Movie Technology: The Continuing Battle of Film vs. Digital

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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. Shooting on film is expensive. Though it looks great digital can also be manipulated a lot easier. Great read and article (except the end with nolan and wally, sorry but I hate when people use them as an example).

    • They are the PRIMO example of successful filmmakers that openy refuse to make the switch.

      • I know, and it makes them sound like pretencious hipster filmmakers. PRIMO is also based on opinion, and I respect yours. But there are lots of filmmakers who aren’t “hollywood” that refuse the switch either.

        • And most people wouldn’t have had a clue who he was talking about.

          • Sure, but if you’re a film fan and don’t live under a rock you would know those names.

  2. Digital capture in movie production is no different than still photography. There were many still photographers who refused to use digital, most have now changed to digital and those that have not are in a ever smaller minority. The same complaints were given by film users, “it doesnt look like a Real photograph”, that is to say it wasn’t grainy like film. There is really no advantage to film other than its ability to record a broader range of light, and there are many disadvantages such as cost, speed and realistic image!

  3. Great article Mike!

  4. As a photographer myself, I was excited to jump into the digital world. Developing film, making prints was nice but was so time consuming it was sometimes counterproductive to making a profit.

    • the digital certainly had won over film in comparison between digital vs film capture, but applies only to still photography. digital still has it’s digital look, leave alone the grainy feel of film. digital has a scientific feel, while film does possesses the yet un-explainable feel of aesthetic that is long been ingrained in our mind though the aesthetics concerned with still and the movie making are the similar,.I am working in developing image processing routines that could enhance a digital footage to resemble more filmy.

  5. Digital is fine (though I’m not a fan of 3D in its current form). But I hope that film is never completely phased out. It would be nice to know that some are still out there using it.

  6. Very informative article, thank you.

    I will be attending film school this year and want to focus on cinematography so I’m very interested in the subject matter. DSLRs are being used more and more, especially by independent film makers. Not sure why someone would be “against” it. Some instances it might not “work” but no one should opposed the switch to digital base on principles alone.

  7. I’m for both, even tho Digital is cheaper and easier to use I (whenever I start making films) will mainly use film. Movies are suppose to take you away from the real world, so seeing it on digital to me doesnt all ways do that but film can (majority of the time).

    If I can recall right, Star Trek (2009) used film, and the way it caught the light was amazing. Even when they used digital for the space scenes it was good, but film looked better. But thats IMO.

    Great article!

    • Oh that beautiful lens flare… certainly adds a sort of depth, perhaps because we’re used to it?

      • Holy crap that lens flare was awesome. One of the few films I actively noticed the cinematography/direction.

        Great film and well shot.

  8. 3D failed in the fifties because of the greed exhibited by the motion picture studios. Why do it right when it is so much easier to schlop it together quickly and make a bigger profit right away. Who wants to take the time to develop something properly when you can make a quick profit now and then go on to fool the public with “The Miracle You See Without Glasses!”.

    It is that greed that will help digital win out over film. The huge savings in production, which will trigger bigger profits and bigger yachts, will be the key factor in favor of digital.

    And in this case I think it is only common sense to take that road. After all, moviemaking is a business no matter how much we may consider it as an art form.

    • I agree with your points but, I also feel saving time can increase the creative flow. As a musician I can say that recording on digital is a lot less time consuming and makes like a lot easier. I can write more with less time. I dealt could careless about the profit.

    • I agree with ChrisMohrSr, I’m betting that digital will start winning more and more people over because it will become more convenient and speed things up considerably. And when you are in the movie industry time is money.
      I also think that sully311 is right in saying that giving more time it could “increase the creative flow”. Unless the movie company’s just cut back on the amount of time that the movie would need to be made in, than that would just mean more movies coming out every year.
      As an aspiring editor, and having used some editing programs I’m sure that using digital over film makes it easier and faster.
      But having said all of that I still like the way film looks and I think that people should use what ever is best for them, and their movie.

