At the Summer Box Office, a Battle Between Two Ways of Filming

Digital moviemaking is on the rise, but some high-profile directors still shoot popcorn flicks the old way.

Digital moviemaking is on the rise, but some high-profile directors still shoot popcorn flicks the old way.

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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 3-D. Although movies shot both digitally and photochemically continue to be converted to 3-D (with varying degrees of success), the only practical way to photograph a movie in "native" 3-D today is digitally. This summer, two major blockbusters—The Amazing Spider-Man and Ridley Scott's Prometheus—were shot in native 3-D, guaranteeing a higher level of clarity and realism than most film-to-3-D conversions.

Veteran directors like Ridley Scott increasingly view such native-3-D cinematography as representing a major advance in cinematic realism. "We see in 3-D anyway, but your brain has cut that gift down so that you don't really think about it—you think you're seeing in 2-D, but you're not," Scott said recently at a Paris press screening for Prometheus. "When you put on those [3-D] 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).

The case film's lingering supporters make is generally one of aesthetic superiority, with Nolan in particular insisting in Side by Side that "[t]here isn't yet a superior or even an equal imaging technology to film." While this certainly may be true in the case of the IMAX film format, which Nolan's own Batman films have ushered into the summer blockbuster season, it's a more difficult case to make with the advent of new digital cameras like the Red Epic.

Side by Side also shows how the impact of the digital revolution extends beyond aesthetic issues. From seasoned veterans like George Lucas and James Cameron, to younger filmmakers like Lena Dunham, many directors describe projects that could simply have not been made at an affordable cost without digital cameras. The massive 3-D revolution inspired by Cameron's Avatar, for example, was only made possible through digital cinematography—yet according to Robert Rodriguez, even smaller, experimental films like his own Sin City would never have been attempted prior to the digital revolution.

The ramifications of digital carry through to distribution as well, with new technologies making it possible for movies to reach more people in more ways. As director Chris Kenneally told us, "that's the thing about the iPhones and the iPads: You can watch things anywhere, anytime, when you choose ... you're not limited by time or space." And for those who worry about losing the communal aspect of the movies in these more private forms of experience, Kenneally reiterates Lana Wachowski's comments in Side By Side that "there's another kind of communal experience—where maybe you're not in the same geographical location with somebody, but you're actually able to communicate a little bit more nowadays. People can post comments or instant message each other while they're watching and really [share] their ideas." In short, the movies may be a much more interactive medium today.

This, indeed, seems to be the most persuasive argument made by today's digital revolutionaries, young and old: that the virtue of digital technology has been its ability to make so many new movies possible in the first place—and to allow the public to interact with them in more ways. As George Lucas sums it up in Side by Side, "We are going through a very significant and large transition in cinema. And the digital process democratizes the whole thing."

Film's advocates continue to lose vital ground. For example, most of the world's camera companies having already stopped production on celluloid-based motion picture cameras altogether. What's more, Peter Jackson's The Hobbit—set for release this December—is poised to abandon not only film, but the traditional film frame rate of 24 frames-per-second. The Hobbit is currently being shot at 48 frames-per-second (see Jackson's official statement about that here), for Jackson's stated purpose of removing the cinema's traditional stroboscopic "flicker" effect and also to ease eye strain sometimes caused by 3-D. Jackson's decision has already provoked much controversy.

However, according to Side by Side the advocates of film have one final card up their sleeve, and it's a major one: the challenge of physically preserving digital movies in an era in which digital formats and storage devices are constantly changing. Indeed, the chaos of endlessly proliferating digital formats—an issue that may soon affect the book-publishing industry—represents a potential crisis at the heart of the digital cinema revolution and for those interested in preserving cultural continuity.

As American Society of Cinematographers President Michael Goi points out in Side by Side, there have to date been 80 different video formats on the market—many of which can no longer be played. Indeed, directors like David Fincher are already including media players along with their archived digital footage in order to guarantee that the footage can actually be watched years down the line.

According to Side by Side, it turns out that the most stable preservation medium for digital movies may actually be ... old-fashioned film prints. Ironically enough, the most likely way that today's blockbuster digital epics like The Avengers or Prometheus may be viewed a century from now is if someone unspools an archival 35mm film print of them.

So the task of preserving the cultural legacy of the movies may yet fall to film—with digital technology and film thus living in a hard-won harmony, side by side, for years to come.