By JP Chan
By 2036, data loss has become a thing of the past. All digital media is instantly uploaded to the internet and permanently stored in the cloud, safely backed-up on servers scattered around the world. Only a handful of small businesses in the world have the expertise to recover data from pre-cloud devices. On a hot summer day, a young man named Kai visits Digital Antiquities, a store in eastern Pennsylvania specializing in data recovery and sales of vintage electronics. He shows Cat, the store’s only employee, an old compact disc left to him from his deceased mother and asks her to recover its contents. Will Cat help him find a working CD reader? And what will they discover among the contents of the disc?
I got my first computer, a Commodore 64, not long after it was introduced. It was the early 1980s, just around the dawn of the home-computer era. Priced at less than $300, the arrival of the C64 was a godsend to working-class families like mine that couldn't afford a home computer previously. Commodore sold millions of them.
For lots of kids like myself, the C64 ignited a love for technology that has endured to this day and opened a door to a digital lifestyle that has now become commonplace. After that first C64, I bought three more (they were not exactly built to withstand the heavy use I was giving them), then a Commodore Amiga, then a succession of seven Macs culminating in the one I'm typing this on now.
When I think about my C64 and Amiga these days, I get nostalgic and a little wistful for not holding onto them. I feel this way not because I miss the software, because I know I can easily get C64 and Amiga emulators for my Mac (and even iPhone) that can run all the applications I used to enjoy. What can't be re-created, however, is all the data I had stored on floppy disks that are now lost. Gone is all the writing, photos, music, and messages that I created or collected in my years of daily use of these beloved computers. These lost disks held bits of my youth that I think I'll only miss more as I grow older.
My own experience with data loss made me think about how easy it is to lose digital memories and what it might mean for our culture — and ourselves — when that loss happens billions of times over. What memories will be preserved of our era, when the media itself is so fragile? Stone tablets survive millenia to tell us stories of civilizations that left few other traces. If the far-more-frail hard drive is the stone tablet of our times, we're in big trouble.
In the future, virtually all of our lives will be recorded and presumably stored safely online somewhere. Recovering data from personal media like floppy disks, hard drives, optical discs, and memory chips will be an extinct business. But right now, we're creating lots of digital memories on these media but only haphazardly preserving them. How will we feel about this in a few decades when much of it is gone?
I wrote Digital Antiquities to explore questions swirling in my head about memories, preservation, and ultimately, mortality.
And right after I finished the first draft, I went out and bought a big hard drive to back up my computer.
— by J.P. Chan, Writer/Director
I didn't set out to write a monster movie, but I wound up creating one.
When drafting the screenplay for Digital Antiquities, it was really easy for me to type things like "they walk through a narrow, winding tunnel hundreds of yards long lined with computer carcasses," and "they enter a deep cavern carved out of a landfill of old electronics." Sentences like these made for great reading during development and could be created for no more than the cost of a few soy lattes at my favorite cafe. Limited by only caffeine supply and imagination, I set the story in eastern Pennsylvania in 2036 and filled the screenplay with descriptions like "the store is filled floor-to-ceiling with rare 8-bit home computers," and "they sprint through the tunnel as tons of debris rain down upon them."
Friends who read the script said things like "this is ambitious" and "It's a monster." At the time, it sounded like praise.
Then we got greenlit. Suddenly, my cheap words started to feel very expensive. Now, a real movie had to be made with a limited amount of money and delivered in only a few months time. Budget and logistics dictated further limitations: we'd have to shoot over a long August weekend and entirely within New York City.
The word "monster" rang in my ears. I had a great crew assembled, but none of us had ever done anything like this before. Could we really pull this off? I was terrified that we wouldn't.
Our first challenge was finding a LOT of old computers and electronics for free to build and dress our four sets. We were lucky to partner with Christine Datz-Romero of the Lower East Side Ecology Center. Her organization generously loaned us a few hundred pounds of old computers and electronics out of the many tons they recycle every year at community events around New York. Our friends and neighbors pitched in with their old electronics and by late July we'd amassed more than 150 desktop and laptop computers. We'd also collected a basement's worth of stereos, printers, answering machines, baby monitors, mice, Walkmans, cordless phones, joysticks, cables, speakers, and boom-boxes. It took a week to disassemble everything into bits and pieces we could build with.
The next challenge was set construction. The tunnel and cavern were built over three weeks inside an empty Manhattan loft with no air-conditioning. (We didn't know it then, but summer 2010 would be the hottest in New York City history.) production designer Tom Soper and his dedicated team worked tirelessly to create a 30-foot tunnel from lumber scraps, chain-link fence, and electronic detritus. Then cinematographer Rich Wong and his crew installed the fluorescent banks that would serve as a key design element as well as light the set practically. Johnny Woods, our visual effects supervisor, and Dave Boyle, our post-production supervisor, prepped the bluescreen and tracking marks that would help Leonid Karachko, our visual effects artist, extend the tunnel with CGI.
We had many setbacks along the way, but somehow it all came together when it needed to. Our three-day shoot went smoothly and the footage looked great.
The "monster" had been vanquished. And as in all monster movies, everyone who survived discovered courage and skills within themselves they didn't know they had. They learned the importance of teamwork, friendship, love.
More importantly, they no longer had fear of monsters. This left them temporarily satisfied until boredom and sloth set in.
Then they used up all that courage on one last task: inventing scarier monsters to slay.
— by J.P. Chan, Writer/Director
J.P. Chan is a self-taught filmmaker and playwright living in New York City. His award-winning short films have screened at film festivals around the world and his plays have had productions and readings in New York and Chicago. He is a member of the Ma-Yi Writers Lab, holds a graduate degree in urban planning from New York University and is a LEED Accredited Professional.
Director of Photography, Editor
Rich Wong is best known for directing, producing, shooting, and editing the critically acclaimed Colma: The Musical, the winner of numerous awards, a rave Manohla Dargis New York Times review, and theatrical and DVD distribution with Roadside Pictures. Wong also shot two feature films for director Wayne Wang, including Snow Flower and the Secret Fan. He shot J.P. Chan’s previous short Empire Corner and the two plan to shoot a microbudget feature in China.
Mynette Louie is a New York-based independent film producer. She produced Tze Chun’s award-winning Children of Invention, which premiered at Sundance 2009, played more than 50 film festivals, won 17 festival awards, and was released theatrically in eight cities in 2010. She co-produced Andrew Bujalski’s Mutual Appreciation, which was named one of the top 10 films of 2006 by Entertainment Weekly, Film Comment, The Village Voice, Artforum, Greencine, and The Onion’s AV Club, among others. Louie has also produced several award-winning narrative short films by minority and women directors that have screened at film festivals worldwide.
Diane Houslin is a New York City-based television and film producer. She has produced series for several broadcast and cable networks, including HBO, MTV, ESPN, PBS, MSNBC, and the Disney Channel. Her first short film Morning Breath received a special jury prize at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. Houslin served as executive producer on the feature documentary Through the Fire and directed and produced the feature documentary Lay It On the Line.
Jo Mei — Cat
Jo Mei is a fourth-year drama student at The Juilliard School in New York City. She has appeared in three previous short films by J.P. Chan: Beijing Haze, I Don’t Sleep I Dream, and Empire Corner.
Corey Hawkins — Kai
Corey Hawkins is a fourth-year drama student at The Juilliard School in New York City. He previously appeared in J.P. Chan’s Empire Corner and in Rich Wong’s Wu Is Dead.