Arriflex 435 Xtreme
The Arriflex 435 Xtreme, the last iteration of the world’s most popular 35mm film camera.

Back in the 1980s, video was supposed to be the nail in the coffin for film (and look what happened to video). But thirty years later, the sound of hammering is hard to ignore…

  • The three biggest camera manufacturers (Arri, PanaVision and Aaton) stopped making film cameras this year.
  • This year’s threatened SAG strikes resulted in 90% of TV pilots going digital, owing to a clause in rival union AFTRA’s contracts permitting “videotaped” (i.e. digital) filming.
  • The world’s main HDCAM SR factory in Sendai was destroyed in the earthquake resulting in many producers switching to “tapeless”* formats, making a bold step forward after 100 years of using physical media.
  • The penetration of digital projectors in US cinemas passed the 50% mark, encouraged by the Virtual Print Fee paid to theatre owners who convert to digital projection by 2013.

It is indisputable that digital is king now. It’s cheap, reliable and high quality. Even prestige Hollywood productions, where the continuing use of film is almost a badge of resistance, generally have multiple digital 2nd and 3rd camera units.

It’s clear that film has been in decline for a long time, although it is unlikely film is going to disappear anytime soon. Witness the use of 16mm today. It might be lost in the slipstream of digital’s take-off, but it’s still popular with students and indie film-makers.

This is old news for those stills photographers who still shoot 35mm. Soon filmmakers will have the same experience. Film cameras will be repaired and serviced only by specialists and enthusiasts. Lab processing options will be limited, while the costs are already sky-rocketing. Even basic post-production will rely on a dwindling population of experienced handlers, archivists and restoration technicians.

But those future filmmakers who choose to shoot on film will come to enjoy a level of respect which celluloid photographers already enjoy. It will become a speciality format and an expensive hobby, but a viable medium nonetheless for directors who want film’s unique aesthetic. As long as Fuji and Kodak keep making the stock, people will use it.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
Benjamin Button was a watershed in “beautiful” digital cinematography.

Digital is past its infancy now. Unlike colour film which took more than thirty years to become the dominant format, digital has taken about twenty. The pioneer spirit has attracted many forward-thinking filmmakers who were already well-versed in the digitisation of post-production.

James Cameron and David Fincher – both directors with background in Visual Effects – have pushed digital acquisition to hitherto unimagined possibilities. I won’t dwell on Cameron’s revolutionary camera tech for Avatar, or Fincher’s championing of both Viper and RED cameras**.

What we’re really seeing is a broadening of the media palette, when film and digital are two options available to any filmmakers. Typewriters didn’t kill writing, and cassettes didn’t kill the live scene.

We’re also seeing a highly technical fractionation of the acquisition workflow: digital is not just about exposing and processing. Now the final image quality depends on many subtle distinctions in highly abstract concepts like sensor design, codecs, colour curves, data wrangling and conforming strategies. The connection between any of those stages and the final result is very hard to trace.

Of course, while digital continues to be an exciting and often surprising way of shooting, no one believes today’s digital standards will bear any comparison to whatever will be king in another 30 years.

But whatever the next thing is, it remains to be seen.

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This article was inspired by Debra Kaufman’s article on Creative Cow who also wrote the Viper interview with DoP Claudio Miranda.

* It’s an oddly anachronistic tendency to name new technologies after whatever it is they lack from their antecedents, like calling radios “wireless”.

** RED’s status as the technology front runner looks assured – unexpectedly for a startup that released its first product, the RED One, less than 5 years ago. In September, Soderbergh’s Contagion became the first commercial feature shot and released on the RED’s Epic “Tattoo” prototypes. The now commercially released Epics are currently lensing The HobbitThe Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Amazing Spider-man. RED lovers are also expecting an announcement on November 2nd about the very long awaited Scarlet.