Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Film is dead

First of all, I love film.

In elementary school I was one of those AV monitor dorks who wheeled the projection equipment into your room and threaded the film whenever your teacher needed a break and forced you to watch that boring volcano documentary again.  I started shooting with Super-8 cameras as a 12-year old and spent many a long night gluing edits together in my dark, noxious-fume-laced-room.  I later finally got my hands on real 16mm equipment as a film major at S.F State.  We Cinema students scoffed at the broadcast arts department kids and their aesthetically inferior crappy-assed video cameras that they were forced to use.  Eventually as a professional video editor, I spent many long hours trying to make video look more like film (Cinelook anybody), but it never really got there.

With its slightly stuttering 24 frames per second, motion picture film suggested another reality altogether different from our own - a place to pour our ideas, our emotions. It was the medium of visual poetry, of dreams. Video on the other hand, presented the harsh, glossy reality of the now. The faster frame rate of 30 frames per second made it appear to our eyes to be a glance not of art, but of our own mediocre everyday reality.  Video was the realm of soap operas, of news, of live events.

I wanted to live in the filmic world of metaphor - of campfire tales and big-screen dreams. I fought the film battle long and hard, but you know, what?

It's over - film is dead!  Long live digital!

Standard film technology is arcane, inefficient and unnecessarily expensive.  Based on 19th century technological advances, celluloid, mechanical shutters and sprockets were exciting stuff back in the day, but c'mon it's time to move on already - we're not still riding horse-drawn buggies people!

Everything behind the camera lens is now under the digital technological influence of Moore's law, which means that it only gets faster, cheaper and better from here on out.

The big knocks against video always had to do with frame rate, resolution, depth of field, latitude and low light sensitivity.  Against the industry standard of 35mm film, video cameras all came up short.

Standard Def Video (regular TV) was embarrassingly deficient in terms of resolution.  There simply were not enough pixels on the screen.  Once High Definition (HD) video was introduced (and now with 2k and 4k), the image sensors on the new cameras could start to approach the rich detail of film.

In recent years, from the lower end cameras (Panasonic DVX100, Panasonic HVX200, Canon HV20, Canon 7D) to the higher-end cameras (Viper, Genesis, F900, Red Epic, Arri Alexa), all these issues have been addressed and now the differences between film and digital video are practically imperceptible. But don't take my word for it - check out this recent shootout of inexpensive digital cameras (like the Canon 7D) vs. 35mm cameras that was overseen by major industry insiders.  Remember, this was a test using some of the cheapest cameras available (the Canon T2i is under $1,000) up against big bad 35mm film!

Then go over to Philip Bloom's site and check out his story about testing out these same cameras for none other than George Lucas.

When you're done with that, fill your head with the news that big-budget disaster film director Roland Emmerich has been testing the new Arriflex Alexa and Red cameras for his next flick.

There will always be a small amount of DPs who will cling to film and fail to see the big picture.  They will continue to bring up issues of latitude and sensitivity and whatever else their engineers can conjure. This is all irrelevant. When you take into account not only the images that digital cameras are able to record today, but also the digital workflow (production, post production, distribution, exhibition) and the economic impact of that workflow there really is no argument.

For the past 10 years or so Hollywood has been forced to adopt a frankensteined workflow for making movies.   Movies have been shot (mostly) in film, then transferred to video tape or digital files for editing, special effects and color-grading, then printed back onto 35mm film for distribution and exhibition.  Hardly efficient or cost effective.  Pioneers in digital cinema like George Lucas (Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones in 2002) were the first to shoot their films digitally and tried to force the theater owners to start installing digital projectors.  However, most of the industry still remained entrenched in old technology, with the DPs and the Theater owners digging their heels in the most.

Just the idea of having to make numerous 35mm prints and ship them all over the country (carbon footprint anyone?)  so some kid can thread them into a projector (introducing dust, scratches and reel changes every 22 minutes) makes my skin crawl.

35mm film as the standard for the motion picture industry is barely viable today and will quickly disappear as Moore's law rips through the antiquated process of recording, editing and viewing motion images.  If today, a $2000 camera can make pretty damn good images that certainly are better than 16mm film (great for indie filmmakers), and a $60,000 camera can make amazing images that easily stand toe to toe with 35mm film (great for mainstream Hollywood), then just imagine what will be available 5 years from now, or 10 years from now.

Just as black and white films still existed after color came out, yes, there will still be some movies shot with traditional celluloid.  But they will be largely irrelevant to the industry as a whole.

And it's not just the old Hollywood guys who are hesitant to change.  When Elisabeth Fies and I talked to our DP about shooting her indie feature, The Commune, a few years ago, he tried to talk us into shooting it on 16mm film instead of on HD.  From his perspective, he knew how to operate the 16mm camera better and knew how to get great images out of it.  That's fine, but as soon as you factored in the economics and efficiency of the digital post production workflow, it became a very silly argument.  He still was able to get us great images and he did it on a Panasonic HVX200 HD camcorder.

