Sunday, August 30, 2015

Film vs. Digital: Opinions on a Long Time Debate

One of the biggest and longest running debates in the filmmaking community has been the merits of celluloid film vs. digital cinematography. As are many of the heated debates raging in the current world, it's something of a battle between more conservative traditionalism (the old "If it works, why change it camp") vs. more a technology loving and open minded mentality.

I, personally, am neutral in the debate. While I lean a little more towards film projection as opposed to digital, I see shooting on film and making a movie digitally as two equally viable filmmaking methods, both with significant advantages and drawbacks. I haven't shot as much film as digital formats, granted, I shot some footage and made a couple short films on Super 8mm when I was a teenager just to get the experience of working with film, but I've watched many, many films in theaters, old and new. Some of them were shot and projected on film, others digital and others shot on film and projected digitally and so forth, so I feel I have a keen understanding of the benefits and drawbacks of both formats and respect the filmmaker's decision to use one or the other.

Celluloid motion picture film is one of the oldest modern technologies there is. I'm not going to get into the history of photographic film, there's Wikipedia for that shit, but the process of exposing and developing is something of an alchemy: an image crafted with light.
Film is, in many ways, a superior process to digital. The image quality of a frame of 35mm film (and far more so a frame of 70mm IMAX film) is technically superior to any digital format that exists today. However, while a digital image is even and smooth, film is an analog process and thus is full of variables such as grain. Modern film stock is much crisper and far more quality controlled than what filmmakers had in the 1920s, but there is something about it that is alive, unique and that no digital cinematography process can quite manage to replicate.

There's really nothing quite like the pure way that film captures light. Film is far harder to use and takes a level of professionalism far higher than most digital cameras: handling film improperly can ruin your footage completely, pulling focus is harder with no digital image to already see and the cinematographer needs to select the "speed" or light sensitivity of your stock very carefully for the lighting conditions. But get it right and you've got magic on your hands.
The obvious drawbacks of film are that its aforementioned higher difficulty level in use and the fact that film must be developed and printed before it can be viewed. The biggest single drawback is the cost and this is indeed the main reason why digital projection has soundly defeated 35mm projection in mainstream cinemaplexes. Super 8mm film alone is about $40 for about three and a half minutes of raw footage to shoot and develop and that's not even counting the cost of telecine. 16mm and 35mm film is, of course, far, far more expensive, so expensive that only professional film productions can afford its use. A Hollywood film shoot that shoots in 35mm can expect to rack up a bill of well over a million dollars just for the use of its film stock. And the cost of making prints is extremely high. It is indeed these very large drawbacks that largely keeps film solely in the court of the pro leagues and out of the hands of lower budget filmmakers and amateurs and perhaps that's for the best. Film is an expensive, difficult but beautiful and rewarding process for people who really know what they're doing.

For me, while I would hate to see digital ever replace film completely, digital cinematography has a lot of potential. The biggest benefit it has is to lower budget and amateur, just starting out filmmakers. Simply put, digital filmmaking puts a lot of filmmaking power and higher quality imagery in the hands of people just starting out.

Back in the 60s, 70s and 80s, if you wanted to make any sort of low budget film, you needed to shoot on Super 8mm or 16mm. Now Super 8, while comparatively cheap and beautiful though it may be, is of such low visual quality that it looks somewhat cheap and "amateurish" no matter how well it's exposed, so most filmmakers graduating from the amateur arena had to use 16mm, which if handled well (especially in case of Super 16) yields results good enough to be blown up to 35mm and shown in theaters. The problem is that shooting on 16mm is quite expensive and thus, a low budget filmmaker would have to be taking their craft seriously to even want to pursue it.

This started to change in the 1980s with consumer analog video: VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS, 8mm tape and Hi8 all made it easier to quickly make films and be able to view your footage instantly, but analog video was still too crude looking a process for the professional arena with a few exceptions, though some direct to video films were shot on tape and of course forms of television such as newsrooms and sit coms, which especially benefited from a faster, "instant" work flow, had been using analog video processes for years prior. Things really began to change with the introduction of standard definition digital video (DV) in the mid 90s. This was better quality than analog processes and some of the higher grade cameras could produce an image almost on par with 16mm to some eyes. Low budget films began to embrace DV and once high definition 1920x1080 digital video came around soon after, digital cinema began its long standing battle and rivalry with celluloid film.
Now we cut to the present: incredibly low cost and high quality digital video processes are everywhere. You can buy a Canon DSLR camera that shoots HD and/or 4K video for under a thousand dollars and use it to shoot your feature film with lenses that have depth of field as lovely as any Hollywood film. 4K, 5K and now 6K Red cameras have been developed with 8K on the near horizon and the cost of these cameras, which many Hollywood productions now use, is surprisingly affordable. Hell, films have been made on smart phones which have been accepted into festivals, won awards and gotten distribution.
For the low budget filmmaker, digital filmmaking has many benefits. It's dirt cheap, of course. For the same price as about seven minutes of raw Super 8 film stock, you can purchase an SD card that holds hours of crisp HD footage. Even an hour of digital tape, which is far more expensive and less efficient than card shooting, is still far cheaper than a single three and a half minute fifty foot roll of Super 8 stock. The SD card can be formatted and reused again and again. You can view your footage instantly, Once you know your way around a digital camera of any kind, getting good, properly exposed and well focused footage is easier than if you were working with 8mm or 16mm film. Thanks to the constant advancement of digital technology, now, literally, anybody can make a movie. I know that without cheap and high quality digital technology, making my film Alison in Wonderland would have been much harder.

