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Why We Need Film, and Why We Don't

 

 

Why We Need Film, And Why We Don't

       Amidst incredible new technology in moviemaking (RED has released a 6K [pixel] resolution camera that basically produces the most clear, beautiful digital images in history) many filmmakers, some with names you know (JJ Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, Wes Anderson...) and many with names you don't, still insist on shooting on film.  You may be asking why this matters. Well, while many of you reading this are overly versed in the struggle between digital and film, many more may have little idea what I'm talking about or why it's so important.

 Filming Star Wars:  A New Hope.

Filming Star Wars:  A New Hope.

       The first full length feature films were released beginning in 1906, but the tangible material we call film... the actually ability to organically create an image using a camera... had been first invented in the 1800's.  Film science and technology has been steadily and aggressively improving since then, arguably to near perfection in the last 2-5 years.  But with the invention of the digital camera, which does not use film at all but simply captures light information using a digital sensor, we're not looking at the advancement of film technology but the introduction of a completely new one.  So now as a cinematographer living and working in 2014, I spend a lot of time contemplating & researching these two competing technologies and I would like to propose why we need film, and why we don't.

 Cast of Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom during production.

Cast of Indiana Jones & The Temple of Doom during production.

 Spielberg and Robin Williams on the set of Hook.

Spielberg and Robin Williams on the set of Hook.

 In the studio filming Titanic.

In the studio filming Titanic.

 Spielberg on the set of Jurassic Park.

Spielberg on the set of Jurassic Park.

I.     WE NEED FILM

         because of our intellectual and emotion associations we developed growing up.  Most of us (younger than 25) grew up watching movies shot on film, exclusively.  The first major motion picture shot entirely digitally was Star Wars Episode II, released in 2002, and the transition to digital since then has been slow and steady.  But not that slow.  Released seven years later, District 9 (shot quickly and beautifully using a RED camera) was Peter Jackson's testing ground for digital cinema, which affirmed his desire to shoot the Hobbit Trilogy on RED's digital cameras, despite shooting The Lord of The Rings on film within that same decade.  

       So there is a change taking place, and where there is change there is nostalgia, and few things carry more nostalgia for us than our favorite movies.  While, in a technical sense, movies shot on film and movies shot digitally are an even match in terms of the image's merits, it's accepted that people prefers the look of film over digital (most digital footage is colored and graded to look more like film for this reason).  Film does look different than digital imagery, and your eye knows, whether you realize it or not.  I can speak for myself and say that I much prefer a movie shot on film to a movie shot digitally in respect to the visual look and vibe of the image, and this is likely because I grew up watching movies shot on film.  A film image will always remind of me the magic of cinema as I experienced it as a young person.

 

II.     WE NEED FILM

          because of it's superior image quality.  Is it superior in every way?  Actually no, and even as a lover of film I admit that happily.  But in a few ways, it is superior, and I'll name two.  The first, is what is Dynamic Range.  

       Dynamic Range is the range between what is too light too see, and what is too dark to see.  Any easy example I often use to explain this is you're inside and you point your cellphone camera to a window, either the outdoors will be almost pure white or the indoors will be almost pitch black.  With your eyes you can look at that same window and see inside and outside at the same time without either being too light or two dark but this is because your eye has a MUCH higher dynamic range than your cellphone camera.  The human eye can see a dynamic range of about 25 stops.  Your cell phone camera probably has a dynamic range of between 8 and 10 stops (this is why those sunsets never look as beautiful on your phone, too much contrast, plus your cell phone can't taste the wine you should be drinking while watching the sunset).  Professional digital cameras for cinema and photography currently have a dynamic range of about 12, depending on the camera this can vary.  Film cameras usually have a dynamic range of about 15, depending on the film, again, this can vary.  So a sunset will be much more beautiful shot on film than digital.  There.  So that's settled.  

       The second second way film is superior to digital is in its color output.  In a professional setting I can easily spend an hour getting the color right on a single digital image, and yes this is on the computer AFTER the image has been shot and downloaded.  Now, in contrast to that, when my film images arrive (scanned or printed) the color and tone of those images are already incredible and beautiful.  Any tweaking I do to make it better is easy and fairly minimal.  Film is so advanced and refined at this point that there is very little that can be done to make it look better on the computer.

 

III.     WE NEED FILM

           for a third reason, and while there are more than three reasons I am going to conclude with this one because it may be the most important.  We need to keep the technology alive.  For ourselves and for our children, out of respect for the medium and for the fact that it's STILL getting better, we need to keep the film technology alive.  Film is a part of our culture, both historically in our arts and in the great events of the world captured this way, but also as a practice of participating in things that take more time, take more care, and ultimately reward us richly for the time and care taken.  ...To get sentimental, the childhood photos of myself and my 3 older brother's are almost all contained in slide carousels that my family would project on a wall every summer when I was growing up and we'd relive the old days.  Even now I can pick those slides up out of the projector and hold in my hand the very piece of film that was in my dad's camera.  He shot many when he was the exact age I am now.  I can't do that with a digital file, and while I don't push everyone to shoot film, we need to keep the technology alive so that if we want to shoot film, we can.

