Thursday, March 24, 2011

Film vs Digital Filmmaking: What's the difference?

Through the course of preparing for my feature-length film "Brilliant Mistakes"  in September,  I am stumbling upon a dizzying amount of theories behind the Film vs. Digital debate. Having interviewed several cinematographers during the last few weeks,  I've learned there is no simple way to make a movie, but more importantly, no theory is "right." It's what's right for you that matters.

With an array of varying principals and styles, to the technical whirlwind of information supporting certain theories, it's no wonder most Directors aren't insane, or committed by the time they've released their film. Who can keep up with all the changes, happening as I type?

These days, the idea of using film is alluring. There is a tonality, warmth and appeal to using film that I liken to the audiophile's lust for listening to music produced only on vinyl. Those people believe there is a sonic depth and a dynamic that is clearly missing from MP3s and alike. One theory is that as more and more people listen to music on earbuds or small headphones, they are less in tune with the actual quality of the music, in terms of clarity, tonality, and warmth. Apparently, they are more in tune with how the music is panned or separated in the left and right can. But how can they truly appreciate the music if all the beauty of an instrument, the breath of a flute, or the resonance of a bow as it strikes a string on a cello, are being glossed over. The question is–does that person care? Do they know what they're missing or are they happy with what they have? It is, to an extent, subjective.

Similarly, at a theater, does a theater goer know they're watching a movie shot with a 16mm camera or RED 4K camera, and if they knew the difference would they care? I'll answer this below.

Most multi-plex theaters are not equipped with the latest technology and cannot take advantage of the digital revolution in filmmaking because retrofitting a theater is an expensive proposition in an age where less and less moviegoers are filling the seats.
But in order to grow and keep up, there are organizations that actually help to speed up  that process while setting standards that will usher in a new uniform digital age in theaters.

Digital Cinema Initiatives (, a joint venture of Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal and Warner Bros. Studios'primary purpose is to establish and document specifications for an open architecture for digital cinema that ensures a uniform and high level of technical performance, reliability and quality control. Clearly this is not going to happen at your local theater tomorrow.

So, can we attribute this digital revolution in filmmaking to taste, convenience, speed, a digital revolution, or all the above?

Do we collectively like crisper more vivid images. Are we obsessed with having to see the Rachel McAdam's pores? The answer is not necessarily clear.

The digital revolution simply makes it easier for filmmakers to make films, and on smaller budgets. It's clearly a matter of economics for many independent filmmakers, like myself.
Converting film to digital and the whole Telecine process is expensive and time-consuming. So we now have digital cameras that shoot at 24p which approximates the 24 frame flicker we are accustomed to at the theater. We also have speed, ease of use, portability and easy transcoding for editing. That's the up side!

But what digital cameras do to add grain, which is actually not grain , but noise is it mimics what we see on film, and not so great in most cases. We get a sense of warmth and that classic movie "feel" but not because the it's a silver particle being seen on your screen. And that's where purists cringe.
With digital footgae in post-production, we can add all kinds of effects and make things grainier, and because digital media is so easy to work with files can be uploaded to Final Cut instantly and editing can happen much quicker, that's why they're not cringing! In the end does the texture and grain and coloration of your finished project work with the story you're telling? Did you go for a warm and painterly Caravaggio look? Or was it my favorite Edward Hopper?

The question is does the audience care if they're watching a movie shot on an Arri, or RED, or DSLR. The answer is yes, unknowingly.  They don't actually know it, but they walk away from that film with an well-rounded experience, and all of those attributes like clarity, warmth or vividness are part of what made that film work, or not work for that person. How you as a filmmaker or director communicate that is as integral as how good the acting is or how well-written the screenplay was. It's all pat of making a "moving" picture.

A crisp, vivid and super realistic RED camera may not work for a gritty indie film, the way an old Arri or Panavision may. That artistic choice is why certain cinematographers don't own cameras. They want to bring artistry to the craft. And use camera packages that make sense for the story. If they own a certain camera then they may be known by their "look" or style rather than their artistry.

So when making an Indie film about a drug lord in the Bronx, would you use a digital DSLR, or Film? That's a creative decision you, as Director, and your DP will make. It should always be the art that leads you to the decisions you make. You should always work with the story, understand it fully, and immerse yourself in visualizing who the characters are and what story you need to tell.

Truthfully, I'm not a fan of the new DSLR movement. I don't think 1080p will hold up on a large screen the way a RED or an ARRI does, and often times I find the depth of field to be too shallow and the overall look to have a "Photoshop Plug-in" stigma. I can pick out something shot with a DSLR in a matter of seconds. But for certain applications like TV commercials it may be the appropriate package to use. On the flip side, the RED ONE package is 4k and there is a huge amount of information there that you can play with to create an ultra realistic sharp image or even downgrade it to 2k in post. So, the RED ONE is diverse as it is monstrously gig-hungry.  I find Video cameras equipped with a Letus or Shoot 35 Depth of Field (DOF) filter to be way more convincing than a DSLR. They produce a shallow depth of field and grain, and that's the end result. Sure, they're clunky but if you want a real film look without the grain being actual solid state noise, DOF filters are the way to go because they use a spinning ground glass component to create that look, not noise. With those adapters one issue is vignetting, which is a darkness around the edges. Some lower-end DOF filters produce this effect more than others.

Bottom Line:
As a director there are no rules for the type of camera package you use, and there are no rules for the cinematographer you use either. As you get closer to pre-production, this is a time for you to make creative decisions about the movie you're going to make. Shooting a low budget horror film with a DSLR may work for your project, but if you want it to hold up on the big screen and retain a vivid super-realistic quality, you may want to setp up to a RED ONE. If a gritty NYU type film project calls for real film and it's a short or documentary, that may be the way to go because you'll most likely not have 1,800 feet of film to process and digitize.

Film vs. Digital will be a debate that will never have a winner or loser. It's a matter of preference mixed with economics that decides how you ultimately shoot your film. Some choices you will make, and some your check book will make for you!

Good luck with your project!

Written by Paul Brighton
Producer/Director of the forthcoming feature
"Brilliant Mistakes"

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