digital cinema versus film… who is the fairest of them all?

In the documentary Side by Side, Keanu Reeves asks some of Hollywood’s top directors and cinematographers their thoughts on recording in digital and what it means for traditional film cameras. The film gives a fantastic exposition to the production process and how some of these have changed due to the digital pipeline.

Side by Side is now available to rent in iTunes

One major difference is that film footage has to be developed before it can be reviewed. Thus a day’s shoot would be developed overnight and watched the next day (‘dailies’). This required a lot of faith in the Director of Photography. With digital cameras, the footage could be reviewed on set and adjustments made where necessary.

Another consequence of ‘film rolls’ is that a typical shoot would last 10 minutes before the roll had to be replaced. Film itself is extremely costly so those 10 minutes became highly charged and demanded focus. But a natural pause would arrive whilst the cameras were reloaded; allowing cast and crew to take a break. With digital, takes could be repeated over and over with minimal overhead. This has caused frustration and relief! Frustration for some actors and crew since concentration has to be held for much longer, relief for Directors wanting to take ‘Just ONE more take!’.

Two summers back, I was Assistant Director on an independent film. After two weeks of intense shooting we called a final wrap (after the sixth take on a scene). We all clapped and cheered and I could see the relief on our actress face. Just as everyone was about to leave the set, the Director (and also a dear friend) asked me if it would be a good idea to do ‘one last take’… I smiled and gently said to him ‘sure, but only if you don’t mind the crew throwing you into the lake!!!’

In the documentary, Martin Scorsese points out that ‘you can review the footage straight away. But maybe having that time away will give you time to gain clarity on other things going on…’. No doubt the changes in the shooting process have affected the final performance. But I believe that the advantages outweigh the cons, especially for independent cinema and terms of opening up the creative process without the prohibitive costs of film.

For a long time digital camera footage was widely viewed as technically inferior to Film. The initial cameras lacked the resolution and more importantly the dynamic range of film. Purists would note that films organic grainy look due to the irregular silver halide crystals cannot be replicated by the ‘pixel’ representation from a CCD, that the tonal range of film was not matched. However the last decade has seen considerable improvements to bridge the gap. Since the arrival of the ARRI ALEXA and RED EPIC more films have been recorded in digital than film in the last four years. Even the film devotees have complimented how ‘close’ ALEXA footage is to film and may even supersede it in some areas.

Academy award winning cinematographer Roger Deakins talks about the ARRI ALEXA

It is fascinating to note that major film camera manufacturers (for cinema) are NO LONGER developing new film cameras! Christopher Nolan has consistently voiced his reservations to shooting in digital. For the Dark Knight Rises he insisted that the studio allow him to shoot most of the film using IMAX cameras. Indeed the resolution and fidelity of IMAX simply cannot be matched by any digital camera out there at the moment. The film looked fantastic and I loved every one of the Batman movies. At the same time, it is INCREADIBLY difficult and expensive to shoot with an IMAX camera! And most studios would have declined this request, were it not for the fact that Christopher Nolan was one of THE most successful directors of our time with an incredibly successful franchise.

Also note that so far we have only talked about the acquisition of footage. Nearly all productions are now edited in DIGITAL! Film footage is readily scanned into a digital intermediary format. This allows the addition of special effects, sound, colour grading and editing. After which the footage may be output back into film. This has been happening for decades and not many are calling for a return to pure analogue pipe line.

The advent of a complete and AFFORDABLE digital production pipeline is helping a new wave of film makers come onto the scene. A decade ago, the production costs for cinema grade footage would have set back many projects from the get go. Advancements in Digital imaging coupled with massive computational horse power/storage at substantially lower costs have raised the bar for independent cinema.

Whist the RED cinema camera was causing shock waves in Hollywood; in 2007 the ‘micro budget’ scene was set alight with the arrival of the Canon 5D II. A professional full frame SLR which could also record 1080p at 24 fps, HDSLR had truly arrived when Vincent Laforet showed just what was possible with Reverie.

The short video that launched HDSLR into the mainstream

Since then the quality of HDSLR has improved incrementally, and it drew a new generation of photographers into film. As the audience learned the new craft their demands grew and the manufactures listened (Cannon and Nikon). However despite opening a whole world of creative possibilities, HDSLR faces technical constraints which DPs must respect. The lack of available dynamic range, rolling shutter and moiré are the main complaints. Compressed 8-Bit footage can be very difficult to ‘correct in post’. Thus it becomes very important that lighting and exposures are set as accurately as possible when shooting.

Thus a ‘second’ revolution was hailed when the Black Magic Cinema Camera was launched in 2012. Recording 2.5K in 12-bit RAW; compatible with EF / 4-3 mount lenses… for just $3000! That’s less than the Canon 5 D MK III and offering a resolution and dynamic range not found in cameras below $10k. The footage from this camera is simply breath taking and a level apart from others in a similar price range.

Comparing Black Magic Cinema camera to the 5D MK III ( 12-bit RAW v 8-bit )

It does have its quirks which no doubt will be improved via firmware over time plus dealing with RAW footage requires massive storage space and computational power to manipulate. 30mins of RAW footage takes approximately 250 gigs! Also the sensor crop of 2.4 dramatically reduces the field of view and depth of field for the same lens compared to a full frame sensor. To quote Philip Bloom ‘the day they release a version with a Super 35 sensor, it will take over the world’

So digital cinematography is here to stay and whilst film reached its technological peak a long time ago, digital technology continues to improve. Will it replace film? I feel it is more worthwhile to ask ‘Does digital add to the art of cinema?’. By allowing a new generation of talent to bring their story to the silver screen due to lower production costs… YES IT DOES!

What do you think?

1 Comment

  1. Tiffany says:

    Now I kind of understand why Christian Bale “lost it” when a technician stepped into a scene and “ruined” it on set of one of the batman movies… Each scene costs a fortune!

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