I pick on DPs a little bit because they are now usually the last bastion of defense in the war of film vs digital.  They are still gallantly manning their posts as if there is still a war going on.  Some of these guys are grizzled Hollywood veterans who refuse to budge from behind their Panaflex entrenchments.  And I can understand - hey, you're scared, the shit is moving pretty quickly and you're going to actually have to learn something new.  Well waa freaking waa - welcome to my world buddy!

The world of editing and post-production experienced its digital tectonic shift in the 90's.  Avid burst on to the scene and changed the landscape forever - first in the video world, then marching quickly to the world of cinema.  Final Cut then followed, reducing the barrier to entry from $100,000 to $50,000 to under $10,000.  As an editor I started on a Steenbeck, then to a CMX 3600, next to an AVID, Media 100 and Final Cut.

 (editing circa 1985 - hey, where did that missing frame of film go?)

(editing circa 2010 - hey, where did my big desk go?)

Along the way I've had to learn Photoshop, After Effects, Motion, Soundtrack Pro along with countless other software programs.  I've dealt with endless formats from Umatic, BetaSP, D2, DigiBeta, DV, DVCAM, HDV, DVCPROHD, and on and on.  Now I live in a tapeless world of P2 and AVCHD and REDCODE RAW and H.264 and ProRes.  It never stops.  The digital revolution is a fast, violent, economics-changing process, and it always looks forward.  Jump onboard or be left in the dust.

I'm still amazed by the folks that still don't get this.  Even people in the biz, people I really respect seem to be living with their head in the sand.  Check out this recent round table discussion from some of the top directors of last year - Peter Jackson, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman, Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino.  In a nutshell, Tarantino mentions that he'll stop directing once 35mm film is no longer projected in theaters - as if that is still to be determined some time in the future.  Peter Jackson and James Cameron almost fall out of their seats - they can't believe that he has no idea that the industry has already left him behind.  Even Jason Reitman tries to console Tarantino, as if he's a older brother breaking the news that there is no Santa Claus.

So, what does this all mean for you and me - makers and consumers of movies?

It used to be that the cost and complexity of the equipment acted as a filter against just anyone making a movie.  You needed to convince not just yourself but a lot of other people that your idea was good, that you knew what you were doing, that you could direct other people towards your vision.  You also needed a lot of money and a lot of people to help you.  It would take years to learn your craft - from writing to directing to lighting to shooting to audio recording to editing to dealing with labs to color timing to getting your final print.  You either went to film school or learned on the job - crewing your way up through many films.  Either way, this process took years and there was always a cost involved - you paid either in time or money.

Now the equipment is cheap, amazingly high-quality and easy to learn.  The information is readily available. I recently needed to figure out how to set up my Canon 7D for shooting and within 5 minutes I had found a video on YouTube showing me exactly the best way to do that.

The good news is that anyone who wants to make a movie can now make a movie.
The bad news is that anyone who wants to make a movie can now make a movie.

Its a great time to be a filmmaker, and as soon as the digital distribution is all worked out, we may actually even be able to make some money doing it.  For the consumer it means that there will be an incredible array of new voices, new visionary filmmakers producing amazing movies that would never before have been seen.  You'll just need a way to steer through the dreck.  Just because the equipment is cheap doesn't mean most people will be able to make a movie worth watching.  Screenwriting, lighting, acting, editing and all the other factors that go into making a great movie still are the most important skills that people must know before even thinking about picking up that inexpensive digital camera.

Film may be dead, but filmmaking is stronger than ever!


  1. >>>The good news is that anyone who wants to make a movie can now make a movie.

    But it's not true, not really.

    1) Actors won't work for free and are hardly as motivated as someone who sees making the film as a step towards a career

    2) There are huge restrictions in some cities against public shooting w/o expensive and red-taped permits -- especially post-9/11

    3) Most people do crap vids, nothing approaching something with story

  2. 1) Not true at all - our indie film was shot almost entirely with actors donating their time. If you have a good project many actors will gladly work gratis.

    2) For big productions yes, this is true, but for guerrilla filmmaking you don't really need permits when you have a tiny crew, no lights (the HDSLRs have amazing low-light sensitivity) and a camera that looks like a 35mm still camera.

    3) Agreed.

  3. All praise the digital age! Taking over more than films and its about bloody time... though I do see the artistic standpoint behind not wanting to "go digital". It has this odd "dirty" feel to it, yes?

  4. If film is dead, why is 98% of the entire film and tv industry around the world still film?? Ya know all those great prime time TV shows you like - film! Film is still the standard. Indy filmmakers can keep trying to make their Video look like film, but non-indy is still film and thats why it looks so much different.

  5. Lone - That's just not accurate anymore. Many tv shows are digital including Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, 21, Battlestar Galactica, Tudors, Weeds to name a few. The Fox series, House just shot a recent final episode entirely with a Canon 5DMKII.

    David Fincher has been shooting all his recent movies digitally: Zodiac(VIPER), Benjamin Button (CineAlta, VIPER) and Social Network (RED).

    Check out this list from wiki:

  6. you forgot to take into account the extremely low resolution (3 megapixels TOPS) of even the highest end digital projectors

  7. Moore's law my friend. The limitation of today's digital projectors is only a temporary roadblock. When you have folks like George Lucas pushing for digital projection, the game is already over.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.