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Film is Dead. Long Live Digital?

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by Matt Singer
May 24, 2012 12:12 PM
18 Comments
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"Citizen Kane."

Film is going away. Not films, the pieces of entertainment we watch starring Sandra Bullock or Jim J. Bullock (don't judge), but film, the celluloid medium those pieces of entertainment were recorded and exhibited on for more than a century. The future of film is no more film, replaced by whole bunch of 1s and 0s on, at least in the short term, a big external hard drive called a digital cinema package or DCP. Studios ship movie theaters these DCP boxes along with instructions and passwords that allow the film to be unlocked, ingested, and projected.

As a cinephile it can be tough to know how to feel about this. Almost every piece written about the subject is stridently pro-film, which makes sense since most are written by film nerds who came of age in an era when celluloid was the supreme format and digital still looked like garbage. In this world, there's a lot of advocacy and not a lot of journalism.

Maybe that's why I appreciated John Lichman's article "Why the End of Film is Awesome (Except When It Isn't)." It's a slightly more even-handed look at this complicated issue. I particularly like his introduction, which puts a great perspective on a news story that made the rounds not too long ago. It all started when Indiewire's own Eric Kohn tweeted from a press screening of "The Avengers" which was delayed after the projectionist "accidentally deleted the movie." With DCP, a movie is little more than an enormous computer file, and as we all know, computer files can be deleted. Drag and drop the wrong icon and whoops! there goes your copy of Joss Whedon's comic book masterpiece (side question: did no one think to hit Control-Z?). Kohn's tweet went viral -- technology fails make up 18% of all viral news stories -- and it was certainly good for a laugh. "You can't delete film!" celluloid advocates crowed. Well, yes, that's true --  but here's how Lichman balances that statement:

"If a physical film print breaks, it snaps or bursts into flames. It's also impossible to create another pristine 35mm print on the spot, which is what the theater staff did for 'The Avengers' -- they downloaded another perfect copy in minutes."

I've been to press screenings -- and we've all been to paid movie exhibitions -- that were cancelled because films broke in projectors. One of my earliest memories of going to the movie theater was a screening of "Hook" in 1991. Just after the climactic battle between Peter Pan and Captain Hook, the movie went silent, then slowed down, then melted before our eyes. The packed house leapt from their seats and began screaming. Finally, the employee who'd drawn the shortest straw was sent in to tell us the film had burned in the projector and that neither were fixable at the moment; the rest of the movie was cancelled and refunds would be issued. You've never seen an angrier mob -- it was like Altamont in the suburbs. Over "Hook!" To this day, I've never seen the end of that movie (I'm basically okay with that).

There are undeniable problems with digital. Upgrading a projection booth to DCP costs absurd amounts of money, and who knows how long DCP will last as a standard of digital projection. I'm pretty pissed off about the fact that the external FireWire drive I bought 6 years ago is already obsolete and I only paid $75 for that. Imagine how I'd feel if in 6 years the DCP system I installed in my single screen movie theater was equally obsolete -- and I'd spent tens of thousands of dollars on it? All the documents and photographs and music I had on that FireWire drive are essentially lost forever even though the drive works perfectly (or at least I think it does; hard to tell when you can't plug it into your computer) -- which seems a very plausible future for these DCP drives as well.

There are two sides to this story, and I can see both of them. When I ran Syracuse University's campus movie program as a college undergraduate, we projected everything on 16mm film. Films came in big cans that had to be lugged from our office to the auditorium where they were projected, a horrifying 10 minute walk uphill. They had to be assembled by hand, a process which cost our tiny organization time and money and was prone to human error. One night the projectionist spliced reel #3 upside-down and backwards. Fixing it -- unmounting the film, breaking it apart, finding the reel breaks, flipping the print, reassembling it, remounting it -- took almost an hour.  These 16mm prints were shared by colleges all over the country; by the time one made its way to Syracuse, it was often in hideous condition.  At best, they were ugly, faded, and scratched. At worst, they were unprojectable. We almost certainly couldn't have afforded a DCP system -- but man, we could have used it.

On the other hand, I recently attended a my first DCP projection of an archival film, and it was a slightly disappointing experience. The movie was Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie" and while the picture was crisp and clear, and the sound was particularly good, the image felt lacking in some intangible way. We didn't have a print of "Marnie" on hand to do a side-by-side comparison, but to my slightly-better-than-layman's eyes the DCP just didn't have the same sense of depth as film. Tippi Hedren and Sean Connery looked great, but they also looked weirdly flat.  

