The Role of Tape in the Motion Picture Industry

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I’m sure we all can remember a time when movies were shot and recorded on those extremely large round reels of 35mm tape. In fact, most film producers still used 35mm recording film up until late 2008. It wasn’t until 2012 when digital recording finally overtook film recording in the motion picture industry.  Why did it take so long to convert to a more modern recording medium you ask? In some instances, such as war films, tape recording gives off a more realistic imagery; but the main reason is storage.

LTO in movies

Graphic from: //stephenfollows.com/film-vs-digital/

In the case of movie making, hundreds of TB of data are being used; making the need for data storage a costly piece of production.  Digital tape storage is a practical and inexpensive substitute to hard drives in regards to both long-term and short-term storage of video and other digital content. Not only is tape storage more stable, but it doesn’t require a technical know-how to understand and operate.

No one will argue the fact that improvements in digital technology has transformed the motion picture industry. Recording digitally has allowed filmmakers to manipulate the video directly through computer software. However, the industrial change from analog to digital has not changed the need to store the scenes that were shot. The film that once existed in containers of tape reels was replaced by numerous hard drives. Even more so, the innovation of high-resolution recording requires more storage than ever before.

Ultimately, an increase in efficient yet low-cost storage solution has led to the re-escalation of tape technology. With hard drives becoming more expensive to purchase due to the abundance needed to store such massive amounts of data, tape is beginning to resurface in the film industry. Not to mention the efforts needed to maintain hard drives against hazards, the choice of switching back to digital tape has never been clearer.

Tape as Storage

LTO (linear tape open) was developed as non-proprietary open standard in the late 1990s. It was originally designed to be another option to other patented formats existing at the time. Many view tape storage as an old technology. They’re not wrong to do so either. Magnetic tape has been used for storage and backup for over half a century already.

When LTO made its debut, it was accepted with open arms by several small to mid-sized businesses looking for low cost yet efficient storage needs. The standard form factor of tape storage is a magnetic cartridge that has the ability to hold 2.5 TB of data. Even more impressive is the shelf life of tape media storage, as the 15-30-year life cycle is well beyond that of any hard drive past or present.

How LTO Works

The LTO data cartridge, otherwise known as Ultrium, is made of a ½” magnetic tape that is spooled around a single reel. The tape cartridge was designed to be easy to use by robotic tape libraries. LTO tape is built with the durability to withstand up to 5000 uses and up to 260 full data fills.

There are only a few licensed manufacturers of the LTO technology including METEC, Imation, Fuji Film, TDK, Sony, and Hewlett Packard. These manufacturers have equipped the LTO tape cartridges with a barcode technology that allows the LTO tape drives to recognize the different generations of the data tape.

The LTO drive’s tape head overlaps two neighboring servo bands. There are also two servo read heads and either eight or sixteen read/write heads. The LTO tape head assembly moves in a way that it can access all of the four wide data bands packed in between five narrow servo bands known as the Ultrium tape. The drive can read data from the cartridge in the same generation and at least the two prior ones.

The drive also writes data to its own generation of tape and to a cartridge from the immediate prior generation in the format of that generation. On average, it can take anywhere between 80 seconds to 100 seconds to rewind a typical drive. Whereas it takes about 50 seconds for the drive to access the data from the beginning of the tape. In order to assist in keeping the cartridges’ clean, an internal cleaning brush is triggered when a cartridge is put in the drive.

inside lto tape drive

Advantages of LTO

A major benefit of LTO storage is its ability to detect and correct errors in the data. As data is written to the magnetic tape, it is validated by reading it using the read heads. This verification process allows the drive to write a second copy of data that fails to verify on its own. Additionally, an error correction algorithm is used to make data recovery possible.

As most are aware, modern hard drives are very fragile and can easily be broken beyond repair. On the other hand, an LTO cartridge is much more durable than a hard drive due to the fact that it has no moving parts. The durability of the TLO storage enables it to be transported with ease for offsite storage.

The LTO magnetic storage also uses no means of power or electricity to store data, unlike a hard drive that requires constant power flow in order to be accessible. Not only does the lack of power reduce energy consumption, but the speed of the most current generation LTO drives are equivalent to those of hard drives.

Disadvantages of LTO

Despite the countless number of rewards that LTO offers, the technology by its character is prone to damage by strong magnetic fields. For example, a pass-by of a bulk eraser will render the cartridge eradicated and unusable. LTO tape also requires a climate that is within a normal living temperature range. If you’re not comfortable, your LTO storage probably isn’t either.

Typically, the linear run of the tape, similar to a tape recorder or cassette player, throws out the ability for random-access. What this means is that the spooled tape makes it nearly impossible to locate a specific area of the data in an instantaneous manner. However, more recently a Linear Tape File System, or LTFS, was created in order to solve this problem. The LTFS makes it possible to access files in the same way you would using a typical hard drive or flash drive.

35mm film

Cost Comparison

If we take a look at LTO tape storage from a cost-based perspective, many would say hard drives are way less expensive. With the initial costs structures, they would be correct. However, in the long run, tape always comes out ahead.

An LTO tape drive with the ability to read a tape with a 1.5TB cost around $1300.clearly, a 1.5TB hard drive costs significantly less. The LTO tape cartridges cost approximately $25 to $170 depending on the generation and tape capacity.

While the initial cost of an LTO tape drive is much greater than single hard drive, the value of LTO is found when dealing with several hundred terabytes of data.

Doing simple math can help visualize the savings seen with LTO. For instance, let’s say the filming of the latest action movie created 150TB of data. In order to store the high-resolution video data, we would need 100 1.5TB hard drives. If a hard drive cost on average $75, that would account for roughly $7500 in hard drive storage.

If we stored the same 150TB video recording on LTO tapes it would cost roughly $3800, half the price of the hard drives. How you ask? Let’s break down the math. One initial LTO tape drive costs around $1300. A 1.5TB LTO drive would come to around $25 for a later generation tape. 100 tapes would come to around $2500, making the total LTO storage investment $3800.

With a savings of approximately $3700, and due to more data being able to be stored, more savings would continue to accrue.

LTO Today and the Future

Due to its fundamental strengths and low cost of ownership, LTO magnetic media storage is a heavy favorite among video production teams for data archiving.

LTFS, also known as Tape NAS, and other improvements to the LTO technology have maintained a likeness among the tape faithful. Improvements like LTFS include a hybrid merging of the best features of LTO with that of hard drives.

A more recent advancement from Sony is the innovation of a storage tape using a magnetic coating measured in tens of nanometers. The recording capacity achieved by Sony’s invention is seen as being approximately 74X that of the current magnetic tape storage media. With that being said, the resulting storage capacity would be over 185TB per data cartridge.

As of right now, there haven’t been any dates set for the release of the product. However, the advances in tape technology demonstrate a viable future that eliminates the number of tape cartridges needed to store massive amounts of data.

Video production teams require backups and storage of their video data. The use of LTO as a storage medium for video can only surge over time. As more motion picture professionals become mindful of the low cost fused with safety and security offered by this local storage technology, the future of tape in video production will only grow.

 

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