Movie Technology: The Continuing Battle of Film vs. Digital

Published 4 years ago by

Digital Cameras versus Film Cameras Movie Technology: The Continuing Battle of Film vs. Digital

The film industry is constantly in motion. While the stories that keep the Hollywood money machine churning run in cycles, technology continues to evolve with every passing decade. A new revolution is stirring as 3D releases, DSLR cameras and free Internet distribution (YouTube, etc.) bring the digital age of filmmaking to Hollywood’s front door.

One of the industry’s most renowned cinematographers, Roger Deakins, recently revealed his intention to move into digital photography. The man with nine Academy Awards nominations is making the switch. Many filmmakers already sit comfortably on the “dark side,” including the most well-known proponent of the digital format – Michael Mann.

But why would a 35-year veteran give up the authenticity of film for the sleek look of digital? The recent developments in 3D might have something to do with it. With around 25 movies releasing theatrically in 3D in 2011, the money is clearly in the digital realm (yes, the industry is currently testing out more viable techniques for shooting 3D on film, but right now, as far as 3D goes, digital rules the day). But that doesn’t mean a filmmaker has to make a total switch and give up on film entirely. Yet, we have rarely heard from famous filmmakers who tested the waters of digital cameras and come away wanting nothing to do with the format again.

It is not uncommon for certain productions to devote segments of filming to the digital format. Black Swan used the Canon 7D to shoot its subway sequences because of its many benefits to a production. The DSLR cameras that plague film schools currently are the industry’s hottest new gadget. Anybody can shoot cinema-quality imagery for less than the price of a computer. When most professional film cameras cost tens of thousands of dollars, that’s quite a bargain. Arguably more importantly, it’s much easier to fit a DSLR into a subway car than a full film camera setup.

Black Swan Canon 7D subway scenes Movie Technology: The Continuing Battle of Film vs. Digital

I’ve had an opportunity to use both film and digital equipment on film sets. The differences are staggering, but both have benefits that cannot be duplicated. Instead of listening to me explain the differences, here is one of cinema’s most talented photographers, Roger Deakins, in a discussion with /Film’s Dave Chensky last month:

This film Now, I’m shooting on a digital camera. First film I’ve shot digitally, because, frankly, it’s the first camera I’ve worked with that I’ve felt gives me something I can’t get on film. Whether I’ll shoot on film again, I don’t know. [Shooting on Digital] gives me a lot more options. It’s got more latitude, it’s got better color rendition. It’s faster. I can immediately see what I’m recording. I can time that image on set with a color-calibrated monitor. That coloring goes through the whole system, so it’s tied with the meta-data of the image. So that goes through the whole post-production chain, so it’s not a case of being in a lab and having to sit and then time a shot on a shot-by-shot because this has already got a control on it that’s set the timing for the shot, you know?

The clearest benefit of digital cameras is the immediate result. There is no time-staking process of handling the film, sending it to a post-house and watching dailies in a screening later. In some cases, you can even deliver the final product the same day to an editor through SD or CF cards.

A recent example is Monsters. Director Gareth Edwards spends a large portion of the making-of documentary on the DVD and Blu-ray showing audiences exactly why he chose to shoot on an EX3 camera with a Letus adapter and just three Nikon lenses. He had a handful of digital cards that could be instantly exported, backed up, and then formatted to be re-used – all within a matter of hours. Imagine the physical difference between lugging cartons of film canisters on location versus re-using a few digital cards throughout production.

Watch Gareth Edwards discuss Monsters and his fondness for digital cameras. (SKIP TO 6:30):

Philip Bloom is another well-known cinematographer who recently explored the possibilities of digital. At a seminar in Chicago, he shared footage from Red Tails, a film he is working on with George Lucas, which provided examples of both film and digital (DSLR cameras). According to our sources at the event, few could tell the difference. In fact, the digital options were preferred amongst those in attendance, when asked for opinions.

Bloom and Lucas have apparently been testing out DSLR cameras on Red Tails in preparation for Lucas’ upcoming Star Wars venture. The live-action Star Wars TV show will apparently be shot with multiple DSLR cameras shooting simultaneously in an effort to maximize production time and get the entire series shot in a fraction of the days it takes to shoot a feature.

Of course, all these benefits of digital come at a cost. Film will always be a part of the industry. When you listen to a majority of the film community speak, the passion for film is still alive and well. Every industry has seen new technology push old technology out the door, but rarely does the old equipment become obsolete. I am not talking about VHS and 8-track tapes here, but rather the equipment used to record and develop entertainment.

