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Martin Scorsese Abandons Celluloid In Favor Of Digital For 'Wolf Of Wall Street,' But It Won't Shoot In 3D

by Edward Davis
June 27, 2012 4:00 PM
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The egress from celluloid to digital is becoming a mass exodus in Hollywood. Theaters that still project film are becoming an endangered species, with film houses like the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles going as far as to launch their own "Save 35MM" campaign and petition in order to keep screening movies from film prints (they've won their battle for now). And right in step with theaters moving towards the inevitable future are the filmmakers themselves.

Christopher Nolan is one famous auteur holdout who favors the quality of film over digital, but he's quickly being outnumbered by other auteurs like David Fincher, James Cameron, Steven Soderbergh, and frankly, most of the film industry. To see this celluloid vs. digital discussion and debate take place, one should definitely watch the upcoming documentary on the very subject, "Side By Side" produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves. In it, many famous filmmakers espouse the virtues of film or digital or both, but definitely in the minority are those that still champion film.

To that end, one more famous holdout, Martin Scorsese, seems to have fallen from the side of digital, which is interesting, if not, a total surprise, given that in the "Side By Side" doc, Scorsese is one of the few filmmakers who sees the value in both (most of the directors interviewed are either/or). 

In a recent Empire interview with Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese's longtime editor and friend says the "Hugo" director is likely making the switchover. "It would appear that we've lost the battle," she said, confirming that Scorsese's next film "The Wolf Of Wall Street" starring Leonardo DiCaprio would be shot digitally. "I think Marty just feels it's unfortunately over, and there's been no bigger champion of film than him."

Thelma, his name is Chris Nolan, but we suppose that's beside the point now. She continues: "It's a very bittersweet thing to be watching films with him now that are on film. We're cherishing every moment of it. The number of prints that are now being made for release has just gone down, and it would appear that the theatres have converted so quickly to digital."

Also of minor note in case you believed Marty when he said he'd like to shoot more dramas in 3D, well, he's not. Or at least "The Wolf Of Wall Street," which begins principal (digital) photography in August, will be shot in regular old 2D. Or rather, regular old digital 2D. A shame? Inevitable? Discuss.

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  • Brian wright | December 28, 2013 5:48 AMReply

    Then there is this... "We ended up preferring the skin tones of film. Most of it was shot on film." -Rodrigo Prieto by THR. Stop talking about "Abandon" and start embracing what technicians and artists choose to use to best execute their craft. So it happens to be Film, so it happens to sometimes be digital. Who cares. If their work is great they made the right choice (usually film). But that scene talked about in the link, an great example of using an inferior format to best execute the vision. This article needs to be retracted or amended.

  • Brian wright | December 28, 2013 4:39 AMReply

    Just watched The Wolf of Wall Street tonight, and I have to say, that FILM would have not been the same without FILM. The digital formats were mainly used for scenes thy were meant to be infomercials (not a spoiler) and key tv feed shots. It's interesting that he used canon for the aerial shots when films like WWZ (shot on Alexa) used 35mm for aerial shots. He did shoot FILM on The Wolf of Wall Street!!! Tell me that is a digital camera and I'll say you are an idiot. The point being made on your quote is not that it was shot on film, but that it was projected 4K. The Alexa isn't even that. Get your facts straight fool. Digital needs no champion. It's posts like this that deceive people into thinking film is dead. It is not. Look at Kodak's credentials last year and this year. The best film are almost always made on FILM.

  • Ben | August 24, 2012 10:39 PMReply

    Digital film can't hold a candle to celluloid. The resolution and depth of field on traditional film is still far and away superior and it looks so beautiful.
    I suppose that digital is cost effective and very easy for editing and implanting special effects so I do understand why it's used BUT I am sorry to see it not used much anymore.
    Kudos to Chris Nolan and a few others for holding out. Nothing beats real film!

  • Drew | November 15, 2012 9:23 PM

    You can make video depth of field every bit as shallow as you can with film. Also, the resolution argument is moot, unless you're comparing it with IMAX. Theatrical prints don't even approximate the resolution of 1920 x 1080 Blu-ray. The o-neg on the other hand, that's different. But the o-neg is obviously not viewable, so you're going to get significant generational loss unless you scan the neg at the highest res possible and then view it with 4K projection, which most screens don't have.

  • 2face | July 2, 2012 7:05 PMReply

    Analogue film prints look like crap when they get old. And then they have to be DIGITALLY restored. Oh the irony. Digital movies look the same as when they get old. You just have to update the storage medium once in a while.

