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Icons of Progress

Preserving the Legacy of Film

IBM100 Preserving the Legacy of Film iconic mark

The world’s film history is literally evaporating. Half of all feature movies shot before 1950 have been lost forever, and more than 90 percent of American silent films are gone, due to the disintegration of old film stock. IBM is working to help save cinematic history.

Movie studios today face two challenges in regards to data—they have to preserve their historical footage in a way that will stand the test of time, and deal with the tremendous amount of data created by the shooting and production of movies in the digital age.

In 2003, IBM worked with The Film Foundation and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Film and Television Archive to digitize UCLA’s collection of Hearst Metrotone newsreel films, shown in movie theaters from 1914 to 1971. The project involved scanning more than 850 hours of news footage, formatting it into high-quality video, and building a searchable online database from written and typed information on the more than 675,000 index cards and 7700 synopsis reports that describe the footage on the newsreels. IBM also provided hardware infrastructure to enable digitization and electronic access to the collection, including servers and a Linear Tape-Open (LTO) library to store the archive.

IBM also worked with Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE) to build a visionary server-based architecture called the “Digital Backbone” to manage the enormous amounts of digital data created in the process of making movies and TV shows. The basic theory of the Digital Backbone is that a single digital infrastructure would better support the various elements of the production and distribution process by more seamlessly and efficiently sharing data. In the Digital Backbone system, footage associated with one production—
amounting up to a petabyte of data—is more readily accessible to the editors, special effects artists, marketers, etc, who need to access it. IBM’s innovative solutions are helping its entertainment industry partners look to the future, while preserving the past.

IBM’s work with digitizing film goes as far back as 1979, when the company formed a joint venture with MCA Inc. to develop and market LaserDiscs, a precursor to CDs and DVDs. IBM was later involved in helping to pioneer the standards that paved the way for the formats of video and audio that we exchange, watch and listen to via the Internet today.

In 1989, Cesar Gonzales, then a manager in the Multimedia Technologies department at IBM’s Watson Research Center, joined the Moving Picture Expert Group (MPEG), a division of the International Standards Organization working on audio and video compression standards. Throughout the 1990s, the work IBM Research did with MPEG was instrumental in bringing about the worldwide leap into digital audio and video, creating the MPEG-1 and MPEG-2 standards in use today in digital TV, Blu-Ray and DVD products, and the majority of audiovisual content on the Internet, including YouTube. In 1993, IBM formed a Digital Video Products Group within its Microelectronics division, which developed some of the first microchips for the emerging MPEG chip area, including video encoder and decoder chips.

“IBM’s offerings help provide the foundation for clients anywhere on the technology spectrum to transform into modern media and entertainment companies—so they are better able to create, consolidate, manage, distribute, record and control their content; and address consumer and competitive needs in real-time,” said IBM Global Media and Entertainment General Manager, Steve Canepa.

In a world where consumers can stream feature-length movies at the click of a mouse, it might be hard to imagine that we could ever lose films that are important to us. IBM innovations help us to take care of our cinematic past and future.


Selected team members who contributed to this Icon of Progress:

  • Cesar Gonzales IBM Fellow, Research Scientist
  • Jeff Schick Vice President, Social Software
  • Steve Canepa General Manager, Global Media and Entertainment Industry