Read about the future of film in the digital age…

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  1. I don’t really care… but Christopher Nolan are really great, really really great. It is really well film… If he doesn’l like film, and i like his movie then i might share the thing as him.

    • No, Chris Nolan loves film and uses it. The article is saying that he’ll be ‘fighting in the revolution’ meaning he’ll be fighting against digital.

  2. Watching the BAFTA’s everything is mentioned as Film the medium us of a older generation equate with the iconic multple rays of light that is transmitted from projector to screen. I’m not sure if this happens with digital. The title “FILM” I feel should not be exploited when digital is used.A film cannot be erased It can only be destroyed. I feel it is not ethical to call a MOVIE ( What a ghastly terminology) a FILM when its made up of invisible electrons. In stead of pretending. If you have made a tape TELL the truth. Dont call it a FILM

  3. gjjgf

  4. This was an excite to read. I love filmmaking. To me, digital will never replace film in my heart. Even though, I love digital photography, You can appreciate the efforts and strains of film. Everyone loves new. I listen to what’s new on the radio every day, but I never get tired of having some Roger Waters inside me. (keep it civil, guys) Like said here, we won’t be going away, yet. I may not be an old hip guy, as I’m merely twenty, but I can understand and appreciate all of what film has given. As properly stated, digital has its immense benefits with production and working hours, but film possesses a certain texture that is unrivaled.


  5. Just work on story and visual art, what ever the medium. It’s a bit like caring whether a painting was water color or oil. Does it make you feel something and can it hold you in the story? Good art comes in all forms and I hope people with work in every medium. I think I’m going to throw in an eight-track now. I loved those things.

    • i think you mean comparing a traditional painting to a digital artwork, and yes, there is a big difference.

  6. I prefer both digital and film. Digital movies are more efficient and not as costly as film reels, but at the same time, audiences lose the feel of what a movie was like, we cannot let that happen. People need to watch classic movies. They need to know how film came about and how it can be improved in the future. I like film more than digital because I like the authenticity and the effort of the cast and crew, and I tend to feel more involved in a movie. I don’t know why, but I appreciate the reality of film, because it keeps the essence of filmmaking alive. I like digital filmmaking, however, because of its “crystal clear” picture, but digital should not be used for all films. Films that involve special effects and other qualities should have digital film. I also like the way digital can look like film, but it just doesn’t feel right. Film is film and digital is digital, period. People cannot let film die as an art form. Digital should not take over film. People should use what they want, and no one should tell others what to do. I personally think that some movie theaters should keep film projectors, just to keep the originality and essence of film alive for future generations.

  7. I have used color film photography for more than 40 years and I can say with confidence that photographs I have taken with Kodachrome and Fujichrome slide film and printed on Cibachrome / Ilforchrome metallic paper are the best in the world. I have photographed wild animals in Kenya and Tanzania using slide film and I have some of the best photos in the world. Digital SLR cameras have along way to go. I have just bought another Film camera to add to my film camera collection
    Dr.Reuben Shanthikumar
    Zoo / Wildlife Veterinarian

  8. Film still looks better than digital.

  9. I`m using nikon d600 35mm Digital I`m very happy about the image quality but still love film and the process of doing thinks to the final result in the paper.

  10. Digital is not always crisp, it grains out in certain conditions too – and there are subtle ways light is captured in film – the technology hasn’t completely succeeded.
    If you work in photography a lot and you edit your images for hours you see very dramatic times where film or digital come out on top, or let you down. Even with the best plugins and software people aren’t “designers” to the point where they know everything there is to know about colour, mood … if that was true every cameraman might be some kind of artist genius just because they learn a few simple principles.
    I hope that digital age people discover film and film age people discover digital – and that both sides improve. One way i can see this happening is that, since most digital cameras are still “emulation” of film photo or cinema cameras … even the way they grain, create noise is being improved to look more “filmic”.
    Film itself – if there were more demand, would have a lot of R&D to apply new chemistry and that could create exceptional new film looks – and really whatever helps people learn and vision things, and achieve that vision is enriched by having both.

  11. All have the different characters, though the digital cameras can produce a clear image, and practical to use, but the traditional cameras usually have a unique character that can not be obtained by a digital camera..

  12. The cost differential between film and digital, from filming to distribution, is not being passed on, or even discussed, by the industry. Ticket prices continue to rise, as the costs of filming and distribution go down. Not related to the quality of the image on screen, but will this ever be discussed, for the benefit of the consumer?

  13. f*** this

    • * thumbs up *

  14. lolololololololololololololololololololo :’)

  15. So erm… what are the benefits of film?
    That grainy effect? Is that it? Or is there more benefits that were left out of this article?