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article imageFilm vs. Digital: Can there ever be a winner?

By Sarah Gopaul     Nov 11, 2015 in Entertainment
The film vs. digital debate has been waged for more than a decade with the latter gaining momentum. So why were two of the most anticipated December releases — ‘Star Wars: Episode VII’ and ‘The Hateful Eight’ — still shot on film?
Anyone can make a movie now. The rise of digital as a legitimate film medium and the availability of affordable, high-quality cameras have democratized the industry. A great story and relatively decent production values is all a picture needs to gain recognition — Sundance indie hit, Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone. The manner by which it was shot has become irrelevant to audiences as the advances in technology have virtually eliminated any perceptible differences between film and digital productions. However the debate in Hollywood wages on with a handful of purists fighting to keep celluloid alive. The reality is the transition was rapid and today the majority of filmmaking no longer actually involves film.
The digital insurgency
In 1999, George Lucas incited the digital revolution by including digital footage in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace and leveraging it as the first movie to be presented via digital projectors. The seamless blending of the two formats convinced him to shoot the remaining sequels exclusively in digital video, as well as any other picture he made going forward. In 2002, Lucas released Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones (though Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico was technically the first film shot entirely in high-def digital a year earlier). In the Keanu Reeves-produced documentary, Side by Side, Lucas describes the backlash he experienced. “They got up and had a big meeting, saying that l was the devil incarnate, that l was gonna destroy the industry, that l was gonna destroy all their jobs,” he says. The quality was so good, no one even wanted to believe he used digital and insisted he was a liar.
Fast-forward about a decade and The Wolf of Wall Street becomes the first major picture distributed entirely in digital, reducing costs to less than a third. As a result, the studios subsidized the upgrade to digital projectors in big, first-run cinemas since their savings on distribution would be substantial. Conversely, art house and independent theatres were left to shoulder the expense alone. Yet by 2013, 90 percent of the world’s movie screens were digital. Currently even most celluloid is transferred to digital during the editing stage, which also supports the growth of streaming services and video-on-demand.
Leonardo DiCaprio in  The Wolf of Wall Street
Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Wolf of Wall Street'
Paramount Pictures
Not all formats are created equal
The general changeover to digital distribution was also triggered by the fragility of 35 mm. Multiple screenings gradually causes the film to deteriorate, collecting scratches, worn edges and tears over time. Titanic remained in theatres for so long, the prints literally fell apart. Consequently there was a time when hurrying to see a movie first wasn’t just about bragging rights, but also the only opportunity to see the picture at its best quality before it started to erode. Today every screening in every cinema is identical for the duration of its run. The flipside is there is still no definitive archiving process for digital movies. The same ever-changing technology makes certain the file format and corresponding software able to retrieve it will be out-of-date in a few years, effectively misplacing the movie forever. Ironically the only sure way to preserve these pictures is by creating a master film and storing it under appropriate conditions, extending its lifespan to more than 500 years.
Quentin Tarantino has equated digital presentation to the death of cinema and watching TV in public. Unsurprisingly, he’s found a way to bypass digital projectors — at least temporarily. He’s successfully sold the concept of a road show for his latest picture, The Hateful Eight, during which it will play exclusively in 70 mm for the first two weeks of its release. In addition, he’s recently confirmed the wide release will be six minutes shorter because he’s modified some of the shots meant specifically for the larger format. Tarantino reasons, it could be “awesome in the bigness of 70 mm, but sitting on your couch maybe it’s not so awesome.”
A scene from  The Hateful Eight
A scene from 'The Hateful Eight'
eOne Films
Keeping film alive
The outspoken director is joined by several purists, including Christopher Nolan, Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson. Dan Mindel was the director of photography for the two Star Trek reboots and several other effects-heavy pictures, yet he maintains that these films need to have something organic to ground all the CGI elements. Darren Aronofsky notes, “People assume it’s digital because of the visual effects.” In spite of Lucas’ enthusiasm for digital, J.J. Abrams chose to shoot Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens on film, telling the Wall Street Journal that films like Star Wars “have so much that will be created or extended digitally, and it’s a slippery slope where you can get lost in a world of synthetic.” But “realism” is one of the main reasons filmmakers cite their loyalty to the medium as celluloid has its own texture and grainy quality. As Tim Sarnoff, head of Technicolor’s digital productions division, points out, digital is just “too perfect.” As a result, those organic characteristics are often added to digital video in post-production; this, along with colour correction and other modifications, can sometimes negate the savings presented by choosing reusable SD cards over pricey film magazines.
A scene from the film about Facebook  The Social Network. Jesse Eisenberg (second from left) plays M...
A scene from the film about Facebook, The Social Network. Jesse Eisenberg (second from left) plays Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook
Courtesy Sony Pictures
Everyone has an opinion
An additional concern is the effects these two options can bring to a set. Since film is so costly, the cast and crew tend to be more rigorous in every take. Eleven minutes of film costs about $500 so there is rarely a throwaway take. Conversely, digital storage is so accommodating it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the director and actors have the flexibility to quickly reset for multiple takes and try different approaches to a scene. This is the very reason David Fincher chose the medium for The Social Network. But this can also result in the lack of a clear vision for a picture. Cinematographer Jay Hunter uses this analogy to describe the difference: “If you have a machine gun and you are trying to hit a target, you'll hold that trigger down and fire a million bullets. Eventually you'll hit the center of the target, but you'll make Swiss cheese out of everything around it. If you have three bullets and a revolver, you are going to take your time and really aim that gun perfectly before you shoot one of your precious bullets. That's film vs. digital.”
Another reality of the new digital world is the pressure to shoot by consensus. With film it was necessary to trust the director of photography when he positioned the camera and said it was going to look fantastic. Cinematographer John Mathieson confirms, “That level of craftsmanship… you can't explain what you're gonna do, so there is a certain amount of a leap of faith that they have to have in you.” Fincher concedes, “A director of photography looks at color and composition and angles and all of these things…” But now directors, actors and studio heads don’t have to wait to see the dailies the next morning — digital shooting allows them to see everything as it happens. For Rodriguez, it’s one of the medium’s top assets. “[Film was] like painting with the lights off,” he tells Reeves in Side by Side. But not everyone agrees. Charles Herzfeld, Technicolor NY’s senior vice-president of sales and marketing counters, “The process of shooting film was the director of photography's art and secret. And today, the cinematographer is monitored on a digital shoot, and everything that they're doing can be seen, criticized, and questioned.” French cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel agrees, noting the democratic process is causing films to lose “consistency in their look and feel.”
You can’t stop the future
But at the end of the day, one has to acknowledge that the majority of motion pictures use a blend of digital and film — the split often being the former for night and the latter for day — and an increasing number are shot entirely in digital. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema thinks the debate is pointless as it assumes “there is a “better” and a “worse,” that there is a “winner” and a “loser.”” When Indiewire asked a group of cinematographers at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival whether they thought the shift from film to digital was good or bad, the consensus was that digital is just another tool in their tool belt and the decision should be based on which format will best suit the story they are trying to tell. Presently, the only practical way to shoot native 3D (the best looking kind) is digitally. This reality pushed James Cameron and Martin Scorsese to test the waters when they developed Avatar and Hugo respectively, both of which won Oscars for best cinematography. On the other hand, IMAX’s high-resolution is still a film-only product.
But with most film labs shuttering their doors worldwide and Kodak only keeping its L.A. facility open after a group of filmmakers lobbied them, Tom Rothman, chairman CEO of Fox Filmed Entertainment, perceptively declared in the 2012 digital video documentary, “in five years, film will be the exception.”
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