It definitely didn't feel like celluloid; more like a pretty good Blu-ray. And who wants to pay $12 to see a projection of a pretty good Blu-ray? Maybe the borderline irrational amount of manpower that goes into projecting film -- shipping it, lugging it, and splicing it, and focusing it -- is part of its appeal.  It's harder to do, but the results are ultimately better. Going to a movie theater to see digital projection kind of feels like going to a restaurant and ordering Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.  Why go to all that trouble for basically the same thing you can get at home?

Film is going away. That much we know. But it's worth remembering digital has its benefits.  And its pitfalls, too.

Read more of "Why the End of Film is Awesome (Except When It Isn't)."

18 Comments

  • Robert David | March 24, 2013 6:22 PMReply

    Film isn't dead. It never will be.

    Digital and analogue have a place in the world. One should not vanquish the other.

  • Michael R. Barnard | May 30, 2012 10:28 AMReply

    When film was itself new and disruptive, it scared audiences (HUGO does a great job of reminding us that film was once new, and the experience of the audience was dynamic). What we consider "the film look" is a mutation of then-possible technology of its own era. Manufactured equipment of the day was efficient only when whirring away at 18 frames per second -- much like the early automobiles were efficient only when travelling at 20 miles per hour.

    When sound entered the picture, the technology had to be expanded in order for sound to have clarity, and film equipment was again modified to whir along at 24 frames per second. This was "too real" for the audiences of the day, of course.

    As we know, this slow frame rate is very visible. (When television came along, its clunky images were faster: 30 interlaced frames per second, triggered by the A.C. standard of 60 Hz.) Although we are used to it after a century of sitting in movie theaters and having great emotional experiences from the stories, the fact is, the flicker is just another relic of technology. It's the fact that the stories were great, and we were so immersed in our dark communal theater experience, that we also cling to the flicker as part of the "the movie experience."

    The complaint about digital movies is often that they look "too real" and therefore "too harsh."

    I assert that this is a cinematography issue. DPs and camera ops and gaffers and grips and directors and art departments are moving forward and developing that same quality of standards and the same level of intricate commitment to making the digital images just as lush and exciting as the film image had been. It's evolving, not there yet, somewhat hindered by the refusal of many professionals to let go of film and quit bitching about "the change."

    The film image was intricately, painstakingly composed by artists. The audience may think it had something to do with being 24 fps film, but it wasn't: it was the art of the people who crafted the images so that they would look great when shot with a film camera. That same craft that accepts digital rather than bitching about it is evolving the craft and the standards so that we once again will have lush emotional artistry in our theaters.

    This is the artistry we take for granted; on any movie set, we expect for most of the cast and crew to stall for an hour or two per setup while cinematographers tweak the lighting and the images and the positions in order to get the best-looking picture (based on our current understanding of film characteristics).

    This evolution always happens; it happened when sound arrived, it happened when color arrived, it happened when various 'scopes' arrived. It's distinction now is that we are changing the very nature of film itself, which has annoyed and outraged many artists, but the evolution is here and we watch the evolution as the new artistry will give us the images that exploit digital image characteristics just as they had exploited film image characteristics.

    And the audience will evolve, just as it has during every evolution: they'll bitch, then they'll get used to it, then they'll accept it, then they'll bitch about the NEXT change that comes along.

    There is an issue to be concerned about, however, that complicates the popular concept of the audience's bitching. We the audience no longer necessarily sit in a darkened communal theater to enjoy a movie. So, what we popularly bitch about as "digital" probably includes a lot of complaints about environmental and device details. Sure, it might be a damn digital movie, but if I am watching it on my 3" smartphone while riding the subway, is the complaint REALLY about the damn digital movie??

    The next evolution is in resolution (5K and beyond) and frame rate (120Hz and beyond). This hyper-realism issue will be a huge challenge to cinematographers and will bring out some incredible artistic talents.

  • Adelyn Navarro | May 29, 2012 2:46 PMReply

    There's a great documentary about this exact subject/debate. It received an A- from Indiewire:

    http://sidebysidethemovie.com/

  • Flobadob | May 30, 2012 5:50 PM

    Can you say "bitching" again please?

