The Format Wars: Film vs. Digital

Imagine if everyone stopped filming on celluloid tomorrow and the entire world of cinema went full-on digital. Production and employment of 35mm film ceased full-stop and IMAX’s 65mm format vanished into thin air. What would that be like? How would that affect dollars and cents, the financial side of the industry? How would that impact the creative side, the domain of the filmmakers, cinematographers, editors, visual FX directors, and more? How much would film as both a business and as an art form actually change overnight?

Anyone who has ever asked these questions before– either privately or publicly– wants to head over to this article at LA Weekly, which I noticed over at the great movie/TV/general media and cultural resource Badass Digest, and dig in. If you’re like me, you’ll probably be shocked at some of the things that you read; if you’re even more like me you’re probably prone to be reactionary over the whole thing, rather than thoughtful. I admit that the day after I read both Badass’s piece as well as the full LA Weekly piece, I wanted to throw together a post right away– but wisdom prevailed over panic-stricken alarmist sensibilities, and so here I am today.

The short version of what’s summed up in the article (since my intention isn’t to wholly regurgitate all six pages of it here): studios and filmmakers are, and have been for years, duking it out over movie formats. Filmmakers, for reasons pertaining to aesthetics among others, want to stick with celluloid; studios, who count cash drawers opening and closing before they go to sleep at night, want to go with digital. It makes sense, given that even filmmakers have to answer to a bottom line. Digital is cheaper to print and distribute, so much so that the disparity in cost between film and digital may rank in the billions. The good news is that in the battle on the production end, studios haven’t gained significant ground.

They have, however, pulled into the lead on the projection end. And this is worrisome:

In 2012, it seems, the grail is finally within the studios’ grasp. Fate hasn’t yet been sealed on the image-capture end, as directors like Nolan dig their heels in about aesthetics and continue to insist on shooting on film. But even a motion picture shot entirely on film can be converted to digital after the fact. And on the projection side, digital is winning.

This year, for the first time in history, celluloid ceases to be the world’s prevailing movie-projector technology. By the end of 2012, according to IHS Screen Digest Cinema Intelligence Service, the majority of theaters will be showing movies digitally. By 2013, film will slip to niche status, shown in only a third of theaters. By 2015, used in a paltry 17 percent of global cinemas, venerable old 35 mm film will be mostly gone.

The repercussions will be vast — and felt down the entire length of the movie-industry food chain.

What exactly does that mean, though?

Much and more. The increase proliferation of digital over film means, among other things, that projectionists will become obsolete as the need for people with their skills decreases, that the yardstick by which we measure great filmmaking technique may alter for the worse, and that– maybe most importantly– film preservation itself may wind up going digital as well. I don’t think this means that digital is the devil, though; there are obvious benefits to shooting on digital that the article even touches on. But I do think it means that there’s a huge discussion that needs to be had over the benefits and the dangers of eliminating film as an option in both shooting and projecting movies. Do you forsake digital entirely? Or film? Or do you find a way to balance out both of them in every realm of filmmaking?

What do you think? Is digital a harbinger of doom for cinema? Are purists overreacting? Is there a middle ground here at all, or can we only choose sides to be involved in the debate? (For my money– like Devin at Badass Digest, I’m pretty concerned with how going digital affects film preservation. But I’m willing to synthesize digital storing as part of the film preservation process, if there’s an elegant, safe way to do so.)

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20 thoughts on “The Format Wars: Film vs. Digital

  1. Digital is not the devil. As with any advancing technology it causes disruption, and it has its pluses and minuses.

    Eliminating studios from the argument of cost, the cost benefit of shooting digitally is allowing talented people of limited financial means to create. Three Miami Film Festivals ago a friend of mine debuted a short film that could only have existed because it was shot in digital. This year my partner has been accepted into three upcoming film festival for his documentary, that again exists primarily because of the cost savings of shooting in digital.

    Shooting in digital also offers you creative options that do not exist w/ film. As an example take a look at the night scenes in the Michael Mann “Miami Vice” movie. The night shots showing the clouds in the sky could not have been done with film.

    Also, I don’t see Nolan editing his films on an old editing station with the guillotine and tape. I do see him on a computer screen digitally editing and manipulating his film.

    As for film preservation, it is a legitimate concern. I do believe we should keep actual hardcopies of the film that can be preserved and used to duplicate the film if need be in case the digital copies are lost, deleted, or compromised.

