We've all experienced that moment of terror when we realize we've just accidentally hit the delete key. For most of us, a slip up like that means losing an email or some pictures. In the case of Pixar, that once meant erasing Woody, Buzz, Potato Head, Ham, Rex and the rest of the Toy Story 2 gang from existence.
As it was being created in the late '90s, Toy Story 2 was being stored on a Linux-based computer system. It just so happens Linux systems have a keystroke to rapidly erase a file system, and an unidentified person at Pixar initiated that command (presumably as an accident). In the blink of an eye, several years worth of work by dozens and dozens of artists was irreparably erased. And while that would be a dire situation for most individuals, for a business accidents like that are mitigated by having elaborate back-up systems. In this case, however, all of Pixar's backups were corrupt and most of Toy Story 2 had in fact just been tossed into a digital black hole.
So how is it we still have Toy Story 2? Well, by pure luck, Galyn Susman, a technical supervisor on the project, had recently had a baby and had been working a lot from home. It turned out she still had a copy of the film on her home machine, so the Pixar team rushed over to her house and took her entire computer back to the Pixar offices so they could duplicate it. And that's how the adventures of everyone's favorite toy cowboy and friends were saved for all of us to later enjoy.
That story (which is also told as an extra on the film's recent Blu-ray release) is just one of several examples you can find in a new, must-read article by Gendy Alimurung over at LA Weekly about the consequences of studios turning their back on 35 mm film. Of course, Toy Story 2 was an all-digital creation to begin with, but the lesson learned still applies to physical productions that studios are forcing to turn away from the physical world.
The quick version of it is this: Distributing films on actual film isn't a cheap process. It costs distributors a healthy chunk of change up front to produce 35mm film prints, and then it costs even more to ship the heavy prints to theaters around the country. So to save money, studios are pressuring theaters into switching over to all digital projection, that way they can ship over a cheaply replicated, digital version of the film instead. The end result is that consumers get an arguably weaker visual presentation (there's a noticeable difference between film projection and digital projection) that costs a higher ticket price, but is cheaper for distributors to deliver. It's a win-win for studios.
Well, it's a win-win upfront, but as Alimurung's article explores, the long term costs and effects may not be worth the initial cash saved. It's cheaper to create and ship a digital print, yes, but it costs 11 times more to preserve one than it does its film counterpart. That's because it's a relatively easy process to stick a film print in a canister in a dark, cool place-- close the door and come back a 1,000 years later and your print is still in the same condition. That's not the case when you go digital, which requires a much more active preservation process. Hard drives have to be backed up, and their backups need to be backed up. The files themselves need to be converted over and over again into whatever new file format is trendy these days. The equipment and people used to do all that, and the gear theaters need to project it, has a much higher failure rate than film projectors. Add it all up, and going all digital looses the magical economic luster it has when all you're thinking about is saving money on shipping costs.
Of course, there's a lot more to the story, so we highly encourage you to read the entire LA Weekly piece on why studios are stabbing both consumers and theater owners in the back by forcing an all digital shift.