Film vs. Digital: The Dilemma
One of the most important issues in modern film culture is the transition of the medium from actual celluloid to digital. It’s also one of the least understood, as most audiences aren’t aware of the complex issues surrounding the debate. Those in favor of digital have essentially held the entire industry hostage in order to have their way, so the fact that films are shown digitally has become a basic part of movie-going life. But it’s not this simple. I recall going to a movie last year and being behind two people in line, a young boy and his older sister. The boy turned to his sister and said “What does digital mean?” His sister fumbled for a response before telling him that it “means the movie looks better.”
While to some extent that is true, it’s really not that simple. The movie-going public has rarely been informed as to some of the specific technicalities regarding the films they are watching, but I think it’s important for audiences to have a basic understanding in this debate, as they’ve become the puppets of individuals like James Cameron, Peter Jackson, and George Lucas (click the link for an excellent essay on this subject by America’s most prominent film theorist, David Bordwell), who’ve pushed their digital agenda so firmly and quickly that it’s been impossible for audience members to even know what’s going on. I wouldn’t say that knowing the varying millimeter varieties that film can be shot on or the difference between 4:3 and 16:9 is of the most pressing importance to the average individual, but the digital/film argument brings up some interesting questions about consumer preferences- and even consumer protection. If an audience is paying to see a restoration of The Lady Vanishes in theaters, they should be aware as to what they’re paying for and whether it’s the film in its original medium or a digital re-scan. You wouldn’t pay to go to an art museum to see scans or photographs of a Rembrandt or Cezanne, so why would you do that with a Hitchcock or an Ozu?
It’s not the same, is it?
My intent in writing this post is to outline some of the basic differences between film and digital, as I’m frightened by the lack of knowledge most people have regarding this situation. You’d be surprised as to how few people realize that most movies aren’t projected on actual film reels anymore, and that needs to be changed. Film is art, so it deserves to be treated as such. Both film and digital have their positives and negatives, so I’ll list some for each. Of course, this will be a simplified version of the complex discussion, as it’s something that can’t be easily explained in a blog post. But I hope that I can teach you something a little bit more than “it looks good.”
- I’ll go ahead and state it right now: in most cases, I lean toward film. While I’m part of the newer generation who has barely known anything but film, and I’ve worked exclusively with digital in my own filmmaking, I personally hold a lot more regard for the aesthetic quality of film. Looking back on the early years of film theory, it becomes apparent that the initial fascination with the cinema came from its dream-like ability to preserve shadows, to capture a figment of a human’s persona and blast it onto a screen. Digital attempts to mimic life, and while many use film to do the same, the quality of the medium itself creates something totally different from ordinary reality. I’ve had the extreme fortune to view some truly beautiful films on truly beautiful film prints- The General with an original organ accompaniment, West Side Story, North by Northwest. It might seem over-stated, but every film deserves to be seen in a theater, and most classics look infinitely better on film.
- Another one of my main arguments for film is that it is highly superior than digital as far as preservation and archival purposes are concerned. Film stays the same, but digital constantly changes. There has yet to be an industry-standard file type, so these can change constantly, meaning that in a few years, many will lose their ability to be opened and seen. Similarly, it’s incredibly easy to accidentally delete files, as happened last year with a screening of The Avengers. As mentioned in a recent Sight & Sound article, there are also numerous more technical problems that can occur when one simply sticks a flash drive with a film on it into a projector. Unless a reel is scratched or catches on fire, it’s pretty much guaranteed to play, unless the projector itself fails. But if a file fails, it can occur for many more reasons, such as incompatibility with the projector, file corruption, etc. While it may be easier to distribute films digitally, it’s much easier to store them on film. There’s also a greater chance that a file could get deleted over time. While there’s still a chance that many great lost films exist in a warehouse somewhere, it’s much easier for digital movies to get buried under a pile of data.
- Speaking frankly, film limits who can make movies. It’s hard to come by and is very expensive to purchase and develop. While most kids with cameras might not make anything of real consequence, digital has opened up a realm of possibilities to almost anyone who knows how to point and shoot.
- There are also few projectionists left who actually know how to project or handle film. For example, the only 70mm print of The Master available within the UK was scratched in about a week. But on the opposite side, a lot of projectionists don’t real know anything about digital either.
- As mentioned earlier, now anyone with a few bucks and a camera can make a movie. The importance of this can’t really be overstated, so I feel like there’s not a whole lot more to write about it.
- The restoration of older films has become infinitely easier now, although it does have its dangers if one becomes careless (see the Sight & Sound review of the poorly-curated and recently-released Alfred Hitchcock anniversary box set, or this article). This means that original details which may have been lost over time can be restored, but it can be easy to overdo this and change the film drastically.
- A film theory that I find interesting is remodernism, which in its manifesto calls itself a “stripped down, minimal, lyrical, punk kind of filmmaking.” Basically it calls for a return to the ideals of Japanese concepts like “wabi-sabi (the beauty of imperfection) and mono no aware (the awareness of the transience of things and the bittersweet feelings that accompany their passing),” in order to show the “truth of existence” through the filmmaking of artists like Andrei Tarkovksy, Yasujiro Ozu, and Robert Bresson. Remodernists are essentially opposed to digital filmmaking, but mostly on the grounds that digital attempts to appear like film and has yet to truly achieve its own natural aesthetic. Clay and marble, as well as oil and watercolor, don’t attempt to resemble each other, and I feel it should be the same way with film and digital. One of the few mainstream directors who has created an aesthetic that is to some degree different from film (in my opinion) is Steven Soderbergh, and I think more should follow his efforts.
- As stated above, it’s definitely not ideal for preservation purposes, or even for screening purposes, especially when you consider the carelessness of many projectionists working today, as stated in this essay by Roger Ebert. There are a lot of subtleties regarding light and lenses that go unnoticed by those individuals operating projectors, so digital is really not ideal until those mistakes are corrected.
- This point sort-of builds on my first “pro” for film, but I think that with digital, especially Blu-Ray and high-definition, the dream-like quality of films is lost. Lines become too defined and images too sharp. If you have the chance, I’d recommend David Denby’s recent collection Do the Movies Have a Future?, as he outlines these ideas very clearly, particularly in the essays “Conglomerate Aesthetics: Notes on the Disintegration of Film Language” and “Pirates on the iPod: The Soul of a New Screen.” There’s something about the way colors and textures in film tend to blur together that gives them the feeling of being from a dream, and this is lost when digital attempts to sharpen things and create “reality.” It can be interesting at first, but soon loses its appeal, as images become ordinary and commonplace. The mystery disappears. And don’t even get me started on the pitfalls of watching movies on cellphones and iPods, as it is truly impossible to get a real sense of the “feel” of a movie watching it on these devices. Too many details are lost when one drifts away from the theater. While I understand that it’s impossible to watch everything outside of your own home, we should try to, in a sense, revive the concept of revival theaters, as you really can’t know a movie until your senses have absorbed every inch of detail on the big screen. These devices rob us of the emotional experience of movie-going.
I hope that this very brief outlining of my personal feelings regarding the debate between film and digital makes some sense to you, and I hope you can take these points and gain your opinion on the subject. If more movie-goers are informed about what they’re watching, we take back our power and are no longer the pawns of studios. The audience is crucial in the artistic process and we’ve been abused for too long. Film and digital both have their varying negatives and positives, so it’s a bit difficult to decide which is better. In a perfect world, they could co-exist and live beside each other, but unfortunately the industry has split into camps and forced us to decide on one or the other. I’m weary of this war, so I hope we can attempt to make a change that will improve the state of art overall.