05 Nov 2015

What is it about Film?

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Interstellar - What is it about Film? Interstellar - What is it about Film? Warner Brothers/Paramount pictures


RedShark Replay: "There is no creative advantage to shooting film" says a top industry figure.  So why do top movie directors keep using it? By Matt Aindow. [First published Feb 2015]

It’s a rare event these days, but last weekend, after hocking a non-essential organ, we decided to go to the movies en famille. Family film nights are usually a replica event at home: dark room, popcorn, rustling sweets and a snuggle with Mrs A. whilst we argue for half an hour with the children over what to watch on Netflix. But this time we opted for the big screen and Christopher Nolan’s latest offer, Interstellar. I avoid plot spoiler websites and teaser trailers and I promise that you won’t find any here, not even a review. However, my head and body squarely above the parapet, I will claim Interstellar to be a cinematic masterpiece. This film, both story and photography, is beautiful, poignant, intelligent and epic. I recommend it without reservation and suggest it goes straight to the top of your 2014 movie bucket list.

After one hundred and sixty nine minutes of willing disbelief suspension, we paid our respects, as always, to the hard-working team of hundreds of men and women involved by staying to the end of the credits. We like to name spot, see which VFX houses were involved, locations etc… geeky, day job stuff. Whilst still in the first flush of my Interstellar experience, the final frame appeared and without the aid of 3D glasses the following statement floated out from the screen towards me; “Shot and finished on film”.

Flying Figs

What’s this? Of the millions of cinema-goers predicted to see this film, I can’t imagine that many would give a flying fig how the images were acquired, so it was clearly a message meant to resonate with anyone inside the industry. Digital v Film is a stale bun fight but I somehow felt there was something more to this. I left the theatre intrigued by this cryptic meme and immediately researched Nolan’s Easter Egg statement online. The argument in favour of film is often portrayed as reactionary and sentimental but it didn’t take long to discover that Nolan’s stance was neither. So why the fuss? Why the declaration?

First let me list a few of the recent large studio projects shot on film; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Philips, American Hustle, and, still in production, Star Wars Episode VII. Quite a list, each one an Academy Award winner, and for the sake of argument let’s assume that Nolan’s and J.J.’s efforts with Interstellar and Star Wars will reel in nominations in 2015/16. For Nolan the argument is simple: film is the Gold Standard. His stance, with which a host of A-list filmmakers agree, is that until digital surpasses this standard and can offer substantial benefits over celluloid, he’s staying with what works.

A sea change towards digital

You’ll be aware that over the last decade or so there has been a sea change in the feature and broadcast world where the primary method of image acquisition (still or moving) has shifted from traditional celluloid and silver halide crystals to digital sensors. The number of features opting for the digital route has been steadily rising and 2015 will be the tipping point where ‘Born Digital’ will be the most common workflow in feature film production. This trend follows the already established pipeline that broadcast and video production has adopted, where the economic benefits of digital acquisition are easier to quantify.

The master cinematographers and post-professionals of the big screen, whose opinions on such matters actually count for something, all agree that we should champion both tools.

The fractal beauty of film grain adored by so many, coupled with the increased possibilities for enhancement and manipulation afforded by a digital post production environment (made possible by increasingly powerful workstations) has evolved over recent years into an established and trusted workflow for feature film production; Digital Intermediate. Film – Digital – Film. This term is now more commonly used to describe the digital post production workflow of the colourist and finishing artist, but the relentless slide towards an all digital path led Nolan to speak out, and at CinemaCon 2014, he spoke eloquently about his approach to filmmaking, explaining why he doesn’t use 3D and his principle of trying to capture as much as possible in-camera rather than relying on greenscreen. When asked about his preference for film, he added, ”I’m a fan of technological innovation, but for me, it’s going to have to exceed what came before, and it hasn’t yet.”

Timely intervention to save film

For film, Time of Death has been called many times, but after years of silent observation Nolan finally rang the alarm when the choice to shoot film was evaporating. The cabal of Hollywood A-list directors he enlisted to the cause and their timely intervention saved both film as a format and the remaining supporting industries. Tarantino, Abrams, Nolan, Apatow and Scorsese all recognise that digital has huge advantages, but lobbied hard to retain the unique artistic qualities of film.

J.J. Abrams decision to shoot e.7 of Star Wars photo-chemically (I can barely contain myself) to match the photography of the original trilogy adds yet another authorial voice to the choir of ‘shoot it on film’ industry pros. DP Daniel Mindel worked with Abrams on previous projects such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III, also shot on film.

As J.J. Abrams argues, “Film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the standard goes away.”

It is a powerful message. When industry leaders speak out and say the tech isn’t quite there yet we should sit up and listen. Confused? You’re not alone. That’s not the line that the various Digital Cinema Camera manufacturers are spinning, and that’s why we should heed the checks and balances approach. Whilst Nolan hints at dark forces with vested interests driving the change in the industry, I’m not one for conspiracy theories and in business the competing forces for change v maintaining the status quo are economically driven. It’s simply a matter of perspective as to which camp is cast as the devil.

Like most sensible, right-thinking folk I’m pro choice. Credit where it’s due, thanks to the actions of Nolan and friends Born Digital won’t be Hobson’s Choice.

We have a problem

However, if we accept the premise that acquired on film is the Gold Standard then Houston, we have a problem. The dipole shift between the dominance of one format over another has an effect on the economies of scale. The shrinking market of film is most obviously reflected in the disappearance of photochemical labs around the globe. To put this into perspective, Kodak is the sole supplier of film stock to the major studios. Technicolor maintains a lab in the UK whilst Fotokem in California is one of the last surviving labs in the US.

I spoke to Michael Cioni, CEO of Light Iron post-production in Hollywood, following their recent acquisition by Panavision. Michael is an artist who is perfectly positioned to assess the current mood towards digital dominance and offer his own insights into this fast moving industry. In his opinion, the choice to shoot film is emotionally driven and is a perfectly natural response to the inevitable demise of film as the dominant medium of acquisition.

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