The Puritanical Debate: Film versus Digital

Since its inception, digital image capturing has faced serious resistance from film professionals – both in still and motion.  The argument being film tangibly preserves an image while digital is a simple rearrangement of ones and zeros. Yet digital is heralded as the next evolution of the art form.  My point of view is that shooting films on film is the highest form of the art because it requires a higher degree of professional expertise.  But when a top director, Martin Scorsese, not only shoots digitally but also in three-dimension (something many pass off as gimmicky), it makes me think twice.  Part of me wants to scream, “Sell Out!”  While the other part, the side that reveres Scorsese, gives him a pass.  There must be something to it if Scorsese, director of the gritty film Raging Bull, takes a leap towards it.


Even so I still prefer film to digital.  Never mind that I own three digital cameras (DLSR, HDV and iPhone 4s).  Don’t judge me.  I have what I have because of production and post-production costs.  In managing a motion media product, I am constrained to my budget – or the lack thereof.  Had I the choice –and the means – I would choose film.  Is it more complicated? Yes.  Is it more costly and time consuming?  Yes.  But I’m a purist in my opinion that images captured on film are real.  Images captured on digital are not.  You catch a crappy image on film – it is what it is.  Honesty.  You catch a crappy shot on digital?  Just hit delete and no one will know.  Janusz Kaminksi, one of Steven Spielberg’s regular cinematographers interviewed with the LA Times, saying that digital makes for a lazy photographer.  I concur – from experience.  “When I was your age….” (and I’m only 30, mind you), I learned to shoot photography with a film camera.  My training took me from black and white, to color and then to slide film, working each in the darkroom and on the light table for hours.  The smell… the feel…. The frustration of seeing my mistakes slowly reveal themselves under the chemicals… It was a process to process.But that time spent made me a better photographer by motivating me to ensure I wouldn’t make the same mistake again.  Importantly, if not more in this context, is the fact that film capturing was a very organic experience. You could literally capture a piece of life, recording it into the emulsion of the film.

Photography and filmmaking are much different now.  Instead of perfecting exposure and camera control, shooters “Chimp.”   ‘Chimping’ is when a photographer shoots a shot, look at the LCD screen or monitor, shoot the shot, look at the screen… adjust settings (or just leave it on auto)… shoot.  Look at screen…. Etc.  It’s why Kaminski laments digital as “the death of the cinematographer,” and creates a co-dependent relationship between the photographer and the review button.  Kaminski continues, “If you see the image on the digital screen I think people become lazy, they get satisfied with just seeing the image, they’re not going for visual panache, not getting the story through metaphors… With film there is still mystery.”  Gone is the confidence that comes with knowing what, why and how a shot is captured.  I won’t lie and say it hasn’t happened to me.   My discipline died when I drank the ‘chimping’ punch.  A ‘sin’ I will never forgive myself of.

But you can’t ignore the fact that digital is here to stay, and professionals like Scorsese and Cameron are on board.  It would not be prudent to push against a bullish trend, but maybe converge the two artfully.  Newer digital cameras are capturing on 4K sensors and projecting “as-is” onto the screen.  Examining the process of traditional 35mm filmmaking and distribution, multiple duplications and projections actually downgrade the film to 1K by the time it reaches the screen.  Audiences have never really “seen” a 4K film in the theater.  Even so, there is still something organic about seeing a movie made from film.  But according to Filmmaker Magazine (Spring 2012 Issue), there is a new generation of filmmakers who hate the texture of film grain.  They are annoyed by small imperfections or the act of looking into a separate world rather than participating in it.  I don’t see that as a bad thing.  We often watch a movie to escape… to see and feel something not akin to real life.  Digital… just makes it too real.  Maybe it’s the way we “old-timers” (again… I’m 30 years old) grew up.  The story of film-making may soon be relegated to rocking chair conversations being reminisced from the front porch.


Fortunately there are companies still trying to preserve the art of ‘real’ filmmaking, while at the same time marrying film and digital for more efficient post-production workflows. Pro8mm out of Burbank, California is a full-service procurement, rental and processing house for 8mm and 16mm film.  They stock a self-invented Super 8 negative film (16X9) along with Super 8 and Super 16 cameras re-engineered for practical use.  Pro8mm creates digital masters of the film while preserving the look and feel of its original capture.  No I do not work for Pro8mm and no I do not get a cut for ‘selling’ them.  More or less, I am selling the idea that film is not dead.   But Super 8?  Whoa.  Who talks about Super 8 anymore?  Apparently  J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg do. It may take a bit more effort to proselytize its enduring viability, but making films with film is still a valid and valuable medium to work with – a resource professionals persist in using when managing the product of their film.



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