The debate between the advantages of shooting on digital and celluloid is now at the forefront of the film world’s psyche. Filmmakers do not agree on which medium yields the most benefits – Roger Deakins is beginning to favour digital, while Christopher Nolan’s preference for film remains unchanged. While the aesthetic advantages of each format are hotly debated, most agree that digital’s role within the industry will continue to grow. The advantages held by the digital format in economy and practicality are vast, which would seem to suit the studios perfectly – as Martin Scorsese says, “anything cheaper and faster makes sense for the businessman.” However, the champions of film will not be swayed.
Christopher Nolan and his director of photography Wally Pfister assert that digital technology is not yet advanced enough to exceed the visual quality of film, and they are technically right – there is no medium which yields a higher resolution than 70mm IMAX film, which was used in Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. However, filming in 70mm is incredibly costly. Its use is only justifiable in productions with stellar budgets, and even then it is limited to certain scenes. 35mm is still the predominant medium in feature films, and its quality is far more comparable to that of digital. David Lynch and Roger Deakins both consider digital to be equal or superior to 35mm film in its aesthetic, and Deakins even underlines the visual edge the Alexa Arri camera has over film. He explains that the film speed of the Arri allows far greater versatility in extreme light conditions, whether bright or dark. Deakins also believes that the deciding factor in Sam Mendes’ decision to film Skyfall in digital was the clarity that the medium gives the characters’ eyes. Skyfall is among the hot favourites for the Academy Award for cinematography, and if Deakins is successful the tenth time around, it will be a huge achievement for the digital format – three of the last four winners of the award will have been filmed digitally (Avatar and Hugo being the other two).
It would seem, then, that the issue of visual quality is unresolved. Everyone can agree that film and digital stock are vastly different media, and some go as far as to argue that only celluloid constitutes real cinema due to its full, organic look. They certainly have a point: if we reimagine some of the masterworks of cinema in digital – Once Upon a Time in the West, for example – instinct tells us that the result would not be as richly satisfying. Digital is, for now at least, best reserved for certain kinds of projects, whether that be the homemade feel of Cloverfield or the modern, night-time cityscapes of Drive and Collateral. The use of digital in The Hobbit, however, gave the film a sharpness and gloss which felt wrong – film is undoubtedly more suitable for period and fantasy pieces.
Aesthetics are only one of several issues which are central to the debate. The fact that filming in digital is more practical and cost-effective is near undisputable. However, the related issue of the “democratisation” of the filmmaking world is a more contentious one. While the ease of production allows people to create films who would previously have been unable to access or operate the technology, we need look no further than the music industry to see that, once a product becomes too easily produced, it also becomes easily digested and disposed of. There are worries within film circles that democratisation leads to popularisation of the ‘lowest common denominator’. The most viewed filmmakers on YouTube use silly special effects in daft action sequences – and the audience seems to lap it up. On the flip-side, however, a culture in which so many people have the means to produce a film must surely nourish the highest quality of art. Many of the most promising films in this year’s festival lineups were filmed digitally, and it is a fair assumption that some of them would never have been produced if not for the advancement of digital technology.
What must be understood is that film and digital are two entirely different media, and each one can communicate its message in a different way. While the look of celluloid has a certain magic to it, digital cinematography has begun to yield some fantastic results. Selecting the right medium is an artistic choice, and one that directors will hopefully continue to be afforded. The fact that digital technology gives opportunities to a whole new world of filmmakers can be construed in different ways – while it may be too early to tell, it would seem that the democratisation process will simply widen the gulf between true art and mass entertainment. Should we pick sides in what has been called the “battle between digital and film”? Not necessarily – above all we should support intelligent decisions on which medium is most suitable for conveying a particular film’s message.