  • Jazz Hands | May 29, 2012 2:22 PMReply

    I did mean to begin my remarks that I may slightly be off topic as I'm aware this article is to do with cinema, but as for the physical production of celluloid it still might have certain relevance.

  • Jazz Hands | May 29, 2012 2:15 PMReply

    As a still photographer, I use DSLR's extensively and I think the picture quality of the top of the range Canon and Nikon systems are outstanding, but when I want to have the look of film I shoot on film be it on a Nikon F series, Leica, Hasselblad. If I want grainy images I'll use higher speed film, if I want a bleach-bypass or other chemically altered look I'll develop and print the film accordingly... What I would hate to have to resort to is imitating these effects in Photoshop or Lightroom with a pre-packaged filter because film is no longer available.

    Personally, I think film will be around longer than people think it certainly may not be the standard, but there will always be bespoke smaller companies producing them (likely at a much higher cost). An old video I came across that I loved, because he's a director I admire and his attitude was pretty much the same as mine, was an interview with Paul Thomas Anderson on the subject of over his preference for shooting on film. Explore the aesthetics possible within digital cinematography, but don't imitate the look of film with it, it just seems tacky and artless - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7npmu9Ge_OY

    Positively welcoming the extinction of film as a medium (almost out of technologically progressive spite rather than practicality) in favour of digital seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, what would be the point when you can have both?

    I recall back in the 2000's digital devotees were claiming the Nikon D2 was 'taking clearer images' than an F5 or F6 at comparative ISO's which was patently incorrect at the time it was simply their enthusiasm for this great new medium and their desire to believe they were ahead of the game that allowed them to believe that. I still think there is some of this lingering attitude today despite it having more weight behind it.

  • Kirby Brandhagen | May 29, 2012 8:56 AMReply

    I grew up above a movie theatre and am stuill running it as I near retirement age. I've run nitrate film, celluloid, Fuji, Kodak, all kinds of "Scopes" tube amplifiers and mono systems where I had more compliments on my great stereo system then I have since I actually installed a solid state stereo system and yes there is more depth to the film picture as there is depth in the tube amplifier and digital misses the mark, but it is convenient and that always wins in the end(Witness all the convenience stores selling things for twice as much, sometimes as you can get it at a dept. store) Good bye film, "Farewell My Lovely".

  • Garrett Charboneau | May 26, 2012 3:04 PMReply

    As an aspiring film student drop out i am really starting to see this digital non-sense and as a huge gimmick. LA Weekly had an article recently called The Death of Film in which much depth was put into how such a medium would die this for-coming fall and be replaced with these sad i-pad ran DCP projections. This all seemed to be in part to one film, Avatar which caused 70% of theaters to go digital overnight killing most of any independent theaters. The article targeting mostly the small amount of cinema revival houses left, the ones that really inspire me as wanna-be filmmaker. This saddens me simply because i don't see myself ever wanting to be a geeked out super digital two hour commercial director and it bothers me that viewers are willing to accept green screen technology as a replacement for so much of film now.

    What inspired me as a student before my recent final drop out? Movies. The classics, the ones with depth. The ones where the director was proud to direct, the actors performances were great and the set design, make-up and "spfx" were done by a group of wizard like artists that all were contributing to one project. I dreamed of working on giant Panavision cameras! And experimenting with 16mm. I too wanted to cut and edit, reel them and in a way step back in time to get dirty with a medium i felt was the essential and only format for a "film". You have to work hard to get the results you want! Time, money heart and soul!
    We hardly studied any of this at my colleges. It was a thing of the past, something better forgotten and taught to move on to this terrible new medium. The one were the very camera in your pocket will eventually be the same standard as a movie being projected, thus producing a bunch of unnecessary boneheads with what i feel is the wrong intention as a filmmaker or maybe that is completely wrong of me to say. I just don't see how i should have been the only raising there hand in my class to want to shoot film? are there no others like me or is my generation quick to adapt?

    The problem i see is completely with the image. Its flat, lifeless and lacks depth. 3D and bogus green-screen effects have completely destroyed any real story to a majority of hollywood films. It makes me so angry because i notice this when i see a film and most others don't. Its like teaching someone guitar when they don't understand a chord. Its so gimmicky, commercialized felt and ultimately a huge waste of an hour and half. Leave digital for television, documentary and notable causes but keep film alive. Inspire filmmakers of the future to want to shoot film. Keep theaters alive!