    The reality is the industry is moving in that direction because in order for it to continue to exist it has to make money. And a good way to make money is to reduce the cost of making something–in this case the film.

    • While digital does make it easier for people to create, the article does make a point about that ease leading to the reduction or decay of the gold standard by which movies are made. When the power to create comes after the expenditure of so little effort, will that strict sense of discipline fashioned by the pioneers of filmmaking be kept intact? Or will it eventually degrade? There’s little use in discipline, after all, when the act of filming on digital requires so much less effort.

      Nolan working on a computer screen digitally editing his film doesn’t really bother me so much. That’s sort of example of what I’m talking about when I refer to synthesizing the two formats together.

      Re: film preservation. I can’t say I disagree at all. Find the most cost effective way of both maintaining and preserving hard copies while also keeping them on file on a hard drive somewhere. Nothing to add there.

      I do wonder how the proliferation of digital technology willy positively impact the financial side of the industry; if studios can spend less distributing, could that mean good things for the creative side? Or does “saving” just mean “putting more money in our personal pockets”?

      • The primary difference between filming in digital and film that I have noticed–from my limited experience–is in the use and quantity of light. I’ve been on-set for a digitally shot night shoot where the exterior was made to look like it was raining. The shot consisted of the same regular film professionals that would normally be on-set if it was being shot with film. There was a cinematographer; there was just less light required.

        I agree the reduced cost of filming in digital will invite more bad shorts and films to be shot, but it doesn’t mean they will be watched. A bad movie is a bad movie whether it is filmed in digital or film. In the end you need a good story–which forgives a lot.

        The main negative I see is what happens today with small to mid-size company presentations: since it is so easy to manipulate the presentation until the last minute you continue to do so, and actually practicing the presentation is left to the wayside. By not have the physical limitation of having to process and wait for the film, the filmmaking team can wait until the last possible moment to piece everything together which may lead to a rushed and, for lack of a better word, un-proofed product.

        • “Fix it in Post” has been a long-standing motion picture tradition, but it’s really easy to do it these days with computer editing programs that can virtually allow you to do most anything. Why bother lighting it well when you can change the direction of lights in post? Why try to capture correct color balance when you can do color correction after the fact? Why worry about proper framing when you can crop during the edit? As George Lucas attempted to demonstrate, you can even combine different takes to get the performance you want from actors, so why even bother to direct them on set? Editing is a talent and skill that’s often overlooked when discussing filmmaking, so I don’t want to demean it, but an editor still has to work with good material to begin with. It’s better to provide an editor good choices rather than relying on him to fix problems that could have been avoided in the first place. Unfortunately, ease of production often creates lazy filmmaking.

          • And that’s my other big concern with digital outside of preservation. Victor, I’m totally with you that there’s a big benefit to making it easier for people to make movies, but that introduces two issues: one, anyone can make a film, and if the Internet age has taught me anything it’s that not everyone is qualified to do the things that they end up doing through blog services or Youtube. Two, the easier that it gets to make a movie with digital, the sloppier the craftsmanship can become.

            I don’t want to edge talented voices out of making movies but is it worth it to potentially bring about the degradation of technique and craft? (Which I will quickly admit is the worst-worst-worst case scenario. Again, I don’t mean to sound alarmist at all.)

  2. I am definitely an old-school film guy, but I have to admit that I love the look of an HD digital image. Now that technology has made it possible for digital recording to have a high contrast and color spectrum, it rivals film (though as a recent study concluded, film is still superior in most ways: http://www.zacuto.com/the-great-camera-shootout-2011). The best thing about the digital revolution is allowing independent filmmakers with few resources to be able to produce their own work easily and cheaply. For studio productions, it gives a choice as to how best to artistically present your story. What really matters is the story and how it’s told.

    • I’ll agree completely with that, but for me the biggest issue here isn’t aesthetics (though technique is something else, as I mention to Victor above). In terms of aesthetics, the conversation about shooting in digital or on celluloid is no different than discussing brush stroke techniques and color palette choices; they’re both valid approaches to bringing an artistic vision to fruition. I do have a very real concern over what happens if digital becomes “it” as far as preservation goes– and you know what, I’m enough of a bleeding heart that seeing projectionists lose their jobs bothers me.

      • Regarding preservation, digital technology helps clean up a lot of imperfections of poorly-kept negative and prints. I’m really not sure if it’s necessary to then make a new, pristine negative transferred from a digital restoration, though I’m always in favor of having physical copies rather than just a file on a computer.

