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When Will The Curtain Fall On Film?

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As I’ve argued in the past, online or off, analog or digital, it’s all motion pictures. But the march toward an all-digital production and distribution chain is gaining speed, as the latest evidence — including the development of a new 4K pixel projector prototype and HD for Indies’ diary of shooting on a new 4K pixel digital camera — prove. And when that march is over, it will spell the end of celluloid.

OK, OK, I know — film stock isn’t actually celluloid anymore. It has at least advanced to the cutting-edge polymer known as vinyl. And while lots and lots of work is still being done on 35mm and 16mm (even by my classmates at NYU), like vinyl records or manual typewriters, film stock’s graduation into an anachronism used by eccentric artistes who want a nostalgic look, hoarded by collectors like myself with an urge to preserve our cultural heritage, is long overdue.

Unlike vinyl records, producing photographic film stock is an expensive and laborious process done on a factory scale. The popularity of digital cameras has made film stock a natural cost-cutting target for companies like Kodak, which is shuttering plants in Canada, England, Australia, Spain and Norway. As a result, the supply of film is getting rarer, making it more and more expensive. So as the cost of film has gone up while the cost of quality digital production tools has gone down, the shift has become inevitable.

My colleague Liz Gannes recently attended a screening at Dolby Labs in San Francisco, where film was projected side-by-side with digital, and she told me the comparison was striking. The digital image was freed from the vibrating splotches and scratches we’ve all become accustomed too, she said, and you could discern far more detail in the fabrics and textures of each shot.

For studios, schools, and equipment rental companies worried that investing in the latest digital technology will leave them with obsolete cameras in two or three years, the RED ONE camera — which began shipping on Aug, 31st — was built for upgrades. The components are modular, so as digital photographic elements improve, they can be replaced without having to toss the body and optics. Such fears of eventual obsolescence certainly aren’t stopping acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh.

Shooting digitally can change the filmmaking process itself. After all, the scarcity and price of film is what led to conventions like saying “cut” and “action” — and for that matter, rehearsing. Mel Gibson told Variety how his directing style changed when he digitally shot Apocalypto:

“It just gives you a little more room to experiment, to explore, to talk, and you’re not burning this precious stock that’s very expensive and runs out. It would have been a tragedy to burn all that film talking to them.”

An entire century of projecting dreams onto the silver screen is, by any measure, a great run. But shows like The Sopranos blurred the aesthetic line between the production of films and the production of television, and we at NewTeeVee believe that there’s little reason to draw a line between television production and production for the web. So when the end of the last spool of 35mm flaps around inside a camera, my hope is that filmmakers and critics can stop arguing over where to draw arbitrary lines and instead spend that time working on the next century of movie magic.

6 Responses to “When Will The Curtain Fall On Film?”

  1. As a vinyl collector, I agree with Mark — there is a certain something to analog that isn’t strictly quantifiable. But like vinyl, it’ll simply become an issue of cost and “standard operating procedure” as more and more of the production and distribution gets converted over into digital.

    Interesting that so many festival projects are already HD. About a third of the students in my production class are shooting on Super 16mm or 35mm. And to illustrate the above point, I chose to shoot on HD specifically to reduce the cost of my project, as well as make it faster and easier to do post-production (on my laptop, instead of a Steenbeck, and with no sync sound issues).

  2. sarahmeyers

    @Mark, I disagree. I believe HD will replace analog because it’s better and people will pay for it. We hope that some day bandwidth won’t be such a problem.

    I like to think of the Electric Sheep idea by Spott Draves when relating to this issue.

  3. I’m a projectionist at the Sundance Film Festival and I can tell you this… every year, more and more films are submitted in HD. This past year, there were zero 16mm films shown. Some were shot on 16mm, but were then transfered to HD for the show. More than half the films screened were projected on video. Seeing these monster HD projectors is a sight to behold, really.

    That being said, I don’t believe HD will ever replace the warmth of analog. Just like CDs can’t replicate the sound of a well-recorded vinyl record. 1’s and 0’s just aren’t the same as wavelength. It’s probably going to boil down to a cost and distribution issue. Not an art issue.

  4. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should and just because we should do something doesn’t mean we will.

    I’m not sure if anyone ever said that but it felt like something Ted Schilowitz from Red Digital Cinema would say.

    Watching the Red camera project unfold has been incredible. I think the Red One is one of the most groundbreaking things to happen to filmmaking in 100 years. I look forward to seeing the many great films that will be made by people who could never before afford the tools in which to create their art.

    On August 31stt, 2007 the printing press was once again delivered to the masses. Now let’s see what they can print.

    Full disclosure: Ted is my best friend.