 Special Effects work fine tuned for Empire Strikes Back.

Special Effects work fine tuned for Empire Strikes Back.

 Making the first Star Wars movie of the new trilogy.

Making the first Star Wars movie of the new trilogy.

       To wrap up my thoughts on why we need film (and to talk about why we don't) we should talk about Star Wars.  Why?  Because Star Wars makes sense to people and it makes this conversation very real.  The original Star Wars trilogy was shot on film.  Part of what made the recent trilogy (I, II, III) feel disjointed from the original films is the premature use of young digital technology.  As I mentioned earlier, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was the first movie shot completely digitally.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was shot half on film, half digitally, and whether or not you're paying attention, you can tell that Menace looks better than Clones.  George Lucas has always been a fierce innovator, but Star Wars to the fans had never been a smooth, milky looking digital epic before, but now it was, and I didn't feel like the new films were better for it.  

       Now in 2014, when I heard that there is a new Star Wars trilogy being created (VII, VIII, IX) I thought I want so much for them to be shot on film, but I just can't imagine that happening.  But I am ecstatic to share that, in fact, the new trilogy WILL BE SHOT ON FILM, at least mostly, and that the director of the new trilogy, JJ Abrams, along with Scorsese and other Hollywood big hitters, have struck a deal with the powers that be to make sure that Kodak, the only remaining option for professional filmmakers wanting to shoot on film, can and will continue to produce film so that those want to will be able to continue to make their epic movies with film.  It's a huge financial commitment, as film is very expensive, but Hollywood has committed to buy it, whether it's used or not, so that Kodak can keep making it.  Kodak needed a commitment, since film sales had dropped 96% in the past 8 years due to productions going digital.  

      But while we love film, that doesn't mean digital is evil.  Actually, digital has made it so that in many situations WE DON'T NEED FILM.  Let me balance the issue and admit why, most of the time, I find myself shooting digitally.

 JohnPaul Morris (author) and Matthew Bouwense shoot 4K Raw Digital Imagery on the Sony FS700R.

JohnPaul Morris (author) and Matthew Bouwense shoot 4K Raw Digital Imagery on the Sony FS700R.

1.     DIGITAL IS GREAT

           because of the clarity and visual accountability.  It's possible, and normal, when shooting digital cinema to be able to see the exact image the camera is capturing.  The amount of control that this allows filmmakers is incredible.  Lights, placements, reflections... everything can be fine tuned to an incredible degree (time allowing).  In editing, the clarity of working with real pixel-to-pixel accurate footage isn't just nice, it opens up a whole new world to what can be done with the footage.  It can be adjusted, composited, destroyed, rebuilt, layered, tweaked, and the file can be restored so this process can be repeated if it's not exactly perfect the first time.  It's never ruined.  Shoot and reshoot, import and download, try it, try it again, make it perfect... This process is new, and it's really freeing, and shouldn't be taken for granted.

 

2.     DIGITAL IS GREAT

           for more takes and fearlessly risky shots.  If the shot sucks, or the take is terrible, it can be deleted before anyone else on the crew knows about it-- and it's free.  Our current camera, the Sony FS700R can record 480 frames-per-second (slow motion) and has a feature where I can hit record up to 10 seconds AFTER the action I want to capture has already happened-- so I can literally watch something happen, think for a few seconds about whether or not I want to record it, then hit record and have it.  Yes, it is awesome. This is something only digital can offer.

3.     DIGITAL IS GREAT

           because it makes movie production more accessible.  Learning is free, it costs nothing to film and delete, and filmmakers, both green and experienced don't have to be nearly as afraid of pushing boundaries, making mistakes, trying new techniques, or breaking rules.  Digital cameras are not as mysterious as film cameras have been in the past since we can see exactly what we're getting.  Filmmaking is evolving faster now than it has in decades, and this revolution is both challenging and accessible.  These are exciting times.

       And finally, DIGITAL IS GREAT because it can be saved.  Much of the struggle between film and digital comes from the feeling or fear that we're losing film.  We don't want to lose what's familiar, what we grew up with, but we are losing it.  Since it IS ultimately an organic material, it deteriorates.  Older films can be digitized, but that film was never designed to be scanned (until recently) and after it deteriorates it will never be viewed as it was meant to be, in the format it was built for.  Digital is a medium that we've created that's finally perfectly immortal.  Digital files have no limit to how many times they can be copied, saved, and no number of views will ever wear a file out.  Most of the films from the first 15 years of cinema in the 19th and 20th century will never be seen again since the reels have dissolved with age.  Digital doesn't dissolve, and that has to count for something.

 Production work on the first Star Wars movie.

Production work on the first Star Wars movie.

So with all the merits and emotional entanglements of digital and film considered, it seems that the best way to move into the future is to actually to do just that, to move, but to do so with admiration for the past.  Film has had too long and strong of a history to let it go so quickly, and digital's young life has been too prolific to ignore it, and we have to be amazed and understand the value in both.

Or ignore me and just choose your side and fight.  #shootfilm #shootdigital

 

Written by JohnPaul Morris