      • Yeah I can see the digital phase raising the bar for higher output on material, and that blows. I think if they let the technology worth its wild with what it can do they can make films much better without wasting money. I for one wouldn’t wanna waist money on reels of film for a shotty project but at the same time I don’t want it rushed cause dailies are there in a second and not sat back and observed. Balance is key in art no matter the medium.

  9. INK what camera would u recomend for a starter film maker thats not to $$$$.??

    • Not a film maker. I’m a photographer. Hopefully someone else will see your post and help you out. Although I have been looking into them for wedding video purposes. The best value, for price and quality, I have found is the Panasonic Professional AG-HMC40 AVCHD Camcorder. However, a Canon 7D DSLR camera is being used by many film makers (Black Swan) as well and is around the same price. Anyways, good luck to you.

      • Get the Canon 60D. That is what I own in addition to other bulkier cameras. It is amazingly versatile and costs only $1,000 for the body (lenses are another story). It is the most inexpensive prosumer product that gives you great quality. Take it for a test drive or rental and enjoy it. Shoots beautiful video.

  10. As an advanced hobbyist photographer, I’ve enjoyed seeing things transition to digital for the obvious benefits mentioned in the article and by the commenters. However, the thing I look forward to the most is the move away from slower framerates of traditional films. Digital is much more efficient at higher framerates than film and provides a much smoother moving image. We all clamor for super high framerates in video games and animation, but I hate it when people argue for the “look” of film and use the framerate comparison as an actual benefit to traditional films. A friend of mine is one of those guys. We joke about him being the film snob. As for me, give me the highest framerate and the smoothest motion for my high definition movies!

    • Well at least for me, 24-30 (along with a bit of motion blur) seems to most closely resemble the way my brain interprets visual signals. Higher frame-rates feel like an information overload for me. But that could be just me. I prefer my movies at 24, and I also prefer my games to not exceed 30 fps (besides a few exceptions), but I’m kind of unusual in that regard. Most gamers want 60, which is too much for me.

  11. I remember when the Star Wars Prequels where about to come out and George Lucas talked about how in the future every film would be done with Digital Cameras. At first I was nervous because one of things I did not like about Episodes I-III was how they looked being done with Digital. It wasn’t until David Fincher did Zodiac and Benjamin Button almost entirely that way that I started to warm up to it. So i’m curious now to see how some of the different filmmakers like Scorsese embraces it. Because when done right I think it can be great…

  12. the more digital advances, the more its going to be impossible to tell the difference. If you can make Digital look just like film then it will be a null argument and it will all depend on what kind of style the film maker wants to shoot the film in.

  13. People forget one thing, the image. All people talk about are “sharpness” or “grain”. Seriously look at a digital image next to a film image. The digital image looks compressed and unnatural, where the film image has a 3 dimensional appearance to it. This is most evident with dslr photography where often the foreground, middle and background of a shot look on the same plane, compressed together where the same exact shot on film brings depth and space. Maybe digital will be able to do this in the near future, but for now my eyes much prefer the film qualities.

    • “This is most evident with dslr photography where often the foreground, middle and background of a shot look on the same plane”

      Not if the photographer knows what he/she is doing.

  14. Personally when I watch movies on a 42″ tv I prefer not to have them grainy-like, nostalgia be damned!

  15. Often times when I am writing my grocery shopping list I get nostalgic for the days of chipping that list into a stone tablet.
    Ohhhh … the good ‘ol days.

  16. Keep it film!

    Go all digital, 3d, HD, brain implant VR after I’m dead thanks,,,


  17. Another aspect of the benefits of digital that was slightly touched on but not really examined is its impact on the acting process. Because of the expensive nature of film and its single-use aspect as well as unpredictable end result, rehearsals are required. The director cannot risk using up film until he is sure the scene will be acted right. But with digital all that goes out the window. The director can shoot the rehearsals and the run-throughs as the real thing. This in itself save a whole lot of time. We talk about digital saving time and money after calling “Cut” (which is an anachronism with digital) but it also saves a lot before calling “Action”. The director can do take after take on the same card, send it to editor and tell them which ones he/she likes. By the way, does anyone know what TV shows are shot on nowadays, considering everything is HD?

