Film goes digital, as it should

October 3, 2010

Originally published in The Michigan Daily

Last winter I took Introduction to Film, Video and Television Production. The most valuable experience I obtained from this class was the hands-on work with 16mm film. I went into the class looking for an introductory course on filmmaking and came out with a better understanding of the roots of the art itself.

In one especially memorable session, we learned how to manually thread film through an old Kodak projector. The projector that we were working on seemed to be in good order, so we did our best to follow our instructor’s directions.

Everything was set up: All the film was thread into the take-up reel, all the spikes in the sprockets and all the necessary gates closed. One of my group members pushed the lever forward and the film started to roll.

While the projector ran, she excitedly turned around to our other classmates and exclaimed, “It’s like the Dharma Initiative!” referring to the training films in TV’s “Lost.” But that’s when our projector went horribly wrong. Something got caught, it didn’t advance, film went flying upwards and for just a few moments too long, a single frame was trapped in the beam of light.

The surreal result was the projected image of a frame of film melting from the inside out. Whether you’ve seen it before in a movie like “Persona” or as a video editing effect, the experience of seeing a gaping hole in the celluloid on a physical strip of film was profoundly strange.

I learned, through that experience and our continued use of 16mm film, to appreciate the inherent difficulties the physical medium entails — to respect filmmaking at its most basic level. Moving on to a digital video project later in the class, it was never really satisfying to play with Final Cut Pro when we had already worked with film.

That said, physical film is declining in modern-day cinema. The majority of big Hollywood productions are still shot on 35mm film, but digital has made huge strides in recent years.

For decades, movies that use film throughout the production process have converted to digital for editing purposes, and then printed back to film for distribution. But even the two processes in which physical film still dominates — shooting and distribution — are quickly being taken over by digital.

More and more movies are being shot in digital using advanced camera technologies nearing film quality. “The Social Network,” which was released this past Friday, is just such a production. The movie was shot on the Red One camera, the main product of Red Digital Cinema Camera Company and one of the main film-replacement cameras currently being used in Hollywood.

In the distribution category, some multiplexes — including Ann Arbor’s Rave Motion Pictures — are now equipped with digital projection for certain blockbuster films. The main incentive for movie studios seems to be the cost; digital is a deal compared to printing film reels. A digital movie on a storage device is both easier to transport and less susceptible to depreciation than film.

All that being said: Why digital? Why should it matter to the moviegoer? Not many people pay attention to the format of their favorite movies, as long as it’s in focus on the big screen. And studio efficiency shouldn’t really be your problem.

But my question is: Why not digital? There’s a charm to physical film, sure, and it’s everything the industry is based on. We use the word “film” because it sounds sophisticated, and the medium to which it refers is just so. But there’s sophistication to digital “film” as well — an art that hasn’t been fully explored, and has yet to be understood by film viewers.

Digital cameras allow for more freedom in movement and can capture much more realistic shots from difficult perspectives. At the same time, digital cameras have come to a technological point at which quality is no longer an issue.

The disadvantages of digital are quickly disappearing.

In distribution, it’s about time we realize that our romantic notion of the projection booth, with a projectionist switching reels, isn’t quite as valuable as it once was. Projectionists are important, and no matter what the format being used in the booth, there should be a human at the reigns. But if you’ve ever seen a poorly projected film – whether it’s incorrect framing, pushing the titles half off the bottom of the screen; or your favorite star’s face squished into the wrong aspect ratio — you know how often film projection becomes a problem. Digital projection offers a more consistently clear and faithful picture and it won’t wear out so quickly.

This country loves to hold on to tradition, and the movie industry is a prime example. It’s why every Academy Awards is as much a celebration of the past as recognition of the present. It’s why the film canon is seemingly locked in and contemporary films are treated like its bastard children. Hollywood, like its home country, has hubris in its own history, and fails to realize how much more it can do.

Digital cinematography is a brave step in the right direction. Film (for lack of a better term) is a young art, and it would be foolish to stop an innovation with so much potential. Physical film remains important as a foundational form, regardless of the reigning technology in the industry. While every filmmaker should study and use film, they shouldn’t hesitate to also use digital. The possibilities of digital are unknown, and we should embrace it and its power to create something new.

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