If you’re anything of a movie-buff, you’re aware that the past decade of filmmaking, and in particular the past ten years of film distribution, have been wrapped in a controversy so intriguing that it calls into question the very medium of movies themselves: The introduction and subsequent domination of HD digital video cameras to shoot motion pictures and the rapid conversion of most worldwide theatres to digital projections.
Most of my years spent as a movie-lover existed in complete ignorance of this subject or apathy toward the “analog loyalists” like Christopher Nolan, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Quentin Tarantino bitching about the loss of their “moving images,” the alleged catastrophic disappearance of motion pictures right before our eyes. Then, this past semester, my final one as a college undergraduate, I took a 16mm cinematography and directing course and came to appreciate the medium of film in a new light. I now better understand old school filmmakers’ attachment to the technology and am far more self-aware of how the terms “film,” “cutting,” and “reels” are a quickly diminishing throwback to the legacy of the motion picture.
See? It’s difficult to even describe this debate without using incorrect or interchangeable (yet opposite) vocabulary.
To preface this debate, let’s first define our two supposedly opposing formats that are used to record, store, and distribute movies. Henceforth I will use the term FILM to refer to the actual physical reels of photochemical plastic that movies were originally shot with in the 1890’s during the invention of cinema, and which remained the sole means of feature film production up until the late 2000’s. DIGITAL VIDEO refers to the modern age of electronic filmmaking and video distribution. Digital filmmaking (see the contradiction in terminology?) involves capturing light with electronic image sensors that store visual information in binary code (zeroes and ones), unlike the analogue technology of photographic film, which stores visual light through a chemical reaction in the gelatin emulsion and light-sensitive silver-halide crystals of each frame. Digital formats are stored, read, and interpreted through computer programs, where as film strips record visual light on each physical frame as a still image. When the latter is played through a projector, the images are played (run in front of a light source) that projects these still images onto a screen or background at a certain rate, creating the illusion of movement, hence the terms “framerate” and “motion picture.”
In actuality, analogue filmmaking and digital movie-making are essentially one and the same, save for their method of storage of their visual information. The same principles of lighting, framing, framerate, editing, and cinematography apply to both formats; regardless of which method is used, the basic craft of cinema remains. In that sense, this digital vs. film debate can be laughed off as a nerd-rage, videophile civil war that leaves most laymen in the dusts of apathy and confusion. I can’t say I blame them, to a certain extent. To that end, James Cameron claims his relationship with film ended years ago, and numerous filmmakers from George Lucas to Guillermo del Toro to Peter Jackson champion the new possibilities of the medium; hell, Danny Boyle was shooting 28 Days Later (2002) on cheap, handheld DV cameras years before 1080p HD was even a thing!
Then again, that method of storage and the technical means of preserving moving images in either binary or photochemical emulsion is an important one. When a filmmaker (er, cinema-artist?) decides to shoot either with physical film reels or digital cameras and hard disk drives, it heavily influences their methodology in shooting a picture and the means of that picture’s production. Issues of distribution to the public in theatres and home viewing further complicate the matter. In other words, the matter of motion-picture shooting and storage is significant.
So, let us break down the arguments for both mediums to see if we can arrive at a sound conclusion. The following “bullet-points” are not ranked in any particular order, nor is the number of points necessarily significant, but rather the merit of each individual point is significant in its own right and depends on the goal of each production, the vision of each particular director, and the social and economic implications the argument raises.
Arguments for Film:
- Better Picture — This is the big one that most high-profile defenders of the medium, from Nolan to Scorsese to Tarantino, reference more than any other. Analogue filmmaking, whether Super 16mm or 70mm IMAX formats, boasts superior image quality in every conceivable aspect. While larger formats (the size of each frame of a film reel is measured in millimeters, the larger the frame the more detail allowed in each image) will always allow for larger and more comprehensive visuals, even standard 16mm reels boast finer visual detail than the best HDTV today (including 4K). The reason is that film strips are not limited by pixel resolution the way digital binary code is. The interpretation and storage of light is an entirely different “language,” so to speak, and if you have a filmmaker who knows what he’s doing, with proper lighting and setup, a film projection will always best the finest Super-duper 8K projector around. The same image shot in the same conditions by the same person will always look better on film. Always.(…at least until we invent a new method of electronic storage that ditches binary…)…
- Tradition — As stated earlier, the terms “cutting” (in reference to when films reels were literally cut and spliced physically as part of editing), “motion pictures,” and of course “film” itself is in reference to, well, the medium of film! While the Average Joe might scoff or roll their eyes at the thought of holding historical linguistics in such high esteem, this is the legacy and origin of movies as we know them. It would be a massive tragedy, if not outright cultural crime to dismiss the cinematic and artistic history of our own film heritage. Even now, we never refer to movies as “videos” or “digitals,” we call them films or motion pictures!
- Limitations — The cost, size, and maintenance of film equipment encourage movie-makers to be economical, creative, and restrained during shooting. How many times has a massive budget and the “ease of digital filmmaking” given way to special effects-overload, sloppy handheld techniques (i.e. “shaky cam”), and careless scene-production? It’s much harder to justify wild, unnecessary camera movements or lazy, flat scenes when the cost and literal weight of each film reel and camera is significant.
- Preservation — Films are unquestionably the safest means of film preservation; while all hard-drives and solid state drives eventually fail and digital software and hardware are constantly changing, films can be preserved almost indefinitely and cleaned with the right canisters and a cool, dry storage facility. Negatives are safe and easy to transfer, and with the proper care, can last for eternity.
