26 Dec 2015

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

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Film vs Digital Film vs Digital RedShark/Panavision


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.

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