As you read this, film buffs the world over quarrel fervently over something that you and I would probably never be able to discern with our layman’s eyes. Something that (at first glance) seems so monumentally unimportant that we’d be happy to take either side, content that the results garnered would be much the same. The debate in question is the heated battle between celluloid film and its digital equivalent, one that has caused huge rifts in the directorial and production worlds. Until recently, digital couldn’t hold a candle to the celluloid empire. It was tried and tested, and digital consistently proved itself grainier and less clear than traditional film. However, digital has come on in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and the gap draws ever closer…
Possibly the most extensive investigation into the digital/celluloid debate came at the hands of one Keanu Reeves (you may have heard of him) in his first documentary, Side by Side. Hitting cinemas a couple of months ago, the film details the differences between print film and digital, with Reeves’ dulcet tones explaining the insider details in an easily graspable manner. There are more than a few big names on the credit roll too, with a cast that reads like a who’s who of cinema. Directors Martin Scorsese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan and George Lucas join cinematographers Wally Pfister (of Inception fame) and Roger Deakins (who masterminded Skyfall) to create an engaging and interesting piece of cinema. This cast alone should make evident the magnitude of the debate at hand, and it’s certainly exciting to consider the direction that new cinema will now take.
Filming on celluloid is notoriously expensive and time-consuming, with each ten-minute reel of footage requiring overnight development. These ‘dailies’ are then viewed by the director, who will be seeing the previous day’s work for the first time when he or she does so. This means that the day after shooting will be the first chance a director gets to decide to reshoot a scene – not ideal in today’s lightning-paced industry. The introduction of the modern video camera meant instant results, and immediate feedback on any filming. These cameras are getting cheaper by the day, and everybody who gets their hands on one can, effectively, be a filmmaker. So it’s easy, reliable and cheap. What could be better?
That’s certainly the opinion of George Lucas and James Cameron, who (amongst others) have firmly planted their flag in the digital camp. Others, like Nolan, insist on using celluloid for every film they shoot, and have no plans to change any time soon. They have a good case behind them, too, with decades of successful cinema owing plenty to the humble film reel. It’s easy to keep, too, and projectors certainly aren’t going anywhere fast. This marks the real issue with digital film: it’s notoriously difficult to store. Sure, there’s plenty of space on any hard drive, but modern technology can and does fail. Furthermore, the implementation of new software every few years means it gets progressively harder to view old content once the relevant player becomes obsolete. David Fincher, director of the acclaimed Se7en, says that he keeps his old projects with their relevant players to ensure he always has something to watch them on, after a spate of unfortunate losses, his films rendered unplayable. So which is better? Sure, three of the last four winners of the Best Cinematography Oscar have been digital, but who’s to say that that means anything concrete? In the end, I reckon we’d better side with Keanu on this one, and agree that film is likely going to ‘stick around’ for a good while longer.
PHOTO/Marcel Oosterwijk, DigitalFilmmakingBlog