Industry cinematographers weigh in on film vs. digital

The on-going film vs. digital debate seemed to reach a bit of a fever pitch in 2014. A lot of that had to do with the fight by filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan to maintain Kodak's production of film stock. It was a fight they won in August, while the industry at large would surely prefer to march headlong into the (more affordable) future of ones and zeroes. But this “debate” has remained a somewhat nuanced one, even as the separate passionate sides have presented it as cut and dried.

Archivally, with the expanded shelf life of celluloid and in the face of file type obsolescence, maintaining the production of film stock is absolutely crucial. Aesthetically, it will always come down to preference, of course. But beyond even that, digital encroachment has meant more opportunity for young artists to break into the form, and that's the position “Mr. Turner” director Mike Leigh presented when asked about it in a recent interview with The Toronto Star.

Responding to Tarantino's qualification of digital filmmaking as “TV in public” and “the death of cinema,” the notoriously prickly helmer did not mince words. “That's bollocks, in a word,” he said. “It”s a ludicrous statement, because apart from anything else, it”s a backward-looking statement that is irresponsible. I remember a time in the late '70s when people said, 'Cinema is over.' 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, so [Tarantino”s fight] is twaddle.”

Those sentiments about the forward-looking prospect of the medium were echoed by Leigh's “Turner” director of photography, Dick Pope, when I interviewed him earlier this year. “You could say that in the film Turner is looking forward,” he told me at the time. “He's no Luddite. He doesn't look back. He's always moving forward, and in his art, as well, he moved forward, didn't he?”

I spoke to more cinematographers last year than any other year, it seems, and every time, the discussion eventually came down to this debate. It's interesting, of course, because a number of these guys are working on one or the other this year, so there's inevitable bias and diplomacy at play, just by human nature. But then there are others like Robert Elswit and Greig Fraser who had a hand in both sides of the medium with multiple projects in 2014.

So I thought I'd collect all of their responses to that particular query. I find that DPs always tend to have the more practical, level-headed assessment. The passion of filmmakers tends to drive a wedge between the two forms, idealism and romance spear-heading heated debate, whereas the folks who actually deal in the nuts and bolts simply view these two tools as separate means for separate ends.

Read through what they had to say below.


Bradford Young (“Selma,” digital; “A Most Violent Year,” digital)
For me [digital is] a lot more comfortable, which actually just helps me go a little bit further. Some of the stuff I was doing with shadows in “A Most Violent Year” are things that I wanted to do in “Ain't Them Bodies Saints” but just was a little timid to do, because we were exposing film. It just gives you that little confidence to go a little darker because you're seeing what you're getting. And obviously the approach is different, the sort of ethos and how you approach it, but the result is kind of the same. I just feel like with digital you can be a bit more radical with it. That's just my feeling. I think it's changing the way we work, you know? I feel like it's given me a lot more confidence to go further, and that's nice. It's nice to have your head in the game for other things and not have to worry about, “Is it going to come out” and “Will there be no image at all?”

Greig Fraser (“Foxcatcher,” film; “The Gambler,” digital)
It's such a personal thing and it's not just personal between humans because obviously you speak to Nolan or Pfister, they're going to go film all the way. Roger Deakins I believe is about to shoot the new Coen brothers film on film. So here he is going back to film from the Alexa. Now I'm positive that he's not doing that because he thinks the Alexa's subpar. I'm positive it's because of the Coens. And it's obviously going to be interesting seeing Roger Deakins shoot film after having been on the Alexa for a while. I worship the ground that guy walks on. Everything he does is fucking gold. So as an exercise I'm really excited to talk to him before, during and after him having shot on film again. But I don't think there's any one correct answer. Because “Episode VII” of “Star Wars” is shooting on film now, you know? Who knows what “Episode VIII” is going to shoot on.

I've had debates with filmmakers about this before about how you might believe that film is the only way, and I've maybe shot something on digital and had this discussion and said, “Well, on that project digital was a better solution because of this and this and this reason.” And they may not have agreed. I've sat at the end of a line when I received a phone call from a lab saying, “Hey, we've just fucked up a roll of your film.” And I've also sat on the end of a phone call when I've, you know – “This shot is corrupt so we can't use it.” So both film and digital have their issues. They're not always 100% foolproof. The issue that people like Nolan have, which I understand and agree with – he's got this issue with archiving. And it's a good point. Because if we go watch a film as early as “Ben-Hur,” they could go back to that film and they could rescan it at 4K and they could re-project it in the cinema at 4K brand new looking. You know, you go back to a film that was shot on 1080p or 720p, I mean, what are you going to do? Are you going to re-release that?

Roger Deakins (“Unbroken,” digital)
I mean I like doing digital I must say. The media advantages now outweigh the disadvantages. I mean, [the Coen brothers] eventually turn around and say, 'No, we're analog guys.' And I said, 'Yeah, OK. I'll shoot on a cell phone if you want!” But [“Hail, Caesar!” is] also set in Hollywood in 1952, so I mean it feels like if anything should be shot on film it should be this film.