While it is true that anyone with an idea can now make a film, that democratization of low budget cinema has made things more difficult in some ways. There is now a massive glut of digitally filmed low budget content on sites such as YouTube and Vimeo and because of that glut, getting your film noticed, if you've finally made one, is more difficult. You have to be all the better now to shine above the many, many digitally shot low budget films out there. Back in the 70s and 80s just making your film was enough, but making films was harder back then. Now it's just the opposite situation. Yet overall, digital cinema is an excellent tool for lower budget filmmakers that is, in some ways, democratizing the industry.

Digital projection vs. traditional 35mm projection is a harder call. Initially I was not that impressed by digital projection: the first two movies I saw projected digitally were The Last Samurai and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. The technology, however, has gotten much better since then, however and I started to notice that it was getting better in the late 2000s. Nowadays, of course, it's difficult to even find a 35mm presentation of a new film, though I did manage to get to see The Dark Knight Rises in both 35mm and 70mm IMAX and Interstellar in 35mm. I guess, at the end of the day, I prefer a DCP presentation for new, 3-D or digitally shot movies, whereas, of course, 35mm is the way to go for older movies or some movies still produced on film.
Inherently, 35mm has a lot of advantages as a projection process over digital. It is far higher quality in the amount of visual information displayed than a 2K or even a 4K DCP. There is a big draw to 35mm or especially 70mm IMAX projection in that it's an experience that can't be obtained at home. The problem is that 2K DCPs, while they're of far higher bandwidth and pixel depth, are only marginally higher in resolution than a Blu-ray and with 4K TVs now becoming available and 4K Blu-ray approaching on the horizon, watching a 2K DCP in a theater is not much different an experience than watching a high resolution movie on your big TV. I fear this, along with inflated ticket prices, are what's driving the massive decrease in theater attendance. I will say this, while I've been impressed by some digital projections of films, nothing I've seen can come close to topping the experience of seeing The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises on a hundred foot screen in 70mm IMAX.
However, there are in fact some advantages to digital projection. Every time a print is run through a projector, it is damaged and scratched slightly and the longer the movie has been running, the worse the prints tend to look. This is not a problem with a digital projection, which of course, being composed of a digital file as opposed to a physical print, looks as crisp two months into the film's run as it does opening night. Another problem is that most mainstream multiplexes had poor projection practices when it came it to showing 35mm prints and projecting 35mm, maintaining a 35mm projector, etc, is far more of a difficult craft than showing digital "prints" which are far easier to project. Often prints were shown with the projectors improperly calibrated, so a DCP is actually a superior visual experience to a poorly projected, out of focus film print which is what you would often see at multiplexes toward the end of 35mm's heyday. 
Another thing is that even movies that are shot on film are now "finished" digitally in what's called the Digital Intermediate (DI) process. The film's negatives are scanned into a computer and then all post-production: editing, color timing, etc, is done digitally and the film is then mastered at 2K or 4K. This process first became popular with the first Lord of the Rings film since it allows a level of quality control and digital manipulation of the image that film lab color timing which was used until then did not. Today, almost all Hollywood productions use this process, with Christopher Nolan as one of the few exceptions since he dislikes the quality loss of digitizing footage. So, if a film, whether filmed on celluloid or digitally, is mastered at 2K or 4K, printing it to 35mm makes no difference in the quality and seeing a DCP made from the original digital master is probably a better bet.
Overall, while no digital process has yet to equal or successfully copy the aesthetic and experience of celluloid film, I am open minded and believe it will continue to get better. The rise of this new technology excites me and I believe that one day we may well be filming and watching the movies of tomorrow in resolutions as high as 32 or 64K. I think that, for the near future, celluloid film will stick around as a tool for the older guard and the professionals while digital cinematography will continue to fuel cinematic innovation among the non-professionals and put higher and higher image quality in the hands of the masses. Celluloid film may well be phased out completely in use some day due to its cost and environmental impact, but I feel that, for now, both mediums and techniques have their place in the world of cinema.

No comments: