Digital moviemaking is on the rise, but some high-profile directors still shoot popcorn flicks the old way.
This summer, Hollywood's blockbusters are engaging in a high-stakes format war between cutting-edge digital technology and old-fashioned, photochemical film. Digitally photographed thrillers like The Avengers, Prometheus, and The Amazing Spider-Man will be battling it out with equally epic movies shot on film such as The Dark Knight Rises, Men in Black 3, and Battleship. Indeed, no summer in recent memory boasts so much variety in terms of how films are photographed and exhibited.
Yet with studios looking to trim costs on increasingly expensive "tentpole" movies, traditional celluloid film—easily the more expensive of the two formats—may be on its way out as the cinema's medium of choice. Still, advocates of film continue to make compelling arguments about why theirs is the more enduring medium, even as both sides pull out their biggest guns this summer in an effort to prove definitively the commercial value of their respective formats.
Right now, advocates of film have numbers on their side. Of this summer's major blockbusters, more were shot on film than digitally. Aside from The Dark Knight Rises, Men in Black 3, and Battleship, other summer tentpole movies filmed photochemically include Snow White and the Huntsman, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and The Bourne Legacy.
But digital technology has the momentum and the prestigious advocates who will likely help it win out eventually.
The biggest weapon in digital's commercial arsenal is clearly 3D. Although movies shot both digitally and photochemically continue to be converted to 3D (with varying degrees of success), the only practical way to photograph a movie in "native" 3D today is digitally. This summer, two major blockbusters—The Amazing Spider-Man and Ridley Scott's Prometheus—were shot in native 3D, guaranteeing a higher level of clarity and realism than most film-to-3D conversions.
"We are going through a very significant and large transition in cinema," George Lucas says in "Side By Side." "And the digital process democratizes the whole thing."
Veteran directors like Ridley Scott increasingly view such native-3D cinematography as representing a major advance in cinematic realism. "We see in 3D anyway, but your brain has cut that gift down so that you don't really think about it—you think you're seeing in 2D, but you're not," Scott said recently at a Paris press screening for Prometheus. "When you put on those [3D] glasses, it reminds your brain of how you really see."
Prometheus and The Amazing Spider-Man were also photographed using groundbreaking new RED Epic digital cameras, which capture images at roughly 5K resolution (i.e., 5000 vertical lines of resolution), as compared to the 2K resolution of regular high-definition video. The Epic camera, which weighs only five pounds, represents a major advance in digital cinematography—and was recently used by Peter Jackson to shoot The Hobbit and also by director Len Wiseman for the forthcoming remake of Total Recall. As Amazing Spider-Man cinematographer John Schwartzman (ASC) recently said of the Epic in a RED user forum, "For the first time in digital cinematography, small size doesn't come with a resolution penalty."
Not to be outdone, however, advocates of film have their own popular, high-res format: IMAX. Although movies shot both digitally and photochemically can be converted to IMAX, the best way to exploit the format is to shoot natively with IMAX cameras, through which 65mm film is fed horizontally to achieve images of breathtaking size and resolution. Director Brad Bird included 30 minutes of IMAX footage, mostly of Tom Cruise scaling the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in his recent Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. For this summer's The Dark Knight Rises, director Christopher Nolan will be featuring more than 60 minutes worth of IMAX film footage—a first for a major studio release.
This intensified, late-stage competition between film and digital is the subject of the extraordinary new documentary Side By Side. Produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves and directed by Chris Kenneally, it recently debuted at New York's Tribeca Film Festival and will be released in select theaters nationwide and on-demand on August 21st. A sophisticated and even-handed take on what remains a controversial subject in movie circles, Side By Side looks at how digital technology has emerged over the past decade to challenge photochemical filmmaking. With almost 70 interviews featuring such directors as Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and James Cameron—along with an impressive array of leading cinematographers, editors, producers, and technical innovators—it seems destined to be the authoritative documentary on this subject for years to come. And if you're curious, Side by Side was shot digitally.
The film meticulously examines the entire movie production process—from principal photography to editing, visual effects to color correction, theatrical distribution to archiving, revealing the differences in each stage for movies shot on film versus those shot digitally. It is a production process that has grown increasingly complex in recent years, when film and digital media have come to exist "side by side" as viable technologies.
As Side by Side shows, the lion's share of today's A-list directors support the transition to digital, with figures like George Lucas, James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, David Fincher, Steven Soderbergh, David Lynch, the Wachowskis, and Robert Rodriguez arguing forcefully on behalf of digital cinematography. "We hit a nerve ... they're passionate about it," producer Justin Szlasa told us after the Tribeca screening. Indeed, the task of defending the superiority of film is left largely to directors Christopher Nolan and Joel Schumacher, and to cinematographers like Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight Rises).