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Backup Options for Filmmakers

As filmmakers, we put a tremendous amount of trust in our equipment. With the rise in popularity of solid-state media, many of us are no longer shooting on tape or film. This offers many advantages but also several disadvantages. Unlike a film workflow in which many prints are made, or a tape workflow where the tapes are digitized to a hard drive and then stored safely away, filmmakers are often erasing their solid-state media and relying on a single hard drive copy to last them throughout the post production process and onto distribution/release.

Three things are guaranteed in life - death, taxes and hard drive failure. It is a fact that every hard drive will eventually fail. No-one can predict when it will happen and you may not have an opportunity to salvage the data before it does.

So it is wise to assume it will happen and have a good backup policy in case it does. Here are some of the options available for data backup.

Data Tape

While there used to be many consumer options available such as the Iomega Ditto, tape backup is now almost exclusively geared towards enterprise users. Higher-priced options have high capacities and autoload capabilities - i.e. where you insert multiple tapes at once and the system switches them automatically so you don't have to. Lower-priced options will generally require you to change the tape far more often - if you're fine with that, you can save a lot of money.

Most backup drive manufacturers are moving towards the LTO format. This is an open standard so you know that the data you backup now will work on a competitor's drive for the next 1-2 LTO generations.

One way to save money is to use an older, less advanced format. A lot of manufacturers still offer older proprietary systems for sale. These are not as advanced as the LTO options (nor as compatible with competing products) but they are much cheaper. As stated earlier, cheaper drives have lower storage capacities and are less likely to have autoloading functionality. They are also likely to have much lower data transfer rates, unlike LTO -3 and LTO-4 which can transfer data at higher speeds than a conventional hard drive.

When purchasing a drive, consider also the connector and the supplied software. Some drives use SCSI and will need a SCSI card installed inside your machine, but setup will be much easier if you opt for a Firewire version instead (not to mention allowing greater drive portability). Check if the supplied software is compatible with your operating system and if not, check if there is a compatibility update available.

Because these tapes are designed for enterprise use, they are very sturdy and have extremely low failure rates. They have normally been stress-tested by the manufacturer, and most manufacturers will offer you failure statistics on their site. You are, of course, paying for this privilege though.

Format types: LTO, VXA, SLR, DLT, DDS, AIT/SAIT, Travan, T10000
Drive manufacturers: Tandberg (formerly Exabyte), HP, Quantum, IBM, Sun StorageTek
Software: Retrospect, NetVault, CommVault, UltraBac, PresSTORE, ATempo

* Low failure rate
* Tried and tested
* LTO-4 tapes can store terrabytes of data and access it faster than a regular hard disk

* Expensive
* Can be complex to set up
* If you opt for a cheaper, small capacity, non-autoloading version, you will spend a lot of time changing tapes
* Overkill if you don't have much data to backup

Great if you're backing up a large amount of data and only plan to keep one copy.

Hard disk

The main advantage of hard disks is market penetration. You can go into almost any store and buy a disk at short notice. They are priced very low per GB, there are lots to choose from and (unless you have an old machine) you shouldn't need any new hardware or software in order to use it.

As this is primarily intended as a backup, go for an external drive. Speed is not an issue here so mounting the drive internally will offer no worthwhile performance benefit. Additionally, an external disk safely stored away will not be damaged if something happens to your machine.

It's worth mentioning that some manufacturers offer separate Mac and PC editions of their external disk drives. This is not a marketing gimmick - there is a difference! Some of the I/O controllers in certain drives (often cheaper ones) are not Mac-compatible and you will experience issues if you use one of these drives. Choose a drive enclosure with an Oxford controller where possible. Check online reviews if in doubt.

Finally, one aspect people often don't realize is that hard disks store data magnetically and must be "refreshed" every six months or so to prevent data loss, as Larry Jordan explains in this article. This must not be overlooked when considering hard disks as a backup medium.

Manufacturers: Lacie, G-Tech, Samsung, Western Digital, Seagate, Maxtor, Hitachi, Toshiba

* Cheap
* Ubiquitous
* High capacity
* Fast transfer rate

* Relatively high and unpredictable failure rate
* Physical bumps and bashes increase the chance of failure

Good for cost-effective backups but multiple backups are advised.

Solid-state flash drives

The main advantages of these drives are their small size, high potential read speed and high damage tolerance. It is likely that these will eventually replace conventional hard disks in the future and this will be a good thing, however current models have certain caveats.

The biggest of these is price. The cost per GB is considerably higher than any of the other formats on this page, and available capacities are much lower than those offered by conventional hard disks. In addition, although read speeds are fast, write speeds are considerably slower than those of conventional hard drives.

One of the most interesting aspects of flash SSDs is the way that they fail. Unlike rotating disk hard drives, SSDs do not suffer from mechanical failure but gradually wear out as you write to them. Although they have quite a high failure rate (each memory cell is limited to 100,000 writes), failure doesn't actually result in data loss. When a memory cell fails, you will be unable to write data to that cell - but you will have no problems at all reading data from it. This would be awful for a scratch disk that is written to many times but perfect for a backup in which reading is more important than writing.

However, controller chips inside the drives have been known to fail, meaning you will need to call a data recovery expert to recover the data from the disk. And there lies another problem - a lot of manufacturers uses proprietary chips that are constantly changing, making it difficult for a data recovery expert to keep up with developments. And in many drives data is difficult to recover by design, as these systems were originally developed for the military to carry sensitive information.

Efforts are being made to resolve some of these issues - such as putting two drives in a RAID 0 to improve write speeds, and balancing write operations across the entire drive to reduce the load on a single cell. Prices are going down and capacities are going up, but they will only become viable when the cost hits $1.50 per GB or less.