  • David | November 26, 2012 9:39 AM

    As it turns out, Scorsese chose to shoot the movie on 35mm film combined with digital (for "aerial scenes").

  • Feh | June 29, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    Making films today is easier than ever. I consider myself lucky to be living in an age where I can pick up my DSLR and shoot a film, and cut it on the same day. However, I definitely lament the death of celluloid. There's an artistry to the chemical process, and there's a texture to film that you can't achieve with digital cameras.

    With BluRay now, you can see that texture more than ever. For the first time you can study a high-def version of a film in the comfort of your home, and see the grain structure of the stock they used, and wonder what it was and why they chose that particular stock to shoot with. It's ironic that we have access to a new and great study tool like BluRay, but you won't be able to use what you can learn about stocks on your own production. Those stocks simply don't exist anymore, or are in the process of being discontinued.

    It isn't about digital vs. celluloid. That's as absurd as trying to argue that oil paints are better than acrylic paints. Or that horse-hair brushes are better than synthetic. It depends solely on what's appropriate for your project. Celluloid is just another tool in your kit, another brush or another variety of paint - however you want to look at it. Why would you want to limit yourself to just one way of working?

  • Dan | June 28, 2012 10:09 AMReply

    Is the medium really what matters here? I enjoy both film and digital. A badly made movie on film is not inherently better than a well made movie on digital. This will still be a Scorsese picture!

    I understand there are concerns with directors "switching over" and the changing of the landscape, but luckily movies will still be made.

    The preservation issues and such will be dealt with by those concerned enough to deal with them.

  • Voice of Reason | June 28, 2012 10:02 AMReply

    everyone who is crying about the disappearance of film get over yourselves. 99.9% of the people who are actually the end consumers of the product (therefore essentially pay for it) don't care and don't even notice the film/digital difference. It's only a precious few (..see people commenting below) who care. You cant stop progress. Long live digital

  • Dan | June 28, 2012 10:12 AM

    I would agree with your basic premise (most don't notice the difference), but I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss the concerns of the few just because they are the few. You might not be able to stop progress (nor do I think this is what people discussing film are saying), but you can enact change that will alter the shape and form that progress takes.

  • GG | June 28, 2012 2:32 AMReply

    I would like to point out that those who think shooting digitally is so awesome and makes everything cheaper and easier, Avatar was the most expensive film ever made and took years to complete. And it was shot on digital. There's this myth that shooting on digital will save all this money, and it won't.

  • Glass | June 28, 2012 3:00 AM

    I don't think shooting digital on a feature-quality scale saves any money, but that's a horrible example. Avatar was super expensive and took years to make because of creating new technology and techniques like the Fusion camera system, the motion capture volume, photo-real CG, etc...

  • GG | June 28, 2012 2:19 AMReply

    Never thought I would say this, but Marty's a goddam idiot.

  • Cinematic_high | June 27, 2012 8:29 PMReply

    I see importance in both film and digital....both have the pros and cons, and both look beautiful if used to it's fullest degree (if that makes any sense, y'all)......this is sounding like film is vinyl and digital is cd's / mp3's......

  • hanksy | June 27, 2012 7:58 PMReply

    Bravo, Ursus and D.G. Brock! The quality of film can't be measured in pixels the same way digital can because it's an organic medium. The studios are pushing digital film production because A) they are greedy and B) you probably think paying to watch a film is an inconvenience when you can download it for free. Something like 90% of American films made before 1929 are lost forever. You know why? Because it was a format in it's infancy and these pictures weren't properly cared for. Preserving a movie on celluloid is a sure bet today. The same thing is going to happen with so many films shot and preserved digitally in the next 25 years. Read the LA Weekly article on this subject. Only the blockbusters will be safely preserved. Those of you with little to know money or a distributor who doesn't give a shit? Good luck.

  • hanksy | June 28, 2012 3:50 AM

    you know what, you're right. because preserving a 2 hour film in it's original quality is just like digging up an old mp3 off yer old hard drive. yep. good thing you know how to back up them hard drives.

  • Glass | June 27, 2012 9:22 PM

    Preservation of art is always about the people who care enough to do it, not just the technology involved. The documentaries and videos I've shot will last as long as I want them to because I know how to back up hard drives (thx Google) and I paid the shockingly minimal amount of money it took to buy separate hard drives to store them all in a little document safe I got at Walmart. Plus, we live in a different world than the 1920s. Ever clean out your old computer hard drives and come across some old MP3s you forgot you had by a local band or something? Boom, it exists. You might even type their name into Google, click through two pages, and find the band members now, and email them about it. Multiply that situation by a billion and you've got the P2P network of tomorrow where everything is shared and it's a feat for something to be truly lost.

