Dailies: Digital vs Film

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Happy Thursday to everyone. Some days I’m not always prepared to offer an elaborate discussion—that is, above and beyond my other posts or features. But today is not one of those days. I think a few words on film vs digital are warranted—perhaps even more so since I am beginning to see that the “end” of film is not nigh.

I was actually on the verge of writing the following: “It’s fairly clear that we’re fast approaching the post-film era…” Blah blah blah. That seemed to be the take-home message from the documentary Side by Side (2012), which featured several directors who saw digital as the wave of the future since it saved so much time in shooting, colouring, and (most of all) incorporating special effects. The facts are, film requires lots of stops and starts, reloads, “dailies,” and a crew willing to lug and load it all onto trucks every time the scene shifts to a new shooting location.

But so bloody what? many directors and contemporary professional photographers say. Especially when film can capture texture, colour, and light so well. The “quality of light,” and film’s ability to represent that, is a recurring phrase in Side by Side. I’ve already quoted Breaking Bad DP Michael Slovis on the “feel” of film (see my “Dailies” from last week), so I’ll turn to a few others who offer their input. Kristopher Tapley’s January 2015 article for HITFIX, “Industry Cinematographers Weigh in on Film vs Digital,” quotes Quentin Tarantino who recently referred to digital in disparaging terms as “TV in public.” Other DPs in the article were—I must admit, disappointingly—silent on the very specific aesthetic differences of shooting with film. I did find a very concrete description from Rebecca Lily, a professional photographer from Ireland who had this to say in her guest post for Digital Photography School:

After playing around with film a bit myself and studying the work of other photographers, I can definitely acknowledge that film has several advantages over digital—mainly, the dynamic range (or, ability to retain details in highlights and shadows over a wide range of stops), and also the forgiving nature of film when you overexpose it.

The HITFIX article offers plenty of counter-arguments to this film love, including Greig Fraser (DP for The Foxcatcher and The Gambler), who mentions the horrible moment when the lab calls you to tell you that your film was ruined, or Robert Elswit (DP for Nightcrawler and Inherent Vice), who mentions the scarcity of film labs in Los Angeles. So, then, there is some evidence that film is at least currently losing ground to digital, but the reality is that there are major directors—the Coen Brothers, Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, and Paul Thomas Anderson—who simply want the option of shooting film. And who’s to argue with the final product (No Country for Old Men, Inglorious Basterds, the latest Batman films)? I like how Interstellar DP Hoyte van Hoytema puts it: “Everybody wants a different kind of canvas.”

To be sure, there are well-defined camps—George Lucas being in the digital one, and Tarantino being in the film one. But it seems a bit hasty to condemn either form, especially since certain types of movies demand certain cinematographic approaches. Would film have accomplished 2009’s Avatar? Could digital outdo the quality of Richard Linklater’s 35 mm gem Boyhood (2014)? As Vadim Risox noted in a January 2015 article for Filmmaker Magazine, Linklater’s commitment “to film ensured an internally continuous look over 12 years of production whose uniqueness would survive despite a digital intermediate and no prints being struck for American release.” And there is plenty of evidence that the two forms of cinema can help each other out: the 1962 classic Lawrence of Arabia was recently remastered and restored in 4K digital technology (see the results here).

Aw, shucks; can’t we just get along (in both HD and 35mm)?

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