        As for projectionists, many theaters have already gotten rid of this job, leaving it to the manager to see that the films are shown as scheduled. The systems are highly automated as it is, which to a large degree is a shame. There was an interesting episode of “Undercover Boss” that dealt with a movie theater chain, and the projectionist (a kid maybe just out of high school) had to handle a power outage.

        • Well, maybe digital helps clean up the imperfections, but it’s a much lousier way to store the films. I feel like cleaning up prints digitally just to make a new negative off the restoration is a ton of leg-work, and I imagine it’s not cheap, but like you I’d rather have the physical copies over a computer file that can be deleted with the stroke of a key (a’la the Toy Story 2 anecdote from the article, which is a terrifying thought).

          And you’re spot on about the projectionists; it’s a shame. You’re talking about more than just a function and a discipline within an industry, you’re talking about livelihoods and jobs. That bothers me deeply.

  3. Victor very nicely stated my opinions on the pros and cons of digital vs. film. I just wanted to add that I’ve been a fan of digital since Lucas talked about it. If I were a film-maker I would be using digital over film. The flexibility it gives you as a director way out-ways the few benefits of film. Cheers, great post!

    • Thanks very much. I honestly was somewhat hesitant about writing this up; after all, I’m writing a post based on another post that’s based on a linked article from another site. It’s third-hand stuff I’m dealing in here. But at the same time, I want to have this talk with my readers, so hopefully that’s plain to see and I’m not seen as being kind of hackish here.

      I agree on the flexibility of digital over film for sure.

  4. Nice article Andy, and when I studied film at Uni this was undoubtedly one of the more interesting footnotes in the course; studios promoting and rising/falling standing by their own formats: projection, film dimensions and audio standards.

    Our local arthouse cinema has both reel and digital projection, but the multiplexes are 100% digital. I think the stuffy old purists need to waken up; Technicolour, widescreen, sound, surround sound… All big, positive steps, and somewhat controversial at the time of release.

    As long as I can still enjoy watching a film on the big screen, I don’t really care how they put it up there.

    • Thanks, and thanks for commenting. As to the arthouses, well, don’t you think that they’re at risk here? It’s not about being purists or not, it’s about cost. Local repertory theaters, like the one ten minutes from my house, can’t all afford to upgrade to digital, and as studios begin to distribute their pictures through film prints less and less, those smaller venues are going to suffer.

      Maybe digital is part of the future of film, but repertory theaters are as big a part of its past. Losing them is losing part of cinema’s history.

      • Partially empathetic about losing some cinema history (my city’s like a cinema graveyard already), but the bottom line is that it should be run just like any other business. If their suppliers are changing the standard distribution format (and it’s easy to see why – printing / storage / transportation costs…) then they have no choice but to adapt or die. Also, it’s been around for ~10 years, and increasing rapidly for the past 2-3 so it’s not as if it’s an overnight, unexpected outlay.

        (I know, I sound like such a cold S.O.B.)

        • Whether or not digital becomes the standard distribution format, that doesn’t really help local repertory theaters out at all if they can’t afford the cost of upgrading to meet the needs of said format. If arthouses wind up shutting down because they can’t make the changes necessary– and that’s not an unlikely scenario for them to be in even given the span of time that’s passed since digital started becoming more and more prevalent– then that’s just bad for the cinema community at large.

  5. Spielberg was saying last year how they might not be able to work with film 10 years from now because all companies that develop film are going out of business. So it seems like this is going to be inevitable. They even have filters that make digital shots look grainy like film.

    • Yeah, the article touches on that– right now Technicolor and Deluxe are the two labs that process the majority of 35mm release prints, the result of an agreement between the two to share business in order to stay afloat. That kind of wrinkles my brain.

  6. Have you seen this Andrew? Filmmakers are discussing the pros and cons of film vs digital in this Keanu Reeves’ produced documentary http://wp.me/pxXPC-4Bv

    I don’t think digital is ‘evil’ and I do think it’s inevitable, but I’m all about film preservation as well. I wish there’s a middle ground in there somewhere.

    • Ruth, I’m with you on that. And I honestly think that the future of cinema lies in finding that middle ground, though it does seem very much like film is on its way out. Maybe this is a discussion we’ll come back to in ten years to see what’s changed?

      I haven’t seen that documentary, but I think I’ll check it out. Sounds well worth watching!

  7. Pingback: Have It Your way | The Maple Theater

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