Film vs Digital: the big debate. We ask the industry heavyweights

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RedShark/PanavisionFilm vs Digital

RedShark's 12 Days of Christmas Replays: Arguments - even traditional Boxing Day ones - about film vs digital are more numerous and more subtle than "which looks better?". It affects everything. Here's what people at the coal-face think. By Matt Aindow

By Matt Aindow

And relax. With news last month that the major studios have signed a rescue package deal with Kodak that will effectively ‘save’ film as an acquisition format for current and future generations of filmmakers (should they choose to work with it), we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Do you think YOU will be shooting your next project on film? Is access to this endangered commodity for the Hollywood elite only? The hierarchy is firmly established – A-List DoPs and directors get first shout but, in theory, the option to shoot film is still available to everyone. Snatched from the jaws of certain extinction, those binary bullyboys must be livid, yes? Er, no.

We have choice. Everyone is happy, ecstatic even. Jobs have been saved (a few perhaps) so let’s all play nicely now and get on with the business of telling the story.

Before we continue, in the Comments section below Part One, I was accused of having already formed an opinion, of being biased in favor of digital. I am biased; I have never shot film and probably never will, but I thought I’d been clear that I was pro choice. With irony thick enough to make a sandwitch, my star witness from the pro film camp, Garry Maddison, was too busy to contribute to the first part of the article because he was unusually busy performing DI on three, THREE! features shot on film. Garry, from newly merged vfx super continent Double Negative, is a time served colourist and a member of Paul Franklin’s talented team of artists who scooped a BAFTA for Best Special VFX Film with Interstellar (presented by uber brain Stephen Hawking), and more recently the Oscar for Best Visual Effects at last month’s Academy Awards ceremony. Later in this article, Garry’s pre-BAFTA interview and the discussion I had with idailies senior telecine colourist Dan Crussall, shall restore balance to the force (hint).

I intimated at the end of part one that there was an area where film, without question, can claim the Gold Standard title over digital. The big stick that Christopher Nolan used to hit the home run wasn’t an artist’s plea from an aesthetic perspective, but a scientific debate about the unique archive quality of film. It was a clever appeal to the studios who have a vested interest in maintaining and rendering their motion picture assets financially viable indefinitely. James Mathers, of the Digital Cinema Society, had this to say, “Although Digital Cinema cameras continue to improve, Film still sets the bar and is truly the image acquisition "Gold Standard”. It is also currently the undisputed champion of archive as major motion pictures mastered on digital are still scanned to three-stripe film negative for long-term preservation. Formats and standards are changing too quickly in the world of digital, and if Producers care about their long-term investment in a project, they want to have it in a format that will stand the test of time. Film has been around in much the same form for over a century now, and the fact that it is not innovating as quickly as digital is an advantage in terms of Archive.”

So, with James and all the experts that I polled agreeing that film-based archive is currently our most stable and long-term option, it seems that we don’t trust our data storage technology any further than we can throw it. Proposed long-term solutions can appear to come straight off the pages of a Star Trek script, but are, as yet, to come online. Holographic crystals, DNA encoding, spinning gas particles. Make it so.

In Part One I promised we’d gaze into the crystal ball with futurologist, film director, screenwriter and author, Maxim Jago to see what to expect by 2020 and beyond.

“Very interesting point about film as an archival solution. There’s basically nothing to beat it at the moment. It’s interesting that people are describing it as a known quantity and, therefore, a safe bet. In fact, not knowing whether the rushes have even worked or not until you get them back from the lab brings quite a lot of uncertainty. Again, fine if you have the budget to hang around a location until you’re happy with what you have, but a problem for smaller productions that may only have access to a location for a few hours… I’m waiting on 3D crystalline storage – it’s long overdue. I recall seeing a demonstration of a produce many years ago that used crossed laser beams to read and write data into something the size of a sugar cube. It’ll come… soon! Ish! If we can create a crystal that responds to light intensity, photon spin or even plain old electromagnetism, we might be able to produce a high-capacity storage medium with a shelf life in excess of 1,000 years.”

Of course, with the immediacy of DIT, the Bit shepherds’ on-set routines are just one expression of the huge shift towards D-Cinema. Michael Cioni from Light Iron/Panavison has a first hand perspective of the pros and cons of an IT centric Born Digital production. For Michael it’s mostly pros.