The Alexa camera, there's just more resolution, frankly, than you would get on film. It's much easier to separate the backgrounds. We shot the four sides mock-up of the plane [in “Unbroken”] and we just lit with this big white cyc [cyclorama] and blew out the windows, but it was the practical way to do it for the CG artists, to be able to take that window and extract it. If we had been shooting on film, we would have had to use blue screen to allow them that much flexibility. So there are so many advantages. And I think I might have said to you before, there was no lab in Australia by then. All the labs had closed down. So we would have been shipping film across the world and that was just not going to be – you know, it's stressful. It takes two or three days to get a report. That's stressful.

Robert Elswit (“Nightcrawler,” digital/film; “Inherent Vice,” film)
I think they're very different and I don't think they're really interchangeable. And there's some people I really have enormous respect for who have come to embrace [digital] and do extraordinary work with it. It just depends on the movie. I think there's some things that really lend themselves to shooting on film. It's very sad; I don't think it's going to last all that much longer because it's just such a complicated process and the workflow is somewhat difficult. And, you know, you need your actors to really see that there's a difference and are willing to commit to it. I'm doing “Mission: Impossible” on film, all of it, everything. And it's kind of wonderful. It's because Tom Cruise has a kind of visceral hate of the electronic image on a motion picture. It's a matter of taste. But for certain things, it's absolutely – you know, nobody does digital the way David Fincher does or the way Michael Mann does. It looks absolutely extraordinary. But their film work looked extraordinary. So it isn't any wonder that they found the best way to do it. They were always good digital stylists and, you know, some day Paul [Thomas Anderson] may have to – there may not be anything left. I mean there's only really one lab left in LA. So I don't know what the future holds. I don't know what he's going to do next. It seems like the kind of thing that he would either run at or not run at. But as long as he wants to do film, more power to him.

Jeff Cronenweth (“Gone Girl,” digital)
It's interesting that as the digital age has immersed us all, the fear always was that [cinematographers] would be insignificant, and ironically we've become more significant and it's more imperative. And yes, true, there's certainly things that it's not as – the latitude and the choices and things can happen, color correction and visual effects and all these things water down what used to be ours alone. But also there are so many more things you can do and the contributions and you still have to have the light come from the right direction and you still have to put the camera in the right place and you still have to have continuity and creativity in scenes to make something seamless.

There's some digital aspect to everything now. And, you know, I look at it like, yeah, film was magical. There's things that can happen that you can't predict. I loved the idea that you were the mad professor and you owned everything on the set. But I also like not waking up at four in the morning, calling a lab to find out if I should show up on the set that day or not. I like the ability to take a risk. I like the continuity that you walk into a theater and it looks the same in most of the theaters now as opposed to, with 1,000 prints or 3,000 prints, you could go to a multiplex and walk from one room to the next and they all look different. And then, you know, not to be sanctimonious, but environmentally, we don't have prints to deal with. And then the biggest one is piracy. Now you can control a lot and eliminate a lot through digital cinema and digital projectors and knowing every time it's screened, where it was screened and the watermarks that no one knows about, they can find stuff. It's funny, on “Social Network” I was with Scott Rudin and we were [at the] New York Film Festival. We were doing a pre-run that morning of the premiere and the projectionist was 20 minutes late, and so the film stopped 20 minutes before it finished. And, of course, he called back to Sony, Sony sent a new passcode and we watched the rest of the movie. But that's very empowering. That's fantastic.

I mean, I love film. I loved being the guy. I loved when you watched “Fight Club” or something, other DPs would come up and go, “Dude, your balls are so big. How did you do that?” And it's terrifying to be that bold and take those risks, because there is no return, you know? Now there's so much more forgiveness. Yet I think in some ways it's harder now, to still make it interesting and push boundaries that other people won't do. So I don't know. I think that the industry has always been evolving. They've always embraced technology. And it's going to be the answer. It's going to continually evolve. I think the magic is that we're all just now trying to figure out how best to use it, and that's why these movies look so amazing now. Everybody's on board. It's not scary and brand new and no one's running from it. And I had this whole dilemma on “Hitchcock” about, “Well, it's sacrilegious to shoot a Hitchcock movie digitally.” And eventually the choice was nullified by cost constraints and the director realizing that he could have a couple more sets and another two days of shooting if we went digital. But my argument back to that was that Hitchcock, of all people, would have been the first person to embrace the newest thing. He always took risks and was always making changes and if there was a digital camera and he was directing, he'd be using it.

Hoyte van Hoytema (“Interstellar,” film/IMAX)
The debate itself is just stupid, you know? One of the worst things has been the debate, because it assumes there is a “better” and a “worse,” that there is a “winner” and a “loser.” That's not the way I look at it at all. That polarization and presentation that there is something better and something worse is just ridiculous. Anybody can give a reason why something is good or bad in a technical sense. But the reason filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are shooting on film, it has nothing to do with “better” or “worse.” It just has to do with very personal taste. Everybody wants a different kind of canvas. Some people like painting with oil paint and other people like painting with acrylic paint and other people like painting with cow shit, you know? [Laughs.] That whole discussion is useless, and the only thing that discussion has provoked is that people who don't know anything about it start lobbying for a format. One format is just slowly becoming obsolete and keeping a lot of people from that choice in the future, which is very sad, because I think that choice should be available for people like Chris or Quentin Tarantino or Scorsese or Spielberg, whoever, or Paul Thomas Anderson. Their choices in why they take film is not always a technical choice.