Digital Cinematography - The Death or Evolution of Film

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An in depth research topic about digital motion pictures and their potential to usurp 35mm film.

Text of Digital Cinematography - The Death or Evolution of Film


Introduction With the consistent developments in the art and technological aspects of digital cinematography, one cannot help avoid the question of whether digital will be the death of film? Many people have hailed (read: mourned) digital as the death of film as a format and an art form. I will investigate several different aspects of the fine nuances of digital cinematography to analyse whether the hype regarding the downfall of film is entirely, partially or not justified. At present 35mm film is most definitely the dominant format in the industry and is the tool of choice for in excess of 99% of mainstream motion pictures produced presently (Rdlein). Digital motion pictures for the most part are shot in the high definition 1080p format, despite cameras offering 2k and 4k resolution (See Plate 1). Despite at the moment, film owning a huge majority of the moving image industrys market share, several mainstream digital projects have been commissioned with studio backing, however these are generally reserved for specialist productions that incorporate large amounts of post production manipulation of the original image captured. Opinion in Hollywood at present is split much like the use of film and digital as a format. The vast majority of Hollywood cinematographers and directors either disregard digital as a non-option as far as their projects go; others are vehemently against digitals inclusion in motion picture production; whilst other staunchly approve and lobby for digitals inclusion and acceptance in Hollywood. The death of film has been heralded many times in the past, for example with the arrival of sound recording onto film (Lunde, 21). Purists of film that pre-dated sound integration claimed that it devalued the art of filmic (visual) cinematography. I however take a cynical (read: presumptuous) approach that the disparagers of the


sound and film union were merely disjointed analogue sound recorders with a chip on each shoulder. I am not entirely convinced that the digital versus film conflict is not born of the same reasons as the sound debate; something I hope to have confirmed or disproved by the end of this research paper. The science involved in film cinematography is immense and complicated; however digital advances have made digital cinematography an easier science to grasp, thanks mainly to its in-camera correction functions. Could jilted film cinematographers have given birth to an antidigital movement? I will attempt to ascertain this during the paper. Regardless of the origins of the anti-digital fraternity even the most foolhardy film devotee would struggle to deny the advanced possibilities that digital cinematography could offer to filmmakers and the filmmaking industry in its entirety. Naturally as with most emerging technologies digital has its advantages and disadvantages, I will analyse, address and identify these and try to acknowledge ways in which they can either be overcome or corrected. In this research paper, I will compare and contrast both digital and film aspects of filmmaking to decide if the scaremongering about films final demise is justified or not. In order to do this, I will analyse economic factors, political considerations, practical factors, aesthetic factors as well as the way that the motion pictures are eventually distributed and received. I will attempt to conclude whether digital cinematography will indeed be the death, or the evolution of film.

Economic and Political Factors When considering the digital versus film battle, it is hard to neglect the fact that the chief driving force behind the Hollywood motion picture industry is money. The industry thrives on investments with the prime goal of making money. It is


arguably this factor more than any other that undercuts the romanticised notions of film; that its solid; you can hold it in your hand; that its an art etc. as it is run principally as a business. Needless to say, that as the driving force in Hollywood, economic factors could have severe implications for the entire debate on film and digitals place in the motion picture industry. In this section, I will analyse how the economic and political factors of the motion picture industry affect the digital and film question with particular attention to whom or what is blocking the transition from film to digital. I will also look at the difference in costs between film production and digital productions, in an attempt to ascertain whether there are financial reasons behind Hollywoods aversion to digital media. When the cost of filmmaking is as much as a pencil and a piece of paper, then well find great artists said Jean Renoir (qtd. in Martini, xiii), and Richard Martini believes that that time is now (Martini, xiii). Martini believes that by freeing independent filmmakers from the restraints that are placed on them by the financial implications that come hand in hand with motion picture production, more artistically sound filmmakers will be found. Martini argues that it is the content that is more important than the delivery format on which it is placed (Martini, ix). Perhaps Martini is right, if not a little simplistic in his theory. Martini believes that if something is thrown at a wall enough times then eventually something will stick; The Blair Witch Project (1999) could be perceived as one such sticky item. A forty thousand dollar ($40,000) investment in The Blair Witch Project, a frightfully small budget, translated into a one hundred and forty million dollar ($140m) return in sales (Willis, 29). The concept and plot behind The Blair Witch Project were structurally reliable allowing its Hi-8 and 16mm film formats to be perceived as one of the films quirks and charms, adding to its authenticity. One can surmise that Martini is right in


more ways than one; is it the time to make motion pictures with a small budget and is it possible for these to compete in Hollywood? The reason I am highlighting The Blair Witch Project is to show that so called lesser formats can work on the big screen too. One of the primary arguments coming from film loyalists is that the picture quality of the digital image simply is not as good as that produced by 35mm film (an issue I will discuss in the Aesthetic Values section of this paper). One can only assume that if The Blair Witch Project had the funding of a large Hollywood studio, the film would have been shot on 35mm and degraded in post-production to gain its aesthetic effect. Why are several large studios so averse to this new digital technology? David Fincher, director of the motion picture Zodiac (2007), tells us how Sony Pictures have constantly advised him not to use High Definition digital images for his motion pictures as they are too unreliable (Goldman, 9). Fincher, who shot this latest production using entirely digital data; no tape or film, notes the irony that Sony Pictures mother company actually produce the cameras and formats that he was dissuaded from using. So can we assume from Finchers comments that perhaps the studios that fund these productions are deliberately dragging their feet to slow down the digital revolution that threatens to usurp film? Fincher, who made Zodiac with the Warner Brothers Studio said that one of the main constraints of working with digital data was the opposition he faced from the studio and from what is seen as the industry culture (Goldman, 10). This is a point reiterated by Richard Martini, who states that by using 35mm or studio provided money, it becomes very difficult to tell personal stories (Martini, x). So why are these studios applying the brakes to the digital format; one may be forgiven for returning to the source of most controversy in the motion picture industry, money.


An optimists argument would be that big budget productions are averse to new technologies due to the risk that an investor would see in an unproven medium (Kirsner, Studios Shift, 7). An argument that implies that once the digital medium is proven as a big money maker in the box office, then it will become a viable investment for motion picture investors. The contentious issue regarding the economic benefits of shooting digitally is one that Newton Thomas Sigel, Director of Photography for Superman Returns (2006) argues is a fruitless debate, when one is talking of studio-funded work (Kirsner, The Big Pixel, 26). Sigel; who chose to shoot Superman Returns in digital for its aesthetic qualities states that on a motion picture with a two hundred million dollar budget ($200m) the saving is not significant in a budget of such scale. However, the average saving of seven hundred and fifty thousand (750,000) feet of 35mm film stock on a production is undoubtedly going to make a saving on a smaller independent production (Kirsner, The Big Pixel, 26). Figures are difficult to confirm with such matters, as the amount of film stock used for a production has far too many variables, however Kirsner believes the figure for an independent production to be in the region of a 25% saving from the camera departments budget (Kirsner, The Big Pixel, 26). Presumably Kirsner with this reference is referring to high end high definition images that are in their essence similar to film. From an economic standpoint, digital is seemingly an effective way of saving money from a budget; however the amount of a saving from a high budget production is so minimal that a studio would be prepared to pay a little more for the failsafe that is 35mm celluloid film. However if digital were to prove itself as a viable format for mass distribution; and the subsequent returns it could entail for its investors, then perhaps we will see more studios willingly investing in digital processes. An issue


that could be holding the entire process back on a financial and political level could be foun