“Imagine asking a creative person - a director or DP, even a producer or editor - ‘Process A takes one day and process B takes two days, but the results are the same, which do you want?’. Of course they want the one that takes the least amount of time, right? Creative people need feedback in order to make informed decisions. Feedback gives creative people control. The best way to provide feedback and control is speed, that’s the equation. The speed of an IT centric production will always out-perform an analogue one, and it will only get faster as we move forward. It’s amazing that for decades we’ve had the ability to broadcast live TV with only a few seconds of delay, but until recently getting your dailies back could take 48 hours. Two days is an unacceptable limit to creative control, and that’s what file-based acquisition and on-set dailies have solved.  Creative people may not care about how these tools work, or even what these tools are, but they will endorse and support them if they make their job better.  How do you measure a better job? A director will tell you ‘If I have more control and I can do it faster, I can do a better job.’ It’s not about more resolution, it’s not about more colour or bit depth, it’s about speed. Faster feedback lets directors make better decisions on the fly and that results in a better project overall. That’s what IT brings to the set.”

As a post facility, Light Iron has been instrumental in the development of digital workflow. Now allied to Panavision, the fusion of these two companies rings like a bellwether for a new era in digital acquisition and delivery. When I spoke to Michael he described the development of digital acquisition along the lines of a school system. His analogy currently places us in middle school, the point being that this is a young but rapidly maturing technology where next gen cameras are not just taking pictures, they are making work flow.  Technology is often described as a moving target, a work in progress. As product development cycles contract it can be a daunting task for filmmakers to evolve their skillset in order to remain industry effective. If you want to work on Hollywood movies, you need to be as skilled as Hollywood, regardless of where you are based. Michael believes it’s the obligation of those who have the expertise to talk about it. That’s how we facilitate change. As Cioni argues “It’s absolutely a moving target. If you have trouble keeping up today it’s only going to get worse in the future… Who’s driving the change in D-Cinema? It’s everybody. Remember, in the past Sony would make a format. They would make the tape, the codec, the cameras, the VTR; when you bought into Digi Beta you bought into everything. You could trust Sony and for over 30 years their plan for being the development group, being the workflow and evolution leader, worked. Today everyone has to be the architect of that because everybody is sharing responsibilities with each other. So that’s you, that’s me, that’s NVIDIA, that’s Sony, RED, Arri, and Panasonic. It’s Pomfort and other smaller companies. It’s the tech companies: Apple, Google, Vimeo. They all play a role now. Look at ProRes. It’s the number one codec in the world and Apple didn’t mean for that to be used as a camera codec, it was never designed for that. Who engineered ProRes to be the most popular capture codec of all time? No one company did. We all did it together.”

Perhaps its time to introduce Garry Maddison, senior colourist at Double Negative. Although not anti-digital, celluloid runs deep in his veins. His recent work suggests that film acquisition, once again, is thriving.

“Over the last few years I’d say I’ve worked on two big film projects a year, and yet this year I’m already working on three features. It is unusual; I don’t know if this is something to do with the deal Christopher Nolan made to get access to film. Perhaps some people thought film wasn’t accessible anymore, I don’t know. The studios have this option now and they are clearly giving their directors and DoPs the choice to shoot on film and seem more than happy to use it.”

Dan Crussell, senior colourist at boutique idailies is in a similar position.

“At the moment we're working on the new Bond film and we’ve just finished Star Wars VII, just finished Mission:Impossible 5 and Fury. These are big films. Star Wars VII is probably going to be the most successful film ever made when it comes out in December. I have also got a large restoration job starting soon which will involve re-scanning lots of material at 2K for re-editing and grading. There are at least three feature films scheduled for the summer, and of course, there is the new Star Wars spin off films, which we are hoping will also come to i-dailies. At the same time we are continually working on a variety of small jobs for artists, students or people who just love shooting film as a hobby.”

Star Wars? Along with millions of others I’m trusting J.J. Abrams with my childhood. Should we brace ourselves for disappointment?

