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How poor data preservation nearly destroyed a feature film

The highest-grossing animated film of 1999 was nearly lost forever but the story of the near-disaster is a lesson in the importance of digital preservation.

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How poor data preservation nearly destroyed a feature film

It can be easy sometimes to think of digital preservation in a somewhat abstract way, without realising the very tangible cost and effects poor data protection and archival practices can have on a business.

Possibly the greatest example of what can happen if data protection and archival policies are either not followed properly or are neglected can be found, rather ironically, in one of the greatest cinematic successes of the 20th century. 

Whilst a computer-animated film about cowboys and space rangers might seem an unusual flashpoint for the importance of data preservation, the story of what went wrong, what could have gone far worse and the miracle that saved the film is a fascinating, illustrative example of what can happen even when you do have backups.

Wipe The Root Folder

During the production of the 1999 Disney-Pixar animated film Toy Story 2, around 150 computer animators, lighting riggers and modellers working at Pixar Studios were developing the film alongside a further 250 people working on A Bug’s Life. 

As was often the case at Pixar, they relied heavily on networked assets, which by 1998 were both regularly used and would by the nature of an animation project require significant levels of access facilitated by a wide-open Unix-based server environment.

Generally, this was fine, with various formal and informal ways of managing animation assets and multiple backup tapes (in an era before flash memory and cloud backup solutions) meaning that, for example, issues where a lot of the characters in A Bug’s Life were deleted could be easily restored.

However, one day, assistant technical director Oren Jacob (later Chief Technical Officer of Pixar) noticed whilst he happened to be looking at a folder with modelling assets for the main character Woody that files seemed to be disappearing. Soon, whole directories were returning errors.

What had happened is that a user (it has never been revealed who, although Mr Jacob claimed it was an animator) had run the Unix command ‘rm-r -f *’

This command removes every file, folder and nested folder without being prompted to do so, and is generally used on temporary project folders to delete redundant assets.

Unfortunately, someone had activated this command in the root folder, and it was slowly and progressively deleting the entire Toy Story 2 project folder, effectively deleting the film piece by piece.

He made a panicked call to yank out the power supply and network connection to the server. This is far from best practice but was necessary to keep whatever they could.

In the end, they lost 90 per cent of the film, but then it got worse when it turned out that their backups had not been continuously tested and had started to wipe information, making the backups next to useless by themselves.

By a complete miracle, supervising technical director Galyn Susman happened to be working remotely, and after a weekend of manual verification and validation, the project worked and only a few days of work had been lost.

This was nothing short of a miracle, and whilst the film would be radically changed for creative reasons after this, it serves as a cautionary tale about not only having a robust backup plan but also testing it in a live environment to make sure it is fit for purpose.

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