This question has been in the air ever since digital cameras came to scene, and now have matured to be the norm in Hollywood movies...the idea for this post came from this video I happen to run into. Watch it first before we continue...
Ok?, you've seen it? Good! let the games begin!
Ever since the prosumer digital cameras started entering the scene around 2005 we were all excited about the new potential that this technology could bring into the world of filmmaking. It was in a sense a revolution for the independent filmmaker that couldn't access cameras of cinematic quality as easy as a huge Production Studio could. George Lucas' choice to use a digital camera in 1999 for Star Wars episode 1 was were this debate really started, in fact he was a pioneer by pushing the boundaries of digital in filmmaking.
We can see from today's market, the entire manufacturing industry has shifted towards catering to the independent filmmaker. I had mentioned in a previous blog about how the equipment and software needed to make quality films have dropped so much in price, that it's now affordable for anyone who wishes, to pursue their filmmaking dream. In fact everyday the equipment used by Hollywood and independent filmmakers start to merge in the same list, where now there are very few equipment that aren't accessible by the independent filmmaker.
The makers of cameras and software for editing realized that it would be more profitable to cater to the vast amount of independent filmmakers thαn the few elite high end cinema productions. Also, mentioned in the previous blog post, this will inevitably lead to independent filmmakers making oscar-worthy movies that had no backing from major studios.
Another reason that got me to write this post, was this video, the interview of Joshua James Richards, the cinematographer of the movie "Nomadland" which is most likely going to win big at the 2021 Academy Awards. We see that the film was predominantly shot with natural light, at a very humble budget of 5 million dollars! Which essentially brings us one step closer to what I've been saying about story over anything else, but technology is also helping to drive the narrative without loss of quality.
But this isn't what I wanted to talk about. even until now there is always the age-old conversation amongst filmmakers about film versus digital. Surely we knew around early 2005 when the first DSLR came about, the revolution that it would bring, yet we still knew that it was nowhere near the level of film. That was 15 years ago, and this question in my personal opinion is starting to get an answer today. Considering that in the past decade the quality of digital cinema cameras has risen exponentially. Manufacturing companies in their constant pursuit of outcompeting each other, keep manufacturing amazing quality cameras that come in at amazing prices.
The reason I asked you the reader to see the video I linked to before you continue reading this is so that we can get most of the common arguments for and against film or digital out of the way. I'd much rather take this conversation to a different direction, one that is perhaps not based on the technical merits or deficits of each side, but more on the philosophy of options.
After that video I started researching this matter, I ran into the book “Understanding Media” by Marshall Mcluhan. In which I found what is perhaps the most honest answer to this debate. He theorized that "The medium in which content is presented is as important if not, more important than the content itself". So by that logic, would it make sense to always shoot on film? Well...the answer is more complicated than a simple yes or no!
There would be many factors on why you would choose film and why digital. Film was once the only choice, because that's all there was. Now there are plenty of very good options, and choosing the medium would be based on the message or general aesthetic of the movie more than anything else. If anything this argument alone would be a valid one on why digital should exist in the first place! In fact even within film there were always variances to choose from depending on the aesthetic the director was going for. From what type of film stock to what mm film. So by that logic not all movies need to necessarily be shot on film. Imagine this very basic generalized scenario, you have 2 movies to shoot, one is a period drama and another is a Sci-Fi! The first one is situated in 1920's and the other in the future. What would you choose for each project? You can choose anything, and you would be right to do so, but to help push your narrative even further, you would go with film for the period piece, to give it a more organic feel, and a digital camera for the Sci-Fi to give it a more clinical aesthetic. I understand that it's a very generalized and simplified example but it makes the point clear. The possible setup combinations of film, digital cameras and lenses are immeasurable, but there is always one that is suited for what you want to portray.
Film due to it's nature is essentially analogue in the way it captures images, and its quality until today outperforms digital in most aspects. Here's the issue though, in order to really see film in its fullest and best quality that was intended, you would have to watch from a film projector. Movie theatres that have such projectors are very rare since most now use digital ones (even for movies that are shot on film). 99.9% of us watch movies every day shot on film, but what we see is a digitized compressed version file, that has been streamed through a platform that also compresses the file even further to a point where we miss out on at least 90% of what makes film ...film. Where as digital cameras are designed to utilize current technology and film in such a way that not much is lost.
I'm sure an experienced DP could tell the difference but at this stage shooting on film is more of a statement, a badge of honor and an aesthetic choice than anything else. There's nothing wrong with shooting on film, don't get me wrong, but the equivalency would be a music artist releasing their music on vinyl in 2021. Sure its better quality - but only if you have the necessary audiophile gear to hear it in it's intended way. And just like film projectors they are way too expensive and only for the few collectors and lovers of that medium.
Of course film inherently lends its way to a type of shooting that is more strict and forces a certain discipline in how the movie is filmed. It inevitably forces everyone in the crew - especially the actors to be much more prepared , alert and focused once the film starts rolling...because its expensive and finite! So one could rightfully argue that this results in better performances from everyone. This is essentially the biggest argument for the proponents of film, and they wouldn't be wrong.
Then again, discipline, alertness and focus can be achieved if you are a professional regardless of the medium. No one can say Tarantino is more professional than Roger Deakins or vice versa.
Another reason I would opt for digital is that film as a technology is limited, consider the Barry Lyndon Candle scene for example, Stanley Kubrick had to get help from of all places, N.A.S.A to develop the Zeiss Plannar 50mm f0.7 lens that would allow more light in the film to be able to shoot the entire scene lit only by candles. By then film had been around a good 70 years, where as digital which has been around nearly 25 years now, That same scene would have been easily shot by cameras made nearly a decade ago!
Digital is designed to work with the current technology, and therefore seeing it's full potential is way more probable and easier than seeing the admittedly higher potential of film. Of course I would never want to see movies stopped being made on film, anymore than albums stopped being printed on vinyl. If you were to ask me, I'd argue that film has long since reached it's technological limit, or perhaps the current market doesn't permit research and development of new types of film because it's simply not financially viable. Digital on the other hand is only just starting. Nevertheless film should always remain as an option because as mentioned before the medium IS the message and losing it would be like taking away all the vowels from the alphabet!