    My voice only seems to travel so far before its just drops. I hope that it helps to think theres still a little someone out there that believes in film. I could really write more but rather save my time, instead ill continue to aspire to make my films the way the artist before me have and hopefully someday inspire a generation to see the beauty of a medium.

    24year old college dropout
    -Garrett Charboneau

    Oh and didn't the students of Syracuse in the past know to make duplicates!!!
    "just joking :)"
    thank you for your article and i hope my comment doesn't go unread.

  • Johnny | May 30, 2012 1:35 PM

    God bless you if you can afford to shoot and edit film. As farth as depth, have you not seen what full frame sensors and quality prime lenses can accomplish? At the end of the day it's about the story. If you aren't a millionaire, your only option is adapting to the new technology which I would argue isn't as bad as you say it is unless you are talking about 5-10 year old mini-DV cameras.

  • Garrett Charboneau | May 26, 2012 4:25 PM

    to contradict myself i think projection could benefit from digital but my comment seems to be more focused on keeping film the medium alive for film making.

  • rajendra | May 25, 2012 7:35 PMReply

    pros shoot on film

  • Johnny | May 30, 2012 1:38 PM

    PROS also shoot digital. Roger Deakins is a Pro. Every commercial I work on the last few years shoots on Arri Alexa, or RED. Rarely do they shoot on film anymore. Same is true for features. Also, you don't have to use stock filters in post. There are so many post tools at your disposal that you can make the final image look however you want. Check out "The Chapel" and what that kid is doing with DSLR's and HDR photography. Adapt or die.

  • MAL | May 25, 2012 3:18 PMReply

    I waffle on this subject as well, but I feel exactly the same way you do about the sense of depth (or lack thereof). I have the same issue with still photography. The sharpness that is attained with a good digital SLR is remarkable but it still lacks the depth and visual texture of film.

  • johnny | May 30, 2012 1:40 PM

    Do you think the image from a Canon 5Dii with prime lenses lacks depth?

  • Andrew Robinson | May 25, 2012 8:54 AMReply

    While I don't really have a leg to stand on as I honestly can't say I've had that immense feeling towards film. I love how a lot of these articles people like to say something to the effect, "it's as if I'm watching a Blu Ray at home", but isn't that what we want? Everytime a classic gets a great transfer (look at Criterion) we all flock to it and laud it for finally being in (what me and my friends call) THE PROPER DEFINITION.

  • Michael | May 25, 2012 10:52 PM

    Yes but those HD transfers are based off of original film negatives. So the image we're giving an HD transfer has the quality and depth and colors that come from film -- not digital.

  • Dylan | May 24, 2012 2:14 PMReply

    I read a really interesting article by someone smarter than I about why digital restorations don't seem to pack the punch in theaters that new releases do. I can't find the article, but the premise was something along the lines of:

    When you see a restored 35mm print, it's nearly always used- if not by other theaters, then during the previous show. And even the small of imperfections, like the dirt, the cigarette burns at reel changes, the splices and lab splices, even the judder and weave of the film in the projector, somehow just make sense for older movies, and your mind says "we're seeing a really great print of an old movie".

    Whereas with a digital restoration, even if it's an awesome one, because the image is (for all intents and purposes) perfect, it just doesn't jive with what your mind expects from an older film. And that gives you the "Blu-ray" effect (though I will point out, a CORRECTLY authored Blu is indistinguishable from a 2K DCP on anything less than a 30' screen).

    I'd add that the (thankfully waning) propensity of digital restorations to wipe out as much of the original film grain as possible, leaving you with an image that looks like a smeary, ever-so-slightly-out-of-focus oil painting version of the original film, doesn't help matters either. But if you saw Film Forum's "This is DCP" screenings, and you got a chance to see the phenomenal 4K restoration of Dr. Strangelove, one has to admit that the idea of endless pristine transfers of our favorite old films flying about is not a bad thing in the slightest.

  • een | May 24, 2012 1:51 PMReply

    Your FW drive is still accessible.
    You'll have to remove the drive from the enclosure and remount in a new enclosure or into a desktop case as an additional drive.
    Good article, regardless.

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