Film is dead! Long live digital! That's the mantra everyone seems to be spouting these days. Even the most die-hard celluloid lovers admit that even if film isn't quite dead yet, it's definitely on life support with digital looking to pull the plug.
There's just one little problem with all of this: The attending physicians (and film has a surprisingly large, high-profile number of them), including directors Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Tom Hooper, Paul Thomas Anderson and this year's Oscar®-winner Ben Affleck, all say they're not giving up on their patient, ever. How strongly do they feel? "There wasn't any real talk of going digital," Affleck told me recently. "I don't like digital, though we used a digital camera for a few sequences in Turkey, where there was very low light and we couldn't use lights in these historical sites. But even that small bit of the movie, I don't like how it looks. I will shoot film till there's no more left."
When I spoke with Nolan, who's about to start shooting Interstellar on film—and with film dailies—he was just as blunt, and insisted he would "never" go digital. Discussing Inception, he stressed that he didn't even do a DI on the VFX-filled, sci-fi mind-bender. Instead, he cut the negative and timed it photochemically. "That gives you the best result, by far, in the least amount of time, at the best price," he insisted. "It's truly a great process. Most films seem to do a DI now, but I think it's just a waste of time for most. If you don't want to avail yourself of any particular stylization in the timing, then photochemical timing will give you the best possible quality, in hours rather than weeks."
As for Les Misérables and The King's Speech helmer Hooper, he admits to considering digital for Les Misérables, but went back to 35mm after his line producer ran the numbers—twice—"and there was no price difference," he said. "This big myth's been built up that digital is far cheaper, but it's just not true. And I love shooting on film. For me, it's still the best image capture process out there."
So are filmmakers like Nolan and others just sticking their heads in the sand, unwilling to admit what so many in the industry are telling them? After all, film labs around the world are closing daily and film stock manufacturers are dwindling, and it's obviously far easier to deal with VFX, DIs and distribution when you have an all-digital pipeline.
Well, not necessarily. Film will live on, and will continue to offer filmmakers options and advantages. For instance, today you can take the negative of a classic such as Casablanca and make a Blu-ray version, and in another 30 or 50 years, you'll still be able to use that negative as we move to 4K, 8K, etc. But, if you've shot digitally and done a 2K DI of your movie, and that's your finished product, then there's no real way to future-proof it in the way film allows you to. So, as long as there's a demand for film, it will stick around. Don't forget, Polaroid went out of business because suddenly everyone had an iPhone that can do the same job, but another company picked up where they left off and you can still buy Polaroid film.
Editor John Lee, who assisted Lee Smith in cutting Chris Nolan's ambitious Dark Knight trilogy, as well as Inception and The Prestige, recalls them all sitting around a beautiful wooden table in a conference room and Nolan pointing out that, while a plastic table would have been "far cheaper and easier to mass-produce," the wooden one was like a work of art. In the same way, there will always be a place for film.
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