the process is not nearly as painstaking to convert from one digital format to another. DVD. Streaming. Whatever. If the content has been digitized, all of that is possible, and quite possibly, in formats we have not yet imagined.

Recently, NPR took a visit to Warner Brothers' vaults to look at the process involved in digitizing archived movies and television content. But it's not always a matter of merely scanning the content; in some cases, the conversion to digital changes the resolution. But for a company like Warner Brothers, there is a desire to re-sell this archived content, so the financial incentive exists. That's why the Warner Archive and DVD manufacturing-on-demand is so important, because it enables them to sell the content in a widely-used format without having to mass produce it.

Ned Price oversees the digital archives at Warner Brothers. He says "You're creating a hybrid. You want to represent what the film's intent was, and what the look was, and what the feeling was of the film, but you want to take advantage of the fact that you can see a lot more." Hence, there is an art to it. Some film directors take issue with digitizing their content because they aren't convinced the studios will hold true to their "artistic visions" for their movies or TV programming.

But others say that movies and televison content can't really be considered works of art the way a Rembrandt painting might be. Richard Donner, the director of Superman — the 1978 version with Christopher Reeve, says "It's not exactly like repainting a Rembrandt. It's not like a singular painting hanging in a museum. A lot of people would like to think that, and I have a lot of arguments with some of my fellow directors about it, but my feeling is we've turned it over to the public — hopefully they will handle it with respect."

Have a listen to this fascinating NPR clip below, or by visiting http://n.pr/O5RrtK:

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