The Film in the “Film Industry:” Hollywood Leaves behind Physical Film

Alison K. Lanier

CNN’s website recently featured a piece, “Film to digital: Seeing movies in a new light,” with the revelation that cinemas’ projection rooms no longer feature the stereotypical projector with its reels of physical film rolling over a light to show on the screen.

Nvate film industry, filmmakers physical film vs. digital capture, 70 mm film and Imax

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Not only have these outdated machines been replaced by digital devices, but the process of filmmaking itself has been overtaken by digital processes. Just as film showings with physical film nowadays are dying events which cater to artistic or scholarly crowds, movies created using film are fewer and farther between, much to the chagrin of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, who are vocally pro-film.

Modern filmmaking methods are dominated by digital rather than film techniques. With the intersection of film and style becoming increasingly marked, a few major filmmakers like Nolan, though, are still bucking the trend and clinging to time-tested technique against—pun intended—the film industry’s overriding grain.

Technical Distinctions

Most Hollywood films are shot, at least, in part digitally or even in full, Redman Films describes. That being said, film has characteristic details that come from its physical properties that digital film cannot copy, according to Kodak.

Kodak, describing the difference between film and digital capture in “Capturing Information on Film,” states that film has a definitive grain structure, which varies by the type of stock, resulting in a visual electronic noise. One of film’s most distinctive features, though, is its superior resolution to digital capture. In comparison to digital capture’s regular grid of pixels, film’s less regular array of grains captures details that digital techniques, which rely on threshold values rather than gradients, are simply unable to register. This distinction results in the digital capture creating more blow-out effects in well-lit areas. Film’s slow, roll-off effect has a nonlinear response to changing exposure, avoiding blow-out but losing detail in shadow.

Quentin Tarantino famously despises digital filmmaking. “I can’t stand digital filmmaking, it’s TV in public,” Tarantino said to Digital Spy. The “Django Unchained” director has cited digital filmmaking as part of the reason he is threatening to retire when he turns 60. His concerns have been shared by other high-profile directors including Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Nolan is one of the most vocal and prominent opponents of digital filmmaking. In a Directors Guild of America interview, Nolan described vehemently, “For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why. It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable.”

“I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo,” Nolan said on a more practical note. “We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I’ve never done a digital intermediate.”

“Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a [Digital Intermediate] suite,” he continued. “That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven’t seen that reason yet.”

The Future of Moviemaking on Film

Nolan doesn’t automatically dismiss digital film with Tarantino-esque fervor, but he does see Hollywood’s strongest future in preserving the option to use film. “I’ve kept my mouth shut about this for a long time and it’s fine that everyone has a choice, but for me the choice is in real danger of disappearing.”

“So right before Christmas I brought some filmmakers together [which included Edgar Wright, Joe Dante, Michael Bay, and Bryan Singer to name a few] and showed them the prologue for ‘The Dark Knight Rises’ that we shot on Imax film, then cut from the original negative and printed,” Nolan said. “I wanted to give them a chance to see the potential, because I think Imax is the best film format that was ever invented. It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion.”

Nvate film industry, filmmakers physical film vs. digital capture, 70 mm film and Imax

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Despite Nolan’s defense, digital cinematography is rapidly conquering the “film” industry. Most films are shot entirely or partially using digital technology. Fans of “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones” know that most of the spectacular sets are generated on computer screens. James Cameron’s bar-setting “Avatar” made waves particularly because of its digitally-constructed dreamscape. The progressive, cutting-edge vision of big-name Hollywood and television filmmaking seems no longer to be in film.

The Imax-Quality Option

Imax—an abbreviation of the aptly-titled Image Maximum—uses extremely fine quality 70 mm film, among the widest and the most expensive variety of film available, according to Marshall Brain’s article on HowStuffWorks.com. The Imax format is generally known as 15/70 film, in reference to the 15 sprocket holes per frame. Imax film is extremely bulky, so bulky that its large 69.6 mm by 48.5 mm must move three times as much film through the camera to achieve the standard 24 frames-per-second rate versus the next-biggest, 65-mm variety of film. Despite its cumbersome size, 70-mm film, as Nolan describes, is the highest quality film against its digital challenger.

“The message I wanted to put out there was that no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away,” Nolan said in his DGA interview. “But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so. I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an Imax one.”

A few filmmakers still cling to the style and detail made possible by physical film. While film showings survive in small theaters with special showings and in the hearts of a handful of die-hard prominent enthusiasts, the time-tested film techniques that Nolan espouses have their best hope of surviving only as a choice counter to the dominant trend of digital production. Film may be time-tested and, yes, less costly, but Hollywood budgets and blockbusters seem to be veering decisively toward the realm of digital innovation.

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