  • Tom | June 27, 2012 7:34 PMReply


  • Bummer | June 27, 2012 6:08 PMReply

    Regardless of whether you're pro digital or pro film (and if you are WHY do you need to be anti towards the other format? In an ideal world filmmakers would always have a choice) you have to admit it's a sad day when you realize Scorsese will never make another movie on film.

  • mm | June 27, 2012 6:17 PM

    Agreed 100%.

  • AS | June 27, 2012 5:59 PMReply

    I'm not a professional filmmaker so I'm not qualified to speak on this subject but it seems that films shot on digital have better image quality than films shot on film (unless, of course, you're shooting on IMAX film, which seems to be the very highest in quality).

  • Film Is Better. But Digital Is Magic Too | June 28, 2012 2:43 AM

    Dragon Tattoo & Social Network look great on Bluray but compare those to the Blurays of Se7en & Fight Club & you can see film is a much richer & painterly aesthetic.

    Plus, Fincher has always been the worst guy to use as a defense for digital since he generally prefers to shoot in low levels & have dark muted color schemes. It's no surprise Fincher loves the Red One more than the Epic because every film shot on the Red One has a very heavy Fincheresque color scheme before color grading.

  • anonymous | June 27, 2012 10:43 PM

    I've seen The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. It looks very good but most digital movies don't look near that good.

  • AS | June 27, 2012 8:42 PM

    I don't know, have you seen The Social Network or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on blu ray? If that isn't perfection I don't know what is.

  • anonymous | June 27, 2012 7:41 PM

    Some say film has a better image quality. I don't know. I'm no expert on the subject. I just think that most of the movies I've seen that were shot on digital don't look as good as most movies shot on film.

  • Ian Grey | June 27, 2012 5:50 PMReply

    There's nothing you can do on film that you can't do on digital. Arriflex's ALEXA system looks much better than film. Check out Michael Mann's LUCK to see things you just could never do with 35mm for a zillion reasons. Check out THE AVENGERS to see FX that would cost a zillion dollars more were it not for ALEXA. Check out DOCTOR WHO for scope and imagination you could never pull off on a 8 day TV series budget on film.

    Film is over. It was nice and now it's too damned expensive and can't do the things digital can do.

  • Dunedain5 | June 28, 2012 3:07 PM

    I dont know about you ballyguy but as someone who has ACTUALLY shot short films on both film and digital I can tell you the money factor is a big deciding factor. It's one reason why a large amount of indie filmmakers choose digital. With the small budget I have to work with I can't afford to pay coming and going (buying the film stock itself,then paying for processing) like I have to with film. Like it or not budget is a big concern for some and film takes up more of it than digital. Could Like Crazy have been made on its 250,000 budget if it had to shoot film, no. Could Lena Dunham shot Tiny Furniture on her 50,000 dollar budget if she had to use film? No. It's different for Nolan, Tarantino, Michael Bay, or any filmmaker on that level with the budgets they have access to, they can make the choice. Most small and micro films don't have the option. It's not the only Reason, but don't act like it isn't a factor.

  • Ballygally | June 27, 2012 8:53 PM

    Film has an almost infinite latitude. Digital is difinitively finite. This is a subjective issue, so I'll respectfully disagree when you say that Alexa looks better than film. LUCK was shot on BOTH film and digital (digital for the dirt flying in the jockey's face, film for the emotional weight and breadth of everything else). "Scope and imagination" has nothing to do with the format my friend -- it's always what you do with it. Finally, I'm sick and tired of lazy onlookers, and worse, lazy filmmakers who because they cannot comprehend the full dynamic of film, continue to recycle the misleading argument that film is "too damn expenseive." Sit down, crunch the numbers, and then come up with a more comprehensive argument for digital, because that one just don't fly.

  • AS | June 27, 2012 8:43 PM

    Replied to the wrong comment.

  • AS | June 27, 2012 8:40 PM

    I don't know, have you seen The Social Network or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo on blu ray? If that isn't perfection I don't know what is.

  • Ugh | June 27, 2012 6:17 PM

    "Arriflex's ALEXA system looks much better than film." This is probably the dumbest thing ever written on the internet. You have no aesthetic judgement whatsoever. The ALEXA has never been used because anyone thinks it looks better than film. We've used it because of workflow or the ability to know exactly what you're getting on set or because someone thought we'd save 80k on a 50 million dollar movie -- the same amount devoted to a few dozen completely extraneous elements -- not because it looks better. No one thinks it looks better. It's a compromise that looks better than most of the other options. And to be fair, DRAGON TATTOO and PROMETHEUS both look better than anything ever shot on the Alexa.

