CHANGE – Part 1

            I know, it’s crazy…  From time to time someone still asks me: Which is better, film or digital?  Not a sophisticated query, but giving the benefit I suspect what they’re really curious about are the underlying concepts – change and adaptation.

            Change is the single immutable notion in the cinematographer’s world…it has been the chronicle of what we do since the first turn of the crank on Edison’s prototype camera.  While much of it continues to be driven by creative demand, we couldn’t survive such constant tumult without the ability to adapt.  And despite using the same cameras, lenses, negatives\sensors and so on, this talent for personalizing the effect of those tools compares with the uniqueness of handwriting.  It sets us apart from one another.

            Equally fascinating is that change and adaptation locate our effort in a specific time and place.  Consider the different looks and textures we recognize throughout the history of motion pictures: the earliest nickelodeons…the expanding sophistication of the silent era on through the classical studio period of the ‘30’s and ‘40’s…the introduction of widescreen processes and television in the ‘50’s…the loosening of traditional restraints in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s…the cool polish of the ‘80’s…the emergence of electronics in the ‘90’s…right on up to the amazing sophistication of the 2000’s…  Cinematographers have never stayed in one spot very long and by simply carrying on – with film, digital or whatever – each of us makes our own contribution to an ever-expanding repository of images.  Defining their significance, finding greater meaning or assigning terms such as legendary or seminal to any of them is a task best left to the following generation.  So rather than get involved in schoolyard debates about the technologies we use, we should concern ourselves with weaving the fabric of what will one day be looked upon as a document of our time, the time we’re living in at this very moment.

            Of course, the differing characteristics of film and digital technologies must be well understood before committing to a choice.  Fortunately, the high rate of change over the past decade has caused cinematographers to become expert at fitting the punishment to the crime.  And though the question of one’s superiority over the other has always been ridiculous, we nonetheless provide our own answer every time out.

            Invariably, it’s the one we decide to use!


3 thoughts on “CHANGE – Part 1”

  1. Hi Richard,
    I’ve been asked few times about whether is better digital or film and I always answered this way: let’s change the medium, but let’s keep the same final product.
    Instead of cinematography, let’s talk about screenwriting.
    The first scripts and plays were handwritten for sure.
    Later, the invention of the typewriter made the whole writing process faster and the script started to be formatted
    Then the computers added the ability to automatically format the screenplay, check the spelling and typos and email a PDF version to the producer on the other side of the planet.
    The tools evolve, but the artistry and the craftsmanship remain.
    A computer can spot some grammar mistakes in the script, just like digital cameras can give you monitor and the waveform to check your image.
    After a little help, everything else is on you as an artist.
    Is it better film than digital? I believe It depends. You prefer to listen to a vinyl while sipping some brandy in your studio or an MP3 while jogging?
    It’s all about using the right tool at the right moment.

  2. My glib answer is always that I like the process of shooting digital but I like the results of shooting film. Perhaps my biggest problem with film was always the chain of events to get to the dailies stage and when something went wrong, there was several spots where it could have happened. We’ve all been in those three-way arguments between the AC, camera rental house, and lab where they are all blaming the other for a scratched negative. In other cases, you could switch out one of the culprits for the film stock manufacturer. I hated getting those calls on set where the lab says something is wrong with the footage from the day before. Plus there is the whole other problem of getting accurate dailies. I sleep a whole lot better at night when I’m shooting digital.
    And while it gets abused easily, the advantages of fewer reloads cannot be dismissed, especially if your camera is on a process trailer on a busy road.
    On a very small production though where I am operating as well as the DP, there is an intimacy from using a film camera and no video village with the director right next to you. But of course, one can make a digital show more intimate. But it’s nice not to deal with cables, though today there is more and more wireless transmission.
    In terms of look, I think digital and film can be matched closely though it’s never 100% and if you want the film look, certainly it’s simpler to just shoot film. Actor’s close-ups almost always look better if shot on film, color and texture-wise. But it would be hard now to give up all the advantages of digital, especially in low-light.

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