  18. Nice post Muta, very true,,,


    • Michael Mann was one of the first big names to use high def digital video. I don’t know that he started using it because he stood on one side or the other of the digital vs. film debate. I’ve listened to his commentaries for both Collateral and Miami Vice and his use of digital was mainly artistic. It allowed him to get the shots that he wanted in the way that he wanted and film couldn’t do that. Both films have significant portions set at night (Collateral being almost completely at night) and the digital camera allowed him to get the atmospheric, almost brooding shots he wanted. He said there was basically no way he could shoot that scene in the office where Tom Cruise’s character is stalking Jada Pinkett’s character with film.
      But this kind of falls into Muta’s main beef. It isn’t about shooting film for film’s sake or digital for digital’s sake. If you want to get a shot and only digital can do it, then use digital. And vice versa. But don’t be so stuck to your guns and don’t buy the marketing. Try it yourself and see what you like.
      Filmmakers who still shoot on film utilize video in almost every other way. They’ll sit by a monitor and watch the video feed of what the film camera is shooting for example. Or they may do rough cuts with video to aid in editing.

  19. Also what I dislike about digital is the amount of waste that the consumer suffers to fill the company’s pockets. My friend got the Red One for $25,000 a few years later, Red Mysterium X came out and now that $25,000 is for a doorstop, he can’t resell it for a good price, it’s already outdated, so he put his Red One away and ordered a Red Mysterium X, now the Red Scarlet is on it’s way and he just lost even more money.

    Digital is only cheaper in terms of shooting ratio (which personally, if you need to shoot 30 takes a scene then the problem isn’t within the camera, the problem is who’s outside that camera, be it in front or behind) but there are a lot of backend costs that people don’t pay much attention too.

    A spokes person for Cannon spoke at my school once, told me that a Red One camera costs $100,000 for just the body. I said, “It says on the website it’s $25,000. He ignored me. Then he said “Film cameras are $100,000 each and film processing alone costs are double that.” I said “Perhaps if you buy a new film camera it might be close to $100,000 but that is why you rent them for your production, in Toronto there’s a place to rent Aaton and Arri 35mm package for $100 a day, also if you buy an older film camera like the Bolex, Arri S you can get great deals. I purchased a working, Arri 2A, with motor, 3 prime lenses and case for $1000 flat. And processing depends on your shooting ratio.” He told everyone I was wrong and laughed.

    Remember what Lenny Bruce said “There’s the way it is, and the way it should be. They will tell you one thing and you’ll eat it up.”

    BTW Monsters did not cost $15,000, it was a marketing ploy, it cost nearly half a million to a million.

    • This is basically the same debate about any new technology that is marketed to replace an existing technology. We same the things talked about with analog vs. digital sound, gas cars vs. hybrids, incandescent light vs. CFL’s, etc. The new technology is marketed as being cheaper, more efficient, better. In some cases the technology is adopted and proven successful. But in others, the jury is still out. For example, are hybrid cars really cheaper to own and operate in the long term? Do they really have less impact on the environment? Do the batteries and manufacturing process cancel out the reduced usage of petroleum? Is it better to just buy a really efficient gas or diesel car? What Muta is talking about with film vs. digital is the same thing. Upfront costs are marketed as being cheaper, but what about the backend costs? We don’t know because these technologies are still so new.

  20. Can you imagine Red telling the studios to toss their $94,000 processing equipment and $100,000s worth of projectors in the garbage and replace it with cheaper, arguably not as well built stuff that may or may not last? My god, the studios are already so far in debt that will just be the final nail in the coffin.

    Like I said, look at the music world. They have Tube Amps, Solid State amps, and even Amp Emulators that you run on your laptop. They are all there, some even are hybrids (Marshall’s Vintage Modern) so why not the same with film? Options are everything. Remember when video first came out, people who shot with old Beta cams were penalized and ridiculed. Now it seems people who shoot with film are ridiculed and laughed at. I remember on a forum people where hating Darren Arronofksy for shooting on Super-16. Just the whole fact he has the budgets to shoot both 35mm and/or Red and chooses Super-16 instead people should take notice. Options people, options. That’s where I have a problem with things: The only thing film makers care about now are playing with their new toys and if anyone else decides to try a different method “They are crazy.” Shame what film making has become.

