Hollywood banishes celluloid

Some cinematographers worry that digital can’t reproduce the look of film

Hollywood banishes celluloid

Getty Images; Photo illustration by Sarah Mackinnon

At the Tate Modern gallery in London last month, artist Tacita Dean unveiled her exhibit “FILM,” an expression of fear for the future of motion picture film. “It breaks my heart to think that we’re going to lose this beautiful medium,” Dean told the Evening Standard. Not long after that, Creative COW magazine reported that several major motion picture companies, including the venerable Panavision, will stop creating new film cameras and concentrate on digital video cameras instead. It looks like all of film, not just Dean’s, may be a museum piece. “The end of film distribution is on the horizon,” says Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research at the National Association of Theatre Owners in the U.S.

It’s not that demand has completely disappeared. “Filmmakers are very much accustomed to working with film,” says Corcoran. “There are some who are going to be slow to give that up.” Wally Pfister, the cinematographer of The Dark Knight, told American Cinematographer that film can be exposed in a wide variety of ways, which gives him “infinite creative flexibility in creating images.” Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, has embraced digital, but says film “does have a look that’s kind of unique.” Film fans love its inherent grainy quality, and Dean’s exhibit also celebrates film processes like hand-tinting, which can’t be done with computers.

But even if some directors still want to use film, it may become harder to find anyone willing to make or process it. Film has been battered by the popularity of digital 3-D, which has no film equivalent. TV studios have mostly abandoned film for new pilots over the last two years, in part for labour reasons: Poster says “they were fighting with the Screen Actors Guild,” and digital video allows them to deal with a different union. As more producers find reasons to give up film, the cost of making and delivering film prints will go up; by 2013, Corcoran estimates, the studios are likely to conclude that “it no longer makes economic sense to ship film.”

Of course, the reason they can make the switch is that most viewers don’t see the difference. “Right now in terms of quality, in the higher-end situations, it’s probably gotten to the point where it’s going to be hard to tell,” Poster says. Bill Russell, vice-president of camera products for Arri Inc., notes that the company’s new Alexa camera offers “a very film-like look,” and that this has calmed some cinematographers’ fears about making the transition.

Still, even the best digital cameras don’t always deliver that look automatically. Poster says when he recently worked on film after years of working digitally, “I was a little bit shocked to be able to walk in, take out my light meter, set the lens, push the button and go home knowing what I had. As opposed to the complexities of digital production.” Corcoran adds that some directors still feel that with film, “they have more control over the image.” With digital, directors could be more at the mercy of technicians to get the look they want.

On the other hand, once directors get the right results in digital, the movie keeps looking that way for a long time. “Film denigrates with every pass,” says Pat Marshall, vice-president of communications for Cineplex; with digital, “every presentation looks as good as the first.” And with digital cinema, Marshall adds, projectionists are “replaced almost by IT specialists,” so a bad projectionist can no longer ruin the look of a movie, or show the scenes out of order.

With film being phased out in so many areas, no one knows how long it can last. Poster says that the answer depends on “how long Kodak and Fuji can keep it as a viable business.” And even when analog media are replaced, they can be rediscovered: the music industry abandoned vinyl records in the ’80s, but music fans brought them back. Film lovers might do the same, making celluloid into what Poster calls an “artistic choice” for certain filmmakers. But as digital becomes the default choice, one thing is clear: it’s time to go back to calling the movies “pictures” instead of “films.”

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.