“They’ve tried to be completely faithful to the original, to the point where they’ve used the same lenses as the original trilogy… visually it’s going to be spot on!
The rushes were done by Deluxe although we did the processing. I saw a fair amount of the rushes when I was required to check negatives for issues, but I didn't do it all on a daily basis. The DoP came in regularly to view the negative with me but I wasn't doing any grading.”
As an aside, as a Star Wars fan it was an experience in itself talking to Dan. In less time than it takes to say Kessel Run the arc of my emotions ran from blind jealousy to controlled bitterness and then genuine heart felt pity. Dan can’t un-watch the Star Wars VII rushes that he saw in the lab. He’ll never see it as intended, the entire son et lumiere spectacle in one package. The anticipation. Watching on the big screen with popcorn stuck in his teeth.
In true karmic style, as if to counteract these necessary spoilers, colourists like Garry and Dan get to see the pictures in pristine, Grade A condition, straight off the neg. Sitting in a grading suite puts you in a very privileged position. You literally have the best seat in the house. You get to see all the contrast, deep colour and detail ‘as intended’ by the creative and technical team  (I’m arcing back to bitterness again. Let’s move on). However, by the time it’s viewed by us plebs on the majority of TVs, tablets and cinema screens, a large portion of that information is lost. As Garry says, “I find it hard going to the cinema sometimes, especially with digital projection. I feel almost cheated. If the movie is shot on digital I frown ‘cause I don’t feel like I’m getting my money’s worth. If we can come back to film, the grain is actually a living thing that you can’t just replicate with a computer script; I’ve seen people try but you can’t do this. For me film is still ahead, still the choice option to use I think.
But I do see how digital will get better and it affords more people the chance and creative opportunities to make films, so there’s definitely a place for it.”

Dan Crussell agrees. “The great thing about film is that is has the ‘look’ already, it's just there, that is what film does. All I'm doing is a bit of tweaking to make sure it's in the right place, and really the work is done. That's why lots of the really top DoPs will still want to use film, because if you know what you're doing, you get the look in the camera. My job is so easy when you're working with a really good cinematographer. If the DoP knows what she is doing, understand her craft, the lighting, the exposure and the framing… they know exactly how to get it and expose on the neg and it's there, it exists, it's in your hand.”

Everyone I spoke to who has worked with film is deeply passionate about their craft and committed to the preservation of film as a medium. So if it boils down to ‘the look’ of film, what is it? Laurence Murphy from Salford University knows a thing or three about our industry. I caught up with him at a local SMPTE seminar last week at the BBC Academy at MediaCityUK.
“There’s an old joke; If you have a group of physicists in a pub, if you want to get them animated, get them to discuss Schrodinger’s Cat. Well it’s the same with filmmakers. If you want to spice up a group of shy filmmakers, ask them ‘What’s the Film look? Define it.’ If you’re saying film is better, why is it better? A large proportion of what they’ll define as the thing that makes film film, are actually the faults of film… When a frame of 35mm is exposed there’s a lot of picture information in that frame. But when that 35mm film goes through the mechanical projection process (flashed past the lamp, the shutter has two passes), as it’s being pulled through, the film reel moves - what we call weaving- and that causes a loss of resolution on the screen and actually makes film look soft. Film purists love that. They say it’s actually a more natural look. This has nothing to do with the emulsion or grain. Weaving is part of the mechanical, physical delivery process, but it’s an integral ingredient of the ‘Film look’ that forms part of the cinematic experience. If that’s missing (as it would be with digital projection) we notice that there’s something missing, something wrong and we can’t relate to it.”

Garry Maddison elaborates. “Film has imperfections, you can’t replicate that. The grain is an actual physical thing in film, and you can’t replicate that in digital. This might be different for people who grow up watching digital film. They might think that that’s how film should look, but for me, and the people I’ve worked with, the feel of film, the grain, that’s all part of the filmmaking… I prefer the filmmaking process with film. Yes film is expensive and people are aware that when they are shooting a shot on film, or IMAX 70mm film; they are going to make sure that every light is absolutely spot on, that that scene is set absolutely perfectly for that photograph.  Whereas sometimes, with digital, they do just say, ‘well let’s just get it’. I still don’t think digital is there. I have no doubt it will get there in the end but presently film is the better format to use especially for the high dynamic range and that’s why I don’t know why you wouldn’t use the best format available to you at present.”

Dan Crussell again. “What is the film look? It’s something organic: The dynamic range of film, the depth of the blacks, the detail captured in the highlights. When film is perfectly exposed it really is incredible how much detail and how much depth there is to the colour. On the flipside, if it’s badly exposed it can look terrible! But when you see something that’s shot on film and it’s well treated, in my opinion, it’s a much nicer image, it has a greater effect on your emotions and the physical grain that is within film…it feels like it’s breathing, it feels like it’s alive. I see a lot of stuff on TV now that’s shot digitally and it’s flat, it leaves me feeling flat. Because I've always loved film and I can hold a piece of film up to the light, this is something that actually exists, it can be manipulated, it can be destroyed, whereas with digital it's just a load of zeros and ones on a hard drive. It’s really hard to explain… it is definitely an emotional thing. I think people do have the emotional connection with film. It can make them feel a certain way, and that’s partly the history of going to the cinema from when you were a kid, that flicker… A large part of the ‘look’ attributed to film is, in fact, the imperfections of film. I think people fall in love with that. I don’t think anyone is saying that film is perfect. It’s not! But if it's done properly it really can evoke the kind of emotion that I don’t think digital even gets close to.”

