Filmmakers Choose Sides in Transition from Film to Digital

By David Konow

If you go to local revival screenings in your city, or have film geek friends, you may hear a familiar call to arms. Film has to be saved. But the writing’s been on the wall for a while now, and as much as we hate to admit it, film--the actual use of celluloid in movie production--is waning.

If you go to local revival screenings in your city, or have film geek friends, you may hear a familiar call to arms. Film has to be saved. Demand that the studios strike film prints for revival screenings. Down with digital. But the writing’s been on the wall for a while now, and as much as we hate to admit it, film--the actual use of celluloid in movie production--is waning.

This reality really hit home with the news last year that Martin Scorsese is no longer working with celluloid, with his last two movies (including the Academy Award-winning Hugo) being shot digitally. Scorsese has always been a stubborn artist who resists compromise, but as his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker told Collider, “It would appear that we’ve lost the battle. I think Marty just feels it’s unfortunately over, and there’s been no bigger champion of film than him.”

Photo credit: Paramount Pictures

It also hit home for me when I learned that one of our best living cinematographers, Vilmos Zsigmond, is now working in digital as well. Zsigmond won the Academy Award for shooting Close Encounters, and his credits also include McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Deliverance, and The Deer Hunter, among many others. Zsigmond told the L.A. Times that when he made the switch to digital, he “never really shot differently. Maybe the light. In the past three years, I shot three digital movies in my style. I didn’t change my style.” When asked if he missed shooting film, Zsigmond said, “I actually miss the simplicity of the film camera…I firmly believe that cinematographers keep learning until they die. New movies should look different from the old ones.”

With The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan was reportedly under pressure from Warner Brothers to shoot the movie in digital, as well as in 3D, and Nolan refused. (The end credits proudly proclaimed, “This motion picture was shot and finished on film.”) Nolan told Deadline that he felt that with current technology, shooting in digital “devalues what we do as filmmakers,” and he “didn’t have any interest in being the research department for an electronics company. It’s like filmmakers are being encouraged to buy cameras like we are buying iPods.” At the same time, Nolan added that when digital “is as good as film, I’d be completely open to it.”

Photo credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

A lot of filmmakers and cinematographers will argue that film has more range, and as Oliver Stone told Collider, “Film is still, to me, in my opinion, without a doubt, 15 to 20 percent better than digital. In its range and its blacks, and the depths of its blacks. When you see this movie, if you see it with a good projector, the colors pop, and I love that.” It’s also just been reported that JJ Abrams will be shooting the next Star Wars movie on 35mm, and it’s good to see Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel fighting the good fight.

Still, it says a lot when cinematographers like Zsigmond, or Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, Skyfall) are sold on digital, and they’re not just working with it because they have to. Deakins admitted he initially dismissed a lot of digital cinematography as “rubbish,” but in recent years he’s absolutely become a believer. Deakins switched to the Alexa camera when he shot the sci-fi movie In Time, telling the Hollywood Reporter, “We were doing a lot of night shooting in downtown L.A. It wasn’t a big-budget film, so we were using existing streetlights and boosting with a practical light. I wouldn’t have had enough exposure or the range or shadows with film.”

Photo credit: Columbia Pictures

Digital camera sensors’ sensitivity to low light is why filmmakers like David Fincher like to work in digital: You can shoot with extremely low light, and shooting with natural light is reportedly much easier as well.

And as for the handful of directors who can demand shooting with celluloid, their movies will still eventually be screened digitally. The major studios will soon stop making prints, and Deadline reports that the “global cut-off” point will be 2015. “We’re moving inexorably to digital projection,” Stone added. “It’s frankly more consistent and it’s certainly better than film print projection.”

The other major plus with digital, of course, is it’s cheaper and easier than ever to get a movie made. So while it’s sad to see film go, digital will continue to provide more opportunities for independent filmmakers than ever.

Independent filmmaker Henry Jaglom (Tracks, A Safe Place) concurs. Jaglom made his first film for BBS, the production company that was under the umbrella of Columbia Pictures. Among the movies BBS has released that revolutionized Hollywood include Easy Rider, Five Easy Pieces, and The Last Picture Show. Back then, you had the expensive burden of film, making prints, and lab costs. Not to mention that back then, there were seven potential studios to pitch your movie to.

“Today there are hundreds and hundreds of independent distributors,” Jaglom says. “You can get your movies seen on the internet. I think it’s a better time than ever to be an independent filmmaker because the technology allows you to make movies much less expensively. I think it’s a major, major win. I’m not one of these people that thinks this is a terrible time, and the ‘70’s were the best of it all. I think this is the best time of it all.”

For much more in-depth insight and discussion from filmmakers on the transition from film to digital, I highly recommend this 2012 documentary on the topic, Side by Side (available for streaming on Netflix).