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Film vs Digital: The Battle Rages On

"Christopher Nolan released 'Interstellar' last night to theaters capable of playing the film on old fashioned celluloid"
Film vs Digital
(AP Images /Darla Khazei)

With yesterday’s release of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, theaters across the US are re-thinking their transition to all digital. By allowing cinemas that were willing (and more importantly, able) to show Interstellar on analog formats to debut the film two days earlier, fully digitalized cinemas are being left in the dark. When the release date is king, many movie-goers will flock to the cinemas that retained the ability to project film formats, and reject those who may have prematurely done away with “outdated” equipment. The proliferation of digital distribution of movies saw many theaters completely renovate their projection equipment within the last five years. Taking on the huge expense (and huge loans if you are an independent exhibitor) of converting to new projectors, getting rid of bulky reels, and firing skilled projectionists, most theaters were completely unprepared for the death-throws of film.

Love it or hate it, digital moviemaking is here to stay. Whether it’s directors like George Lucas, who adopted the new format early, or Martin Scorsese who is begrudgingly making the transition, more and more directors are ditching film for digital.

Film vs Digital
Film vs Digital – 28 Days Later – Shot on Canon digital cameras

Digital capturing of images was pioneered at Bell labs in the late 1960’s with the development of the CCD chip. After Sony took interest in the technology, they soon used it to bring home video recording to the masses. In 1995 a group of Danish filmmakers signed a doctrine (mimicing that of Francois Truffaut’s “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français” in Cahiers du Cinéma) that pledged to bring filmmaking back into the hands of filmmakers, and out of the control of studios – Dogme 95 was born. Finding that digital could accomplish their cinematic goals with an extremely low budget, filmmakers like Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg began to film with handheld digital cameras. Projects like Festen (The Celebration in the US), The Idiots, and Mifune’s Last Song showed just how versatile these tiny hand-held cameras were, and opened up a world of possibilities for directors. Taking note of these projects, Danny Boyle and George Lucas (albeit, George’s love of digital stemmed mostly from an effects point of view) created projects in fully digital formats. Boyle’s 28 Days Later… was an incredible achievement from both a filmmaking and horror standpoint, and with Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones he proclaimed “the death of film.”

Film vs Digital
Film vs Digital – The Master – Shot on Panavision film cameras

Broken down into segments of production, there are proponents for digital and film on both sides of the argument. When shooting a film, the director of photography or cinematographer works with the director to achieve the perfect lighting and composition for every shot. With celluloid, the DP would be the sole provider of the desired look, and the director would have to wait until the viewings of the dailies the next morning. With digital, the director and DP can watch everything the camera is doing, and can infinitely adjust everything in the frame, instantly. There is no second guessing, and much of the power is taken from the DP and given back to the director.

With editing and colorization, the use of film adds a permanence to these processes. When you cut into film, you physically cut into the stock and tape the two remaining ends together. With colorization, chemicals must be added to the film until the colorizer is confident that the correct balance has been achieved. With digital, the footage becomes infinitely malleable. Cuts can be undone, and color can be added with incredible accuracy and without uniformity to the frame. While some have applauded this change, others insist that it degrades the conscious decision making done by editors, and limits the control on the color enjoyed by the cinematographer.

Film vs Digital
Film vs Digital – Melancholia – Shot on the Arri Alexa digital camera

Proponents of film claim that actors, too, are held to a higher standard when film is rolling. Because film is an expendable medium, and a rather costly one at that, when the directors says “action” actors know that they have a limited chance to get a scene right. Digital on the other hand can run forever without requiring extra cost, as data can be rewritten and individual hard drives can shoot much more than the traditional ten-minute per reel of film. Some directors will claim that they can get better performances out of their actors with the ability to interact with them while the camera is still running. While others insist the limited reel time of film coupled with the cost/time ratio increases seriousness, and adds to the all important air of “shooting a movie.”

Versatility and freedom of movement is where digital won over a majority of directors. Removing the bulky film magazines led to smaller and smaller cameras as several companies (Arri, Red, Sony, Blackmagic and others) began to compete for marketshare. This, in turn, led to more dynamic camera movements, and other visuals that would have been impossible without the aid of super-light cameras. The increase in competition also meant a sharp increase in quality of resolution. From the pre 720×480 days of Dogme 95 to the current standard of 5K + (Red Mysterium-X and others). While there is a great debate on the actual resolution of film, digital still has some catching up to do with estimates ranging from 6K (for 35mm) to 18K (for IMAX). Other critical factors include dynamic range, depth-of-field, and noise /grain.

Film vs Digital
Film vs Digital – The Dark Knight – Shot on IMAX and Panavision film cameras

Cost is a major factor that drew many filmmakers to digital, although, this has recently shifted backwards in favor of film. In the early days of digital, a camera would be relatively inexpensive, have comparably cheap magazines of video/ hard drives, and be easy to operate. Film is (and was) incredibly expensive to buy, and the development process is equally costly. Duplicating the film leads to imperfections in the copies, and each copy is expensive to make and ship to theaters. With digital, each copy is an exact match to the master, and shipping costs are minimized with even the biggest films only weighing a few pounds. With the ever changing market, and constant competition between studios and directors, a need has arisen to upgrade cameras every few years (or less). With the rapid increase in technology, cameras with 6K sensors and greater depths-of-field are being produced only a few years after 4K was the best quality available. To keep up with the hardware developments, cameras need to be re-purchased and re-fitted with batteries and better hard drives. Digital also needs quality software to edit and colorize, which also requires frequent upgrading to stay relevant. Where there once was a massive gap in production cost between film and digital, that gap has begun to quickly close.

As the “war” rages on, it will be interesting to see what becomes of film. In use since the invention of moving pictures, film has been the medium upon which the world has cast its hopes and dreams. Beautifully simplistic, with only the addition of light, do film’s stories come to magnificent life. Many directors (Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, and Nolan of course) are trying desperately to hold on to this dying tradition, and given their status, it seems possible – with Tarantino already announcing similar film-based theater benefits for his upcoming Hateful 8. Digital, however, seems to be winning out. A nearly infinite possibility of applications, and an ever increasing image quality, certainly give digital an edge over the long-plateaued celluloid format. Whatever the end result, as moviegoers, this is one of the most exciting times in cinema, and one that will define the art form for future generations.

For a more in-depth exploration of the Film vs Digital debate, check out Keanu Reeves’ documentary Side By Side available on Netflix streaming and Amazon Blu-ray/DVD/Instant.

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