Film v/s Digital: Answers to the big question

We at TCRC recently chanced upon an interview with Senthil Kumar, the co-founder of Real Image Technologies & Qube Cinema, companies which are said to be among the best as far as cinema exhibition technology is concerned. In this interaction with blog Pulse72+, Senthil had an interesting response to a query where he is asked to give five reasons as to why someone should choose digital filmmaking over conventional filmmaking. Here’s what he had to say:

Senthil Kumar, co-founder of Real Image Technologies. Photo Courtesy: IndianTelevision.com

Anything digital will keep improving in quality over time while the price reduces so it’s usually a certainty that digital will triumph. In the case of shooting, the future was obvious because of the precedent set by still photography – for many years now, it’s been hard to see a film camera in use, let alone buy and process film negative! So a key plus for digital is the reduced cost of equipment – which is now economic enough that a production can buy the equipment just for a film rather than rent it. The second reason is the very low cost and reusable nature of hard drives in digital when compared to film stock – this allows for shooting difficult subjects like children and animals or even amateur actors where it’s often necessary to just keep the camera running in order to get the shot you want. Another reason is the lack of film grain and hence the randomness that makes compositing and other special effects harder on film-originated material. The fourth reason is the excellent low-light performance of digital cameras where just the light of a candle is sufficient when the scene calls for it. And finally, digital now has a very wide dynamic range, the range of light within a shot, from the darkest to the brightest part. This is especially because of the new High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques available in some digital cinema cameras. There are more reasons to use digital cameras but these would be some of the top ones.”

However, not everyone seems to share his enthusiasm for digital cinema. Director Christopher Nolan, best known for powerful films such as “Memento,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Inception,” has spoken about the advantages offered by film numerous time. We found his argument in an interview to the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Quarterly particularly compelling. Here’s what he had to say:

Director Christopher Nolan. Photo Courtesy: DGA Quarterly

For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why. It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I’ve never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven’t seen that reason yet.”

That said, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg, etc are said to be amongst the few in Hollywood today who still prefer to shoot only on film. Digital filmmaking is clearly the dominant mode there. And the struggle here really seems to be a question of aesthetics and choice, with filmmakers like Nolan fighting for film to remain an option whose existence is threatened by the convenience that digital cinema claims to offer.

And as if to prove the importance of the ‘film v/s digital’ question, actor Keanu Reeves has produced a documentary called “Side By Side” on the same issue (see trailer below). We at TCRC loved what Martin Scorsese had to say and if we were asked for our take on the issue, that is exactly what we’d say.

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