When Will The Curtain Fall On Film?

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.

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