Manufacturers: Samsung, IBM, Intel, Corsair, SanDisk, Toshiba

* Very fast read speeds
* Tolerant of physical abuse / damage
* More predictable failure rate than regular HDDs
* Data can still be read when drive fails

* Very expensive per GB
* Slow write speeds
* Current drives have relatively low capacities
* Limited number of times the drive can be written to

One to look out for the future but limited to small backups right now.

Online Backup / Storage

There are several online backup services available. Some will give you a certain amount of space for free, requiring you to upgrade if you need more, while others offer a trial service. The advantage of one of these services is that the data is stored elsewhere and so will not be affected by theft, fire, water damage etc affecting your facility. Many of them offer software that runs on your machine and backs up your specified backup folders automatically, ensuring an up-to-date backup even if you forget.

When considering this option, you should consider security as a priority. You are handing over your files to someone else so you need an assurance that they will not end up in the wrong hands. I use Mozy to backup my laptop and all files are encrypted by default. The simplest option is to let Mozy create an encryption key for you but this is not as secure as specifying one yourself. If you do specify a custom one, beware that your data will be permanently inaccessible if you forget it.

The two biggest problems are storage space and transfer speeds. It is impractical to upload files greater than a few hundred megabytes, especially as the service takes quite a while to encrypt them before uploading. So backing up terrabytes of footage is not possible, but these services are very useful for backing up important project files. Many of them will store multiple versions of a file so you can restore to a version several days or weeks in the past. I wouldn't recommend this as your sole backup, but it would be useful as an extra cushion, especially as some companies give a small amount of space for free.

Services: Mozy, Carbonite, Dr. Backup, DropBox, iDrive

* Simple and automatic
* Great for backing up small files

* Not suitable for large files
* Subscription fees

Great as an additional backup but don't rely on this as your only option. Only suitable for small files.


Videotape backups offer some distinct advantages over data tape backups. Firstly, unlike the LTO specification that has various revisions, video formats adhere to strict standards that rarely change. These standards tend to stick around for a long time. A brand-new DVCAM deck will play a DVCAM tape made a decade ago with no problems. LTO drives are only backwards-compatible with the last 1-2 generations which could cause problems with long-term backup.

Secondly, there is greater predictability. Tapes are rated at the hour or half-hour, making it much easier to calculate how many would be needed and how long it would take to record/play the footage, which is invaluable if you are planning to rent a deck. The downside of this, of course, is that transfer speeds are much lower than modern LTO drives.

However, when creating a videotape backup of your footage, it is important to choose the format carefully to avoid quality loss. If you shot on the Panasonic HVX-200, which shoots DVCPRO HD, it is recommended to output to DVCPRO HD tapes. If the codec you are using does not have a tape equivalent, output to a tape format that closely matches the frame size, frame rate, color sampling and approximate data rate of the original footage. Some formats like Redcode RAW 4K do not have tape equivalents and so a different backup method must be used unless you are willing to lose information.

Also make sure your tape timecode matches the timecode of the original footage, otherwise your NLE will not be able to accurately reconnect the footage to the clips on the timeline. You will spend a lot of time manually rearranging and synchronizing footage.

Formats include: MiniDV, HDV (varies per manufacturer), DVCAM, DVCPRO, DVCPRO HD, HDCAM, HDCAM SR, D1, D2, D3, D5, BetaCam, DigiBeta.
Manufacturers: Panasonic, Sony, JVC

* Durable
* Established standards

* Limited to real-time capture and playback
* No tape equivalent of certain formats
* Information must be captured rather than simply copied to a hard disk

Great for backing up established formats. Excellent for long-term backup / archival.


Blu-ray discs can store around 50 GB and have a relatively low price per GB. They are compact and, if stored in a solid case, are relatively durable compared to regular hard disks. They are not as durable as tape-based alternatives, however.

Blu-ray hasn't caught on as well as everyone had hoped after the format war ended, and Apple has not yet implemented hardware or OS support for it yet. This has severely limited the availability of Blu-ray burners and software for the Mac, with the only option for data discs being Roxio Toast 10 plus the Blu-ray plugin. PC users have a lot more choice but even despite this, it has still not fully caught on in the PC market either.

Transfer rates are quite low and the format doesn't offer as much disc space as other formats. However, BD-R does have an advantage as a backup medium because it can only be written to once. Every other format can be written to or erased (some more easily than others) after a backup has occurred.

Drive Manufacturers: Sony, LaCie, LG, Pioneer
Software Manufacturers: Roxio, Sonic Solutions, Nero, Adobe Encore

* Discs relatively cheap per GB
* Data cannot be overwritten

* Not much support on the Mac
* Slow read/write speeds
* Low disc space compared to other offerings

Don't rely on it as a sole backup. Not suitable for large amounts of data.

A Game of Chance

None of the options listed above are infallible, however the point is to lower the chance of losing your data. If you have one backup, that lowers the chance of critical data loss to 0.5. Make another one and it goes down to 0.25. Backups are especially crucial if you're running a RAID because the chance of data loss increases with every drive you add (unless it is a RAID 1 of course).

So it doesn't really matter which option you choose, as any one of them will reduce that chance - some more than others of course. A mix of multiple types is the safest way to go. And when thousands or millions of dollars, plus the culmination of months or perhaps years of hard work are at stake, it helps to have a pro-active backup policy planned from the start. The fate of your movie might well depend on it.

The links to companies and products in this article are intended for guidance and not as an endorsement.
Posted by Jon Chappell on Feb 12 2009 to Hardware, Video Editing, Cameras