Film's cinema comeback is driven by nostalgia, not logic

Digital is now technically as good and gives directors more options.

Melinda Sue Gordon/Paramount

When Kodak declared bankruptcy and Fujifilm halted film stock production, things looked grim for celluloid. Shooting was going digital, and new cameras from Red, Sony and Arri produced quality nearly on par with 35mm cinema cameras. Film, however, has made a cinematic comeback. Last year saw a string of shot-on-film movies you may have heard of: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Hateful Eight and Interstellar. The directors of those movies believe that film is superior for capturing images -- and Quentin Tarantino even thinks it's a better release format, judging by his Hateful Eight 70mm roadshow.

On the other hand, we seem to have forgotten about the crappy theater release prints, environmental waste, extra cost and elitism of film, to name just a few issues. The latest digital cameras now equal or exceed photochemical celluloid in just about every way. Yet, we still hold onto film's unique look and even its faults. Are we just too used to it to move on?

Early digital cameras like the original Red One and Sony's F900 (first used on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones) convinced very few filmmakers. The cameras had higher resolution than ever but were lacking in dynamic range. As a result, film still blew it away when capturing bright or low-light scenes. While film grain "rolls off" highlights and shadows gracefully, early digital cameras cut them off brutally.

Even a few years ago, most cinematographers and directors wouldn't touch digital with a boom pole. When the Red Epic and Arri Alexa came along with much better dynamic range, however, the equation flipped. Directors like David Lynch, Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher were swearing off film. "I feel like I should call film up on the phone and say 'I've met someone,'" Soderberg said in the documentary Side By Side (above).

A few years later, film is enjoying a resurgence. Kodak, once down, even launched a Super 8 camera that records both on the low-res film format and digital at the same time. It was lauded by the tech press, Engadget included. In statements on behalf of Kodak, directors including Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams weighed in as well. "The news that Kodak is [introducing] ... the same analog technology that first made me fall in love with cinematic storytelling is unbelievably exciting," said Nolan.

Nolan, one of the few film holdouts in Side by Side, also said that "I am constantly asked to justify why I want to shoot on film, but I don't hear anybody being asked to justify why they want to shoot a film digitally." The reason, however, is that digital has so much going for it.

35mm movie film comes in 10-minute, 1,000-foot rolls, which cost about $900 apiece. For a 90-minute studio film, you'll shoot around 15 hours of film stock, or 90 rolls of film, which will cost you $81,000. You'll also need to process the film and, ironically, transfer it to a digital format for editing, color correction and effects. That can add several hundred thousand dollars to a production's budget.

For Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the cost of the 35mm and 70mm film was small compared to the overall $200 million budget. However, the Oscar-winning film Whiplash had a budget of $3.3 million, so the money saved by shooting on an Arri Alexa was hugely important.


David Fincher with a 6K Epic Red on the set of 'Gone Girl' (20th Century Fox)

If money is no object, why consider digital? David Fincher prefers shooting on the digital Red because he hates surprises. "I don't like being swept up in the performance and then seeing it go out of focus," he said in Side by Side. "Some of Darius Khondji's work on Se7en, you would just go 'wow.' But there was an equal amount of times where you would ... say, 'what the fuck.' "

Some argue that digital slows production down, since directors are tempted to check every take, tweak the lighting and even edit on set. However, Phil Holland, an LA-based director of photography (DP) and colorist, told Engadget that digital has improved quality control during the shoot. And while he agrees that on-set fiddling can waste time, he said "that's largely down to individuals and pickiness. Experienced directors and producers typically know when they nailed it and want to move on."

If magic is happening, there's no reason to stop shooting on digital. With film, you have no choice if the film load runs out in the middle of a take. Modern digital cameras are at least as reliable as film cameras, and the digital "negative" can be copied on set. With film, you've got a mechanical system that can break down, film that can be ruined in the changing bag, dirt or hair in the gate and even negatives that can be lost by couriers on the way to the lab.

Deluxe film laboratories, Denham, London (The Austin Company)

What about pollution? Processing film consumes a lot of water and strong chemicals. Big operations run by Deluxe, Technicolor and others take care to properly dispose of chemicals and recycle the silver elements used in film, but the process is still wasteful. Digital photography eliminates all of that, and the only extra waste comes from building the hard drives and disposing of spent lithium-ion batteries.

Film has another big carbon hit in distribution. Prior to digital "DCP" files now used in movie theaters, studios needed tens of thousands of prints for big releases, which must be produced then disposed of after a theater run. Those are trucked to theaters, adding cost and contributing to air pollution.