Whenever I speak to professionals who have worked extensively with film, I detect the sentiment that digital workflow can encourage a lazy attitude towards the craft. Is there some truth in this? Is there an endemic lack of industry knowledge that comes along with the digital filmmaker, epitomized by the ‘fix it in post’ mentality and the throw-away point and shoot method afforded by digital cameras? Dan says, “When the director calls ‘Action!’ and you hear that film camera roll, people are up and concentrated, and they know that this has got to be good because you can't keep doing take after take after take. That’s your budget gone! So I do hear that quite a lot, people get lazy with digital because they think that it's so disposable.”
Garry shared a similar view…
“When I worked in commercials that was certainly the case. The phrase ‘fix it in post’ was used far too much on digital projects. Less so in feature films but that mentality is carried over where they think they can get away with this take being bad, whereas on film you have to nail every take.

Then you’ve got DoPs who have moved from film into digital cinematography and they embrace it. I saw an interview with Roger Deakins and he said he had no problem working with digital cameras, but perhaps that’s because he’s learned his craft. He learned on film and he can take his skillset over to digital shooting.”

Which leaves us with the filmmakers of the future. idailies provides film lab facilities for at least five major film schools, including the National Film & Television School, London Film Academy, Central Film School and Brighton Film School. Digital workflow is still obviously a large part of the curriculum, but they all teach film to a certain extent. Whether or not students get to use film in terms of their graduation projects is another matter. That usually comes down to money. Dan told me that the tutors at the UK’s National Film and Television School are passionate about people learning the craft of shooting film, because of what it teaches you; it’s all relevant and important knowledge whether you are shooting film or digital, it’s fundamental knowledge that you need to understand in order to be successful.

And the news that Kodak will continue to supply film stock to the majors confirms that what’s being taught still has a place. As Dan says, “I think it's important in terms of teaching the next generation of filmmakers and technicians this important knowledge about how light works and how we capture it, how to get the right exposure, how to light a scene. These are all things that when you are capturing log on a digital format it's not really as important because the image is then going to be manipulated afterwards. If you are doing it on negative film you need to get it right there and then, that in itself is a huge part of the filmmaking process… I think it's exciting for those of us working in the labs and working on these films that are being shot on negative because it’s a sign that people do still want us, people still want this part of the industry and although who's to say that maybe one day people won't be shooting any film, that at least for the short-term it means that we can carry on and hopefully some people want to learn how to work on that side of the industry. The last couple of years I’ve been made redundant twice and I’m fast running out of places to work! And then this last year it's been the busiest I've ever been. Great news.”

But for we digital shooters, when you record in Log mode, remember that you are attempting to match some of the qualities that are taken for granted in the world of film acquisition, namely 14+ Stops of dynamic range. It’s the application of some clever Kodak inspired maths that allows our sensors to mimic the response curve of silver halide. Whilst the digital cinema camera manufacturers race ahead to out-perform this so called Gold Standard of Film Stock, I suggest it’s an unwinnable argument. As we heard from our professionals, it’s the flaws and foibles of organic film stock that digital can’t do, and that’s what gets the creative community all creamed up. It’s the imperfections of film they are passionate about preserving, the je ne sais quoi film look. Is it an emotionally driven argument? Damn right! So let them have it. Let’s support the technology that allows filmmakers the use of the best tools available for the job at hand. Is that Film or Digital? You decide. If it happens to be a near redundant, expensive, time consuming, anachronistic acquisition medium, then so be it! If it’s a digital 6K workflow camera that means the difference between a director making the movie he wants to, or not at all, go for it! I just want to see the best stories and performances supported by the best possible photography. One thing is certain; how we consume our diet of dancing pixels will continue to evolve. Go Film! Go Digital! Now make the feckin movie already!

My sincere thanks go to the professionals, Maxim Jago, Laurence Murphy, James Mathers, Michael Cioni, Dan Crussall and Garry Maddison, who took time out of their very busy schedules to help me understand this issue a little better. I couldn’t have done it without their expert knowledge. Their opinions are their own; factual clangers, as they say, are all mine.

On the off chance Chris Nolan is reading this on his hiatus, ‘Hello. On behalf of all of us in the community, thank you. Do feel free to get in touch and we’ll roll this out to Part Three.’

 

Read Matt Aindow's previous article on this subject here

Tags: Production

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