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!