Arguments for Digital:
- Picture Quality is on the Rise — Though HD and 4K still lag far behind the best that film can offer (e.g. 70mm, IMAX, etc.) in terms of overall picture quality, digital video has been improving at a rapid rate and will continue to do so; compare digital tech from the early 2000’s to today, such as 4K cameras and curved televisions to those cheap DV cameras and CRT tube TV’s from a decade ago. Digital picture has nowhere to go but up.
- There are many more factors that determine a movie-storage format’s worth beyond sheer resolution and grain-nostalgia, such as:
- Cheaper, more economic movie-making can be a good thing — The cost of 35mm (let alone 70mm or higher) can be a burden as much as a healthy restraint. Film is incredibly expensive and its equipment heavy and cumbersome; HD/4K technology allows for less equipped and less wealthy studios (i.e. foreign and indie filmmakers) to get in the game for much less money. You will never see aspiring small-time directors commanding dollies fixed with IMAX cameras, and if you do, let me know. The ease and cost-effectiveness of digital filmmaking has already and will continue to democratize the means of movie production.
- Convenience can foster creativity rather than stifle it — Digital video is more convenient than film in every conceivable way; whereas film stock is costly and must be sent to labs to be developed, video can be viewed, reviewed, and saved (or deleted) on the spot, allowing filmmakers to check and fine-tune each take of every scene. This is particularly crucial in action-oriented films like The Raid films (2011, 2014), where Gareth Evans alleged that they sometimes took 30-40 takes per shot. You could never do that same movie on film unless you had a budget orders of magnitude greater.
- Convenience, cont. — Digital cameras are much, much lighter and more versatile; films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) would have been impossible to film without the ease of digital filmmaking (no quotes this time). It’s difficult, if not damn near impossible, to run across Indian slums with a 35mm strapped to your back, and clearing entire urban population centers requires efficient, fast setup that only digital productions can provide.
- Digital filmmking can encourage greater practical stunts — As counterintuitive as it may sound, modern technology and in particular digital cameras allow for more versatile action filmmaking and hard-hitting, practical effects. Though few directors in this day and age have remained faithful to practical (i.e. non computer generated) action, that disheartening trend is mostly the fault of the rise of digital effects, not digital filmmaking itself. Fluid hand-to-hand combat in movies like Berandal depend on the ease of movement of the cameraman, and something like this year’s Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) used digital storage for not only an excess of takes at different angles, but also masking safety precautions that were necessary on an already massive tentpole budget of $150 million.
- Visual Variety — Additionally, there is something to be said about different storage formats for the sake of aesthetic variety; HD is recognizably different than film; it has a different “look” beyond its comparison in resolution and visual detail, and that difference need not be a bad thing; numerous commercial and non-commercial films have used different film and HD formats to highlight the various visual styles of those different formats. Everything from grain level to post-production digital-processing to higher digital speed (sensitivity to light) allows for a wider variety of images. Cinematic images cannot be reduced to resolution and pixel counts, and no movie is produced in a vacuum.
- Distribution — Digital is the ultimate (and really only) means of widespread distribution and home-movie-viewing.
- Good by VHS, hello 1080p HD — Yes, most people are too reliant on poor-quality, psuedo-“HD” streaming video, but technology like true-HD Blu Rays and 4K are the home-theatre avenues of the future. Has public theatre-going devolved since the days of celluloid film projection? Yes, somewhat, but has home-viewing improved exponentially? Indeed it has.
- Professional filmmaking snobbery has its pragmatic limits — Expecting people to only enjoy films “as they were meant to be seen” in crowded, uncomfortable, over-priced theatres is snobbish, unrealistic, and overly idealistic; I don’t think people should watch movies on their fucking phones either, but I think a quality home theatre system built on increasingly cheap (and giant) HDTV’s or HD-projectors is an excellent compromise. With respect to filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, most of us will never have access to private film projectors and giant theatres of our own, so stop expecting us to only “experience” cinema at $15 a pop and when half the wide-released stuff is crap. No one in their right mind should expect cinephiles, let alone average movie-goers, to acquire film prints and projectors for home viewing. Get real.
- Home viewing is comfortable and customizable in the extreme — To that end, watching movies in the comfort and the relaxation of one’s own home is how most people of this generation (and very likely all generations henceforth) will watch the majority of all films. Yes, there will always be movies I’ll make the effort to drive to a theatre and watch on the big screen; some I may even commit to driving hours to urban centers so I can see new foreign or limited released movies. However, the majority of my movie-watching childhood and the majority of the films I’ve watched, especially non-wide release movies, have taken place in my own personal abode. I would never have managed to see something like the Korean production, Oldboy (2003), in a public theatre, growing up in rural central Illinois, and yet thanks to the rise of digital distribution and home viewing, I was able to.
- Movies and cinephilia will last regardless which medium most movies are shot and stored on — I never saw Aliens (1986) or even Star Wars (1977) in theatres, yet I fell in love with them all the same. Great films will always be great, even if they’re not shown in 35mm in a massive commercial theatre.
Bottom Line: While I believe celluloid formats should be preserved and respected as an ongoing part of movie culture, digital video is undoubtedly the way of the future, because the possibilities and versatility of HD will soon be endless, for all intents and purposes. I respect the dedication of the likes of Nolan, Scorsese, Thomas, and Tarantino for standing up for the legacy of celluloid and the emotional impact it’s had on their lives and their careers, but going forward, the debate between film mediums will matter less and less to the average movie-goer and soon to even the most dedicated movie-lover.
There’s much to be said for the quality of film as literal film, but at the end of the day, cinema is more than a single media format, and the artistry of movie-making cannot be confined to the picture quality of a single image.
Now if you don’t mind, I have some brand new spanking Blu-Rays to break in…