1 million films in a tiny vial

A vial with a few droplets of water and one million copies of an old movie encoded in DNA on display at Technicolor’s Sunset Boulevard studios in Hollywood.
A vial with a few droplets of water and one million copies of an old movie encoded in DNA on display at Technicolor’s Sunset Boulevard studios in Hollywood.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LOS ANGELES • A Technicolor scientist surrounded by the latest virtual-reality technology inspects a vial containing a few droplets of water - and one million copies of an old movie encoded in DNA.

The company has come a long way since the Hollywood golden age, when the world gazed in awe at the lush palette of The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With The Wind provided by its three-strip cameras.

Now celebrating its centenary year, Technicolor's laboratories are at the cutting edge of the science of film-making, leading a worldwide revolution in immersive entertainment.

"We are bigger today in LA than we were 70 or 50 years ago," Technicolor chief Frederic Rose said at a recent ceremony where he accepted a "star of recognition" from the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce.

He used the occasion at Technicolor's Sunset Boulevard studios to showcase the company's latest jaw- dropping innovation - the encoding of movies into artificial, "non-biological" DNA.

Mr Jean Bolot, vice-president for research and innovation, held up a vial barely bigger than a bullet containing a million copies of 1902 French silent film A Trip To The Moon, the first movie to use visual effects.

DNA is almost unimaginably small - up to 90,000 molecules can fit into the width of one human hair - so even such a large library is totally invisible to the human eye. All you can see is the water in the tube.

"This, we believe, is what the future of movie archiving will look like," Mr Bolot said.

Scientists have been experimenting with DNA as a potential storage medium for years, but recent advances in modern laboratory equipment have made projects such as Technicolor's a reality.

The company's work builds on research by scientists at Harvard University, who in 2012 successfully stored 5.5 petabits of data - about 700 terabytes - in a single gram of DNA, smashing the previous DNA data density record by a factor of one thousand.

DNA is a long, coiled molecular "ladder", the famous double helix structure, comprising four chemical rungs - adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine - which team up in pairs.

Mr Bolot's team turned A Trip To The Moon into data in the form of zeros and 1s in computing's binary code, and transcribed it into DNA code, which was then turned into molecules, using lab chemicals.

The contents are "read" by sequencing the DNA - as is routinely done today in genetic fingerprinting - and turning it back into computer code.

Converting movies into man- made DNA brings huge advantages, said Mr Bolot, who points out that the archives of every Hollywood studio, currently taking up square kilometres of floor space, could fit into a Lego brick.

Another problem overcome by DNA storage is that the format for reading it does not become obsolete every decade or so, unlike celluloid, VHS, DVD and every other medium in the history of film-making.

"If I gave you a movie in the form of these floppy discs from the beginning of the IBM PC, you would not even know how to read the movie because there are no more floppy disc readers," Mr Bolot said.

"The guys at Harvard told me if you left this (vial) on a hot Arizona pavement with trucks running over it and you come back in 10,000 years, it will still be readable."

A Trip To The Moon took six weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to convert, but Mr Bolot's team is working on streamlining the technology into something that would be commercially viable.

"We don't know yet if that's going to work, but if it does - and we'll know, we expect, within a year - then this will really unlock a new age for archiving," he said.

Founded in Boston in 1915, Technicolor relocated to Hollywood in the early 1920s and has provided post-production on thousands of films across the world.

Perhaps the most exciting development in entertainment in recent years has been the emergence of sophisticated, hyper-realistic virtual and augmented reality and Technicolor has been an early adopter, buying up industry-leading studios.

Last year, it announced the US$295-million (S$400-million) acquisition of The Mill, the world's largest visual effects and content creation studio for the advertising industry.

Technicolor's portfolio includes leading visual effects company MPC, which worked on Ridley Scott's The Martian (2015) and previewed the film with a 360- degree virtual-reality flight onto the surface of Mars via a headset.

It is all a far cry from the two- colour printing days and what technologies Technicolor will be developing in another 100 years is anyone's guess.

"You should always go back to the original Star Trek series as a source of inspiration for what's next," Mr Rose, who has been at the helm of the company since 2008, said. "And if you don't have access to it, you should read one of the Asimov novels for ideas."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline '1 million films in a tiny vial'. Print Edition | Subscribe