A Northlight 6K film scanner (Phil Holland)

Film negatives are generally transferred to digital and never seen again, making it an additional time and cash concern compared to digital. Meanwhile, early problems in handling large RAW camera files from digital cameras have melted away thanks to cheaper storage and faster computers. "I just finished up cutting a small 8K project on RED's new 8K Weapon camera using native Redcode RAW and Adobe Premiere Pro CC," Holland says. "I'm using a hefty PC, but it's insane that we have come so far that this is even possible." That project, one of the first done on the new camera, is shown below at YouTube's maximum 4K resolution (a frame grab from the shoot is here).

If you're looking at pure resolution, then Super 35mm, the most widely used movie film, generally resolves to around 5K. "That's why film scanners typically fall in the 4K to 6K range," says Holland. The 70mm Panavision format used by Tarantino has an equivalent 8K to 10K of resolution, but the king of all film formats, 70mm IMAX, resolves to a ridiculous 18K, far more than any digital format. The costs of shooting IMAX, however, are prohibitive other than for big-budget films like Interstellar and Batman: The Dark Knight Rises.

'Forged,' one of the first Red Weapon 8K projects (Phil Holland)

Both Red and Arri have digital cinema cameras that shoot at 6K in RAW formats (that would be the Weapon and the Alexa 65, respectively). Red has just launched the 8K Weapon, which will start shipping to customers soon. Since both cameras use Bayer CMOS sensors, however, the true resolution is less than the published resolution -- so 6K cameras are more like 5K, and Red's 8K weapon is likely between 6K and 7K.

"Resolution, light sensitivity, color and dynamic range have all been met or conquered in comparison to film stock."

That's not the whole story, though. Modern digital cinema cameras capture with less grain or noise than film stocks and are more sensitive as well. With digital, captured and perceived detail at 6K is higher than a 6K Super 35mm film scan, since the grain structure of film is larger than digital pixels, according to Holland. Both Arri and Red cameras also have a higher dynamic range than ever, too. "Overall, digital cinema cameras are on par or have exceeded film's technical merits. Resolution, light sensitivity, color and dynamic range have all been met or conquered in comparison to film stock," he says.

Film-lovers, on the other hand, prefer the medium's warmer result, and say that the dancing grain inherent in film is part of its beauty. However, film grain is a limitation in the technology, not an intentional "feature" to make it look better. Manufacturers like Kodak have always sought to reduce grain size, not enhance it.

A Christie 4K laser 3D projector

Most filmmakers agree that digital has made projection better. "It's always a huge disappointment now for me to see a film print," Soderbergh said in Side by Side. Digital projectors now have 4K resolution and high dynamic range, so they produce an image at least as good as 35mm film prints. "Color is more consistent with digital than film for sure," Holland adds. "There is no print degradation when your audience sees your film, no scratches, no projector-related issues. "

However, Tarantino dislikes digital so much that in 2012 he called it "the death of cinema" and "TV in public." For The Hateful Eight, he not only resurrected Panavision's barely used 70mm format for filming, but convinced a number of theaters to purchase 70mm projectors to show it in special "roadshow" screenings. "The thing about the roadshows [from that past] is that it made movies special. It wasn't just a movie playing at your local theater," he said in a featurette.

His comments make it clear that celluloid takes many people fondly back to the magical movies of their youth. Digital has also upended the way films crews worked for nearly a hundred years, and eliminated many film-specific jobs. However, it also means low-budget films can be produced with the same cameras used by studios. That removes a layer of elitism: Celluloid used to mean directors or DPs were on the top of the food chain.

** FILE ** In this June 7, 1977 file photo, theater goers wait in lines in front of the Avco Center Theater in Los Angeles to see "Star Wars." (AP Photo, file)

The cost of entry into filmmaking is now a lot cheaper. Veteran director Mike Leigh told the Toronto Star: "There are young filmmakers doing all sorts of fantastic things and part of the reason that's possible is the democratization of the medium because of a new technology."

As for audiences, isn't it the storytelling we pine for in old movies, not the means of delivery? I loved seeing Star Wars in 1978, but I didn't love the broken or burned film, focus problems and terrible sound that often happened in those years. Ironically, when The Hateful Eight was screened for critics at LA's Crest Westwood theater, there were so many problems with the mechanical projectors that the Weinstein Company had to switch to a digital copy.

Film will continue to exist for the foreseeable future, thanks to a deal struck by Hollywood with Kodak, so that's a choice that elite filmmakers with big budgets will still have. However, it's too bad we can't embrace the future of movie-making, rather than looking back to a 100-year-old format that's wasteful and inefficient. The technical advantages of film have now ceded to digital, so why don't we save our nostalgia for old movies, and let the new dog have its own day?