Sunday, April 15, 2012

Film versus digital

Let me get this out of the way first: I am not a filmmaker, film student or a connoisseur. I'm just a schmuck who really likes movies, and I'm not afraid to read up on subjects which tickle my fancy. With his in mind, many of my opinions on the matter may be skewed, based upon dubious assumptions, or just flat-out wrong.

Recently I've read a number of articles which have popped up highlighting the film industry's growing preference for digital media. Some of them boast an almost tear-jerking level of nostalgia for a dying technology, while others offer arguments in favour of digital which are, at best, mootable.

Chris Nolan with a 35mm Panavision Panaflex XL2
Let's settle on one fact: 35mm is the gold standard for the foreseeable future. This is exemplified by the fact that the best digital motion picture cameras out there simply attempt - as best they can - to imitate the look and feel of 35mm. When done correctly, film will always look better than any comparable purely digital technology. This comes with a caveat, though: shooting on film and getting through the entire post-production workflow "correctly" is difficult and it is expensive.

In a recent LA Weekly article, Christopher Nolan proselytised and pleaded for the continued use of 35mm film. His argument is that the elegance and power of film outweighs any financial benefits to dropping the medium.

The truth is that the studios are fully justified in supporting - if not forcing - the adoption of digital, as it is simply cheaper. Let's keep in mind that they are running businesses and not art studios.

Red Epic-M with all the trimmings.
One reel of standard 35mm film is roughly 300 metres in length. When recorded at industry-standard 24 frames per second, this gives you a speed of 456 millimetres per second, which translates to roughly eleven minutes of footage. Compare this to the Red Epic digital cinema camera[1] (used to photograph such upcoming films as Ridley Scott's Prometheus and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit) recording at 5k 2:1 and REDcode 5:1 (which will likely be what most features shoot with) onto a 256GB SSD[2] will net you just under an hour.

This obviously allows the crew to focus more on the artistry of what they're doing, and less on timing their takes correctly. The knowledge that the SSD can be overwritten (as opposed to a bum reel which must be trashed) also relaxes everyone involved, as a mistake does not mean blowing a $500 reel.

Red's proprietary SSDs
known as RedMags
Another issue which needs to be addressed is that of data loss. Digital's strength in this regard is obvious: film - being an analogue technology - cannot be losslessly copied. That is to say, a copy will always be inferior to the original - a copy of a copy doubly so. The SSDs that are used in digital, on the other hand, are really just examples of newer hard drives that you'll find on any modern desktop PC. This means that the footage which it contains is nothing but a digital file - a huge chunk of binary data. As we all know, digital data can be copied ad infinitum with no loss of quality. This is great news for editors, and - again - introduces massive financial savings. Unfortunately, the SSDs in question are, again, simply glorified hard drives. As someone with vast experience in the field of I.T., I can assure you that any flash/EEPROM based storage degrades much faster than anything you can imagine. While an adequately sealed reel of film can last centuries, you'd be lucky to get a lifespan exceeding five years from a flash hard disk.

Personally, I'm in favour of eventually migrating completely to digital cinema, but not yet. Despite the technology massively lowering the barrier-to-entry for professional quality filmmaking, 35mm film has some beautiful light-capturing qualities and nuances that digital just cannot yet measure up to. The inexorable march of technology, however, suggests that the quality of digital cameras and projection will continue to improve and eventually surpass film. At the moment, we're just at the mercy of producers who favour bottom-line over beauty.

[1] The Epic-M and Epic-X models have approximately the same surface area of a traditional Super 35 film frame masked to the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, creating a similar angle of view and depth of field as the Super 35 film format.

[2] SSD: Solid State Drive. A modern hard-disk technology which features no moving parts and, thus, fewer points of failure. Basically a bigger version of a USB flash stick.

1 comment:

Janet van Eeden said...

You make salient points. One thing digital can't do is to track moving action well. The diffuse focus seems to be too much for fast moving shots. Hopefully the technology will improve to allow the tracking shots to be of the same quality of those in 35 mm.