Finding a Happy Medium: Trying to Derive Meaning from the Film/Digital Debate

I just finished watching Alex Ross Perry's "Queen of Earth," one of my favorite films of this year from a filmmaker who has been very vocal in support of shooting on film despite the now digitally dominated cinema landscape. He isn't the only filmmaker with this preference. High profile Hollywood names like Christopher Nolan and JJ Abrams have insisted on using 35mm on their productions despite recent trends as well, and Quentin Tarantino is having theaters project his new film, "The Hateful Eight," in "Glorious 70mm." While the disciples of analogue are a force to be reckoned with, however, the advantages of going fully digital are only growing for both indie and big-budget filmmakers.

If we eventually lose the analogue format altogether, will we be taking a special tool away from the kinds of minds that are currently giving us wonderful films like "The Master," "Drinking Buddies," and "The Immigrant"? Or will filmmakers be equally inspired as digital technology progresses and offers new advancements?

Well, What Looks Better?

This question is broad, subjective, and impossible to answer. Everyone's tastes are different, but there are fundamental qualities to both formats that make them appealing. My favorite "filmic" advantage is its effect on skin tones. Skin looks fantastic on film, especially on 16mm, because film grain tends to look warm and touchable over skin while digital can often look glossy and distant.

Here's Jason Schwartzman's face in "Listen Up, Philip," shot on 16mm.

Here is his face again in "Big Eyes," shot digitally in the same year for a much larger budget on an Arri Alexa.

Neither of these is superior, and both of these images serve their intended purpose. The ARRI Alexa dominated the Oscar list for cinematography last year (and was used on the winning film, "Birdman") but the appeal of getting an authentic film look remains.

A new question emerges.

Can Digital Replicate the Look of Film?

I like this question because, at first glance, it appears to be more objective and answer-able. Since I am not a tech junkie or a lifelong cinematographer, I look to the guidance of industry legends and personal heroes to answer this for me. Unfortunately, this also does not come with a unified answer. 

The side of digital filmmaking has been backed up recently on WTF with Marc Maron, where separate interviews with Robert Rodriguez and Vince Gilligan saw both filmmakers sing the praises of digital filmmaking.  Both filmmakers comment that the true difference between film and digital is unnoticeable. Rodriguez discusses the advantages of shooting digitally from a creative standpoint, giving him post production malleability that film doesn't offer. Gilligan sounds remorseful about his own transition from film to digital, but notes the budgetary advantages of going digital (he claims to save $100,000 per episode of "Better Call Saul" when he shoots digitally) while noting that his strenuous side-by-side comparisons have led him to find no noticeable difference in the formats at this point.

On the indie end, Joe Swanberg and Alex Ross Perry have been the most recent defenders of shooting on film. Swanberg, who used to be a strong advocate of DV, has noted that the digital landscape has made film differentiate his projects "in a really interesting way." Ross Perry has taken a more militant approach, noting the dynamics of film create "an instant and overwhelmingly present aesthetic" absent from digital images.

So I guess the final question is;

Is There a Fundamental Philosophical Difference Between Shooting on Film Versus Shooting Digitally?

In reading recent interviews with analogue fans Joe Swanberg, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Alex Ross Perry, it's hard not to notice a sense of nostalgia underlying their case for shooting on an older format. For all intents and purposes, it seems like Tarantino's decision to shoot "The Hateful Eight" was to engage in a conversation about film history, which is fine, but doesn't do much to back up Tarantino's attitudes about film's superiority. On the other hand, maybe an academic defense is the only one needed for film. There is a science to movie making, but in the end movies are still an art form. 

Although it appears that shooting on film allows certain filmmakers to commune with the history and culture of their art form, digital filmmaking seems to allow other filmmakers to embrace the present and future of the medium. David Fincher has used digital filmmaking to breathe new life into the film noir genre (with "Zodiac," "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" and "Gone Girl") while also using it to help engage in a cultural conversation ("The Social Network"). Looking at his post-digital body of work, it's impossible to write off his motives as merely pragmatic. He has proven that digital filmmaking can be used as meaningfully as shooting on film.

What Did We Learn?

It would be a shame to see actual film filmmaking go extinct in the future, as it seems to serve as a great muse and too for so many wonderful talents while also providing a sense history to the movie watching experience. However, even the early achievements of digital filmmaking have shown that we are certainly not facing Tarantino's "death of cinema" any time soon.

Maybe shooting on film becomes exclusively a feature of die hard indie filmmakers, while Hollywood and the rest of the cinematic landscape explore the emerging capabilities of digital technology? While it might not be ideal for all, it certainly seems like a happy medium to me.

Brent Lambert-ZaffinoComment