Is a film still a film if it were never shot on film? That may sound like a question best suited for a Dr. Seuss book; but it is a question worth asking these days.
Like a decade ago, when newsrooms and consumers contemplated film vs. digital photos, filmmakers (big and small) find themselves facing that same dilemma. With the exception of the occasional art exhibit here and there, digital cameras have won the battle (or at the very least proven their worth) in photography. Does film have the same fate in store?
From top to bottom it’s a polarizing topic. George Lucas has vowed to shoot all future projects in digital. Nine-time Academy Award Nominee Roger Deakins agrees. Household names Spielberg, Scorsese and Stone have vowed the opposite: never to make a film without film. Spielberg for one, fears too much technology ruins the movie magic.
“The difference between making ‘Jaws’ (1975) and ‘War of the Worlds’ (2005) is … I relied on the audience’s imagination, aided by where I put the camera,” Spielberg said. “ Today it would be a digital shark … I probably would have used it four times as much which would have made the film four times less scary. ‘Jaws’ is scary because of what you don’t see, not because of what you do.”
But digital isn’t all about the glitz and the glamour. It’s not all about showing entire cities obliterated or breathing life into unearthly creatures. There are many films out there that have dabbled with digital, slipping it in unbeknownst to us.
“Black Swan” used a Canon 7D SLR (in other words, a regular digital camera) to shoot a short subway sequence, in large part because the benefit of using such a small piece of equipment in a tight space. Yet somehow the film did not suffer. In fact, no one seemed to notice. Why would they? For all intents and purposes nothing was different for the viewer. Much like the digital camera’s trek toward acceptance, this ongoing debate between status quo and technological advances has helped push digital video into the ring as a viable contender against film.
No, as audience members, as viewers, the jump to digital isn’t as drastic as we try to make it seem. But for the users of digital, for the filmmakers behind the cameras, well, the change has been drastic … drastic, and good.
Proponents of digital video argue that, at last, the high-quality movie-making industry has been democratized. The 99% can compete with the elite, so to speak.
I can hear the chants of these proponents from here: “Move on already!” They cry out to the “dinosaurs” of the industry, “Accept technology!”
While I might be slightly more nostalgic and compassionate toward film, I see their point. The click-clacking of typewriters is a beautiful sound. But aren’t computers better? Sure, Superman has fewer changing rooms to choose from, but are you willing to give up your cell phone for a phone booth? Isn’t the microwave oven great? Hasn’t the remote control made life easier? Isn’t liposuction more convenient than exercise?
Okay, so sometimes technology goes a bit too far, but is that the case when it comes to film?
Film artists such as Tacita Dean think so.
“[Developing film] is the heart of my process and the way I form the film is intrinsically bound up with these solitary hours of watching, spooling, and splicing.”
Dean was responding to the closing of a 16mm processing lab in England she frequented. Her logic makes sense. I take more pleasure out of a meal I made from scratch than I do a Smart Ones frozen dinner.
Photographer Ken Rockwell also refuses to turn out the lights (or is it turn on the lights?) in his darkroom.
“Just like with hiring a real orchestra, there’s a warmth and sincerity you can achieve with film,” he says.
Of course one might ask – who has the space or money for an orchestra?
But maybe these purists are right. I haven’t spent much time editing actual film, outside of a course in college, but will this be an example of you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone?
Jeez, that sounds awfully sentimental to me. Like the folks who criticized Dylan at Newport. If I remove the sentimental from my foggy head, here’s what I come up with: nowadays filmmaking is ridiculously cheaper, quicker and easier to be involved in. There are people who may think that’s a bad thing, making filmmaking accessible to the masses. But I have a name for those people: elitists.
While Dean had many supporters respond to her article about the 16mm processing lab, many people responded with a clear message: Move on!
“Would you give this amount of time to someone mourning about not being able to find a cobbler on the high street to mold some 50s burgers?” one person wrote.
I’ve heard the argument time and time again: art is art, regardless of the medium. It’s not the strip of film that we all park our asses in theaters to watch; it’s what one puts on that filmstrip, and unless using digital suddenly turns everyone on-screen into cartoon characters, I don’t see the big deal.
“Fetishing a passing technology too much can be its own trap in that the form becomes too much of a novelty, too nostalgic,” wrote another responder to Dean’s article.
Here is a simple fact – digital is cheaper. What once cost $100,000 might now cost $10,000. The more film you want to shoot, the more money you need to spend. Digital is much friendlier on the pocket, and now that cameras are using memory cards, shooting a film might cost you just a few hundred dollars (for memory cards and hard drives).
The basically endless supply of shooting capabilities in the digital era allowed Danny Boyle to keep the camera rolling on James Franco during the shooting of “127 Hours” to capture Franco’s raw emotion while trapped by a boulder. Boyle’s tight budget never would have allowed that to happen with film.
And as far as the debate about the quality of digital versus film – there’s a wonderfully complex explanation in a sample lesson at filmschoolonline.com, with facts, figures, diagrams, and everything else one might desire to come to a viable conclusion. As far as the viable conclusion put forth in the sample lesson?
“Perceived differences between HD and 35mm film are quickly disappearing. Notice I use the word ‘perceived.’ This is important because we are not showing a movie for laboratory study, but rather for audiences.”
In other words, there are differences between film and digital. But it’s also said every snowflake is unique, yet, from my perspective, they all look the same coming down and piling up. Just because there are differences, that doesn’t mean they’re decipherable.
“Has National Geographic stopped looking sumptuous since they started publishing photos shot on digital cameras?” asks Zach Fine. “Have people been writing complaints in to Playboy?”
There are upsides and downsides to every new advancement. And while I agree some advances are unneeded (Flowbee, AstroTurf, the automated egg peeler), others do make life better (heated car seats), easier (George Forman Grill), and levels the playing field for everyone (digital video). Besides, as “Derek Beef” puts it in response to Dean’s article: “If we preserved everything, nothing would be classic.”
And as for my earlier question – is a film still a film if it were never shot on film – I ask you this: was this article ever written despite the fact that I typed it?
R.C. Varenas is a writer and a filmmaker based in NYC and Boston. He is co-founder of Pilotgroove Pictures and founder of Reel Ink Spot. He can be reached at