    No one should be badmouthed for aesthetic choices on THEIR work. The White Stripes recorded Seven Nation Army on an 8 track tape machine, Weezer almost always uses Analog tape to record. Are they wrong for doing so? Not at all. Just as Arronofksy isn’t “WRONG” for shooting Super-16 and Nolan isn’t “Wrong” for shooting 65mm and Mel Gibson isn’t “Wrong” for shooting with Phantom HD. It’s their film, their choice.

    At the end of the day there are 3 types of directors.

    Aesthetic directors (Nolan, Arronofky, Cohen Bros. ect)

    Technical Directors (Cameron, Lucas, ect)

    Business Directors (Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich ect)

    Some directors are all 3, some are two, some are just one. Yet that’s what makes us human, being able to choose what we want to do based on our own desires.

    I say, let’s have both and let us be allowed to keep our options open. It will be a pretty bleak day when a painter is told “You can never paint again, you can only use photoshop, because we say so.” or when all acoustic guitar players are told “You can only use electric now, just because.” Imagine the stupidity in those statements now apply that to film making.

  21. Oh and how is “Digital ruling the day in terms of 3D” accurate when it was proven perfect 3D can be done on film through Space Vision. No special cameras, no fixing projectors, just an adapter double lens that can mount on any camera and shoot perfect 3D on one strip of film. However, like I said…the last thing the companies want to do is solve the problem. Keep on feeding them folks, keep on feeding them.

  22. It’s about money. Artists will be artists. Bankers will be bankers. What makes the most money will be the path most will take. Sacrificing ones artistic options now for the mighty dollar, will be a regretable act down the road. This period of film making will be known as the plastic age. Great when it was discovered, plactic makes a wonderful material to make things cheaply. However, as we all know, it’s a disposable material. Digital is cheap and disposable, and the use of digital will lead to the loss of the great film makers who learned through film, and be replaced by a 3 year olds with digital cameras. At some point, knowbody will know how much was lost when film was abandoned completely, because all they will have ever seen is digital. That’s the plan, to make everything digital, regardless of what will be lost, just so a bunch of companies invested in digital can get richer. Once the public realizes this, their plan is in danger of being stopped. Hence, the hype of digital everywhere.

    I know a at least Sixty Thousand 35mm film shooters that used digital for the last 10 years, and have returned to film. Why? I suspect more will be returning to film as well. It’s because digital is cold and unfeeling. As one said, it has the look and feel of a dead fish.

  23. I have really noticed the affects of use of digital in comparison to film. There is something about the digital picture that is just too clean and lacks a certain gritty depth that film possesses. There’s a deep tone and resonance to film that from what I’ve seen so far digital just cannot imitate or inhabit. And im at a point where watching all these new digital movies causes my head to become rather irritable because of the bland, samey picture quality of it. Its ability create and capture tone depth and atmosphere I believe is vastly inferior to film. It Looks as though digital has it’s production, financial benefits in terms of time and location options, but for me that’s where it ends. If you are going to a job may as well take the time to do it properly.

  24. Things are always better when they are made in natural way.

  25. Digital is definitely the future, but its just not there yet. Capturing data in RGB just wont capture all those tones that film can. Cameras like the Arri Alexa have got the Dynamic range part down. But currently digital colors aren’t being captured with the same depth and clarity as film. It’s just a matter of time before this all changes. And I’m personally excited for that day. The day when digital (and the tools to process it) become a lot more sophisticated. And when we can truly retire shooting on film without any sacrifices.

  26. There is no succh thynk as no sacrifices digital is like a plastic
    instead of the wood it is easi to handle etc. bud in the end wood is
    the wood and plastic is just plastic film is wood and digital is
    plastic. There is nothyng than cheating going on wythout sacrifices.