    In short, there are many advantages to using the ALEXA and not a single one of them is due to aesthetics. You're basically an asshole or an idiot.

    One more note, you better have an amazing colorist and producers/execs who have any idea what "good" looks like or your movie will end up looking like ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. I'm sure somewhere down the line that movie looked perfectly fine then it was color raped.

  • CJ | June 27, 2012 5:45 PMReply

    I like going for rides in a horse and carriage but I drive a car when I need to get somewhere.

  • Glass | June 27, 2012 9:10 PM

    Seriously Ursus, what are you talking about? You know you can copy files onto other hard drives, right? They're not locked onto one drive. I used to make this argument for film over digital for archiving purposes back in 2005, but then hard drives and backup techniques became way more reliable and stable. Movies from 2012 will still be around in 2032 in the EXACT state they were shot in. They'll still be around in 2112, for that matter. No degradation, no decay, no need to re-telecine and remaster and all that annoying shit that costs millions of dollars for a big studio movie. Just click on the file and open it. IMMORTALITY...

  • Ursus | June 27, 2012 7:45 PM

    A more accurate comparison: "electric cars are cool, but if I want to drive more than 40 miles, I'll use a good ol' combustion engine."

    (At least until hydrogen power is perfected and affordable.)

    Digital is NOT an archival format: you cannot dependably preserve content in a digital format/medium.

    Plus, the digital format from ten years ago is a joke today, and the digital from today will be a joke tomorrow. Celluloid film has proven itself for the last 100+ years. Why are we switching to an unproven format that's been around for 20+- years? Good luck watching the current digital content in 20 years. Hope those hard drives still work. ("Does anyone have a firewire 400 cable...?")

    Plus: there is a reason that digital images require a Look Up Table (LUT) that tries to emulate film, grain is added back in artificially, other special artificial treatments, etc: digital is an inferior aesthetic that aspires to look like film.

    "Film doesn't look any better than digital"...? You know nothing about exposure latitude, image quality (molecular on film, pixels on digital), emulsion depth, frame rates, projection standards, preproduction and principal photography discipline, etc. etc.

    Standards... 720p, 1080, 2K, 4K, 24fps, 30fps, 120mHz, Mpeg, RAW, H.264,... "What'll ya have?"

    "Digital is cheaper..." Cheaper for who? And since when is "cheap" a good thing? Produce an actual film, then we can talk. On paper (ie. in a simulation) things can be very deceiving.

    The real reason digital is being pushed in the entertainment industry has NOTHING to do with making better movies, and EVERYTHING to do with studios wanting to save cash on distribution and place overhead on the shoulders of the theaters. (Not to mention make cash on digital theater upgrades, maintenance, etc.) It's not about better movies, it's about the bottom line.

    If I can afford to shoot digital as a low budget filmmaker, why would I aspire to shoot the same format as an "A list" filmmaker...?

    Until the digital cinematography equivalent of the hydrogen car arrives as affordable and reliable (quantum computing?), I'll look to shoot on film as much as possible. At least until the money grubbers finally kill celluloid dead.

  • D.G.Brock | June 27, 2012 5:07 PMReply

    Good luck preserving anything shot on digital unless you do a YCM or at least a film neg. All the electric engineers will tell you that the digital files on drives degrade over time and of course eventually the drive will die or the format won't be supported anymore. Shot my last pic on Red, but only because of low budget. Now trying to get the money together to output it to neg for preservation. All that work for something that will be gone in a decade or maybe two. No way for this director.

  • bguest | June 28, 2012 6:54 AM point is that the films will always be available to regular film fans who want to see them...that's more important than archivists desires for pristine originals.

  • Mike | June 27, 2012 5:44 PM

    @Bguest, the issue is how the master of the film is saved, DVD's & CD's are not the highest quality archival versions of the original works they represent. Even Blu-Ray doesn't hold the true resolution of film or most digital filmmaking equipment. In fact most digital films are shot at at least 4 times the resolution of Blu-Ray. Archivists have attempted to use solid state flash memory for master purposes, but the process for digital hasn't been perfected the way it was for analog thus far.

  • bguest | June 27, 2012 5:40 PM

    I've got audio cds and movie dvds from ten to twenty years old that are still perfect...there will be thousands of copies of any decent movie floating around in countless formats...preservation is not an issue.

  • anonymous | June 27, 2012 4:56 PMReply

    A question for anyone who knows a lot about movie preservation. Thelma said that "The real problem is going to be preservation. Because If you don’t preserve these things every five years digitally, they’re going to vanish. And who’s going to have the money to do that?”." Why do they need to be preserved every five years and why is it so expensive?

    When digital becomes the dominant format I hope there are more movies that look like Hugo or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo than Soderbergh movies. All his recent movies that I've seen have looked terrible.

  • Glass | June 27, 2012 8:42 PM

    The "every five years" thing is more paranoia than anything. What she means is the shit goes onto a hard drive and sits there, and people are afraid the hard drive won't start up again. Chances are, if you're somewhat smart, you'll have the original elements backed up on 2 or 3 hard drives. The whole world of business, information, art and entertainment will be stored on hard drives in the future, and it's starting to show by the falling prices of hard drives, the exploding storage capacities, and the fact that they're becoming much more stable and reliable for archiving. The great thing about digital preservation is when it's a file, it will always be exactly that. No degradation, no restoration or cleaning or storing in airtight film canisters in special refrigerator units. Just a file you can copy over and over and over again, no quality loss. Digital archiving trips out someone like Thelma Schoonmaker because she's probably not used to the habit of backing shit up on hard drives. It's so much easier than film preservation.

  • mm | June 27, 2012 6:04 PM

    But in Soderbergh's case, he may not be going for "great cinematography." I just read an interview with him and he apparently said this to the people lighting the Magic Mike strip club: "Let's pretend there's no movie shoot. I want it lit that way." Also, "since I act as my own cinematographer, one thing I've had to learn is how to make things look not so good, to be able to go into a space and recognize this is the way this looks, and it's not always my job to make everything look pretty." ... "So there are shots in this movie that no self-respecting cinematographer would allow, but remember, the place doesn't have good lighting. Because it's a strip club." (Chicago Tribune)

  • Mike | June 27, 2012 5:38 PM

    Haywire & Che certainly didn't look terrible, & Contagion has a gritty aesthetic on purpose. I'd still call Zodiac the high-water mark for digital cinematography.

  • B | June 27, 2012 4:42 PMReply

    While sad, this news is rather unsurprising. Scorsese's last movie, Hugo (which looked great, I might add), was shot digital on the Arri Alexa. As long as the master keeps making movies, I'm not going to complain ;-)

  • anonymous | June 27, 2012 7:45 PM

    "Haywire & Che certainly didn't look terrible, & Contagion has a gritty aesthetic on purpose. I'd still call Zodiac the high-water mark for digital cinematography."

    I liked Haywire but I didn't think the cinematography.

  • Mike | June 27, 2012 5:39 PM

    That was shot digital because of the 3D plan, it isn't surprising he went in this direction, but given the unlikely odds for him making this film in 3D it probably could have gone either way.

  • anonymous | June 27, 2012 4:28 PMReply

    Its a shame that there is so much pressure to shoot on digital that filmmakers hardly have any real choice anymore. I worry about the number of movies, especially small low budget movies that will still exist decades from now. If I'm not mistaken digital preservation is more expensive and complicated.

  • jon | June 27, 2012 4:21 PMReply

    It's not a shame. I didn't hear anyone griping about how Drive looked, and that was shot on digital. It's a tool. When used well, there's no reason it can't be aesthetically pleasing. Even Malick is open to mixing film and digital.

    I will say, however, for my money, I've never seen anything look better than TDK projected in true IMAX. The size, depth and clarity of that opening sequence literally caused a sold-out crowd to gasp. That's something I haven't heard with anything shot digitally or in 3D -- even Avatar did not evoke that reaction. I think Nolan is absolutely right that there is no better image available than true IMAX -- but it is an encumbrance on a production and out of the question for any independent production.

  • hanksy | June 27, 2012 4:52 PM

    also. drive is an ugly orange and teal nightmare. plenty of people griped about how it looked. which was shit. it looked like shit.

  • Ugh | June 27, 2012 4:28 PM

    Malick hated the red footage and scrapped it all. So...

    Also, the daytime stuff in DRIVE is mostly ugly.

  • Ugh | June 27, 2012 4:18 PMReply

    Why god why?!

  • Dan | June 27, 2012 4:10 PMReply

    Isn't Quentin Tarantino still a huge champion of film. I think PTA is as well but I'm not su e on him

  • GG | June 28, 2012 2:09 AM

    PT Anderson shot The Master on 35mm and 65mm. Good for him. Superior formats.

  • bunty | June 27, 2012 6:06 PM

    Don't forget Steven Spielberg, who only shot Tintin on digital because it was an animated film.

  • Edward Davis | June 27, 2012 4:48 PM

    yes, both those 2 are celluloid champions.

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