“Film vs. digital” has been the main debate in cinema industry for the last 15 years. Directors, producers, directors of photography and film fans have all taken part in the discussion, often with a great deal of participation: the sudden revolution of digital filmmaking is certainly the main paradigm shift of recent cinema history.
Digital shooting was first used for big releases in 2002, and by the early 2010’s it was used for half of the US top-grossing releases. As of 2016, the vast majority of theaters worldwide has converted to digital projection, and digital cameras are now the go-to choice for shooting movies in the main cinema industries around the globe.
When someone talks about “film shooting” and “film projecting” as opposed to “digital shooting and projecting” he is referring to the analog method of shooting photo-chemical film stock. Up to the digital revolution, the standard for filmmaking had always been film stock, mainly 35mm, which got exposed, developed and ultimately projected onto the big screen.
Aside from the technical aspects, it can be simply said that digital images are made of squared pixels while film’s image derives from the molecules of its texture. This has led many to prefer film for its unique texture and grain which is responsible for the “feel” of projected film as we know it, or we used to know it. At the same time, some directors of photography like David Tattersall described this effect as somewhat “fuzzy”, while digital’s image is more “firm”.
The shift towards digital has also been helped by the fact that shooting digital is often easier and requires a considerably lesser amount of physical space (although it is not necessarily cheaper). The debate is as open as ever, especially now that companies like Arri, Red, Sony and Panavision are developing increasingly advanced digital cameras.
“Digital at the beginning was very bad, everyone knew that”, once said legendary director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond; now digital holds control of the market, and is more and more often compared favorably with film. Here are ten directors who still shoot in film (although some of them not exclusively).
1. Quentin Tarantino
“I’m very hopeful that future generations will be much smarter than this generation and realize what they lost.”
Probably the most vocal of the directors who have taken a clear stand in the “film or digital” discussion, Tarantino shoots all of his movies in film. For his latest work, The Hateful Eight, he went as far as employing 70mm film and Ultra Panavision 70, a shooting method that hadn’t actually been used since 1966; this resulted in a very wide image (aspect ratio 2.76:1) and extraordinary visual quality.
In fact, Tarantino initially released The Hateful Eight with a roadshow presentation in 70mm theaters across the country, and he even edited a different and shorter version of it for its general release; the reason for this choice is that he thought that the effect of some sequences of the 70mm footage would be lost on normal and smaller theaters.
Aside from this recent venture, Tarantino has always been explicit in criticizing digital projection, even calling it “the death of cinema”. The choice of film stock is a natural one for such a cinephile director: Tarantino has made it clear that the overall process of shooting and projecting in film is what makes movies “movies”.
Like many critics of digital filmmaking, he finds it a less striking experience than film – “it’s like watching TV in public”, he once said. In other words, Tarantino’s choice seems to be pushed by a sort of nostalgic feeling, which at the same time is a conscious artistic decision.
Quentin Tarantino will continue to shoot in film and maybe go even further in his mission to enhance viewer’s experience, as he did with The Hateful Eight and its roadshow experience.
2. Christopher Nolan
“Film is the best way to capture an image and project that image. It just is, hands down.”
Another household name who promotes and adopts analog filmmaking, Christopher Nolan was one of the directors (along the likes of Scorsese, Tarantino and J.J. Abrams) who in 2014 expressed his support of Kodak, then on the verge of bankruptcy as a result of the decline in sales of film stock, showing how he is in first line in the struggle to keep film alive and in use.
Nolan kept the same director of photography, Wally Pfister, for most of his career, and the two of them stayed coherent with their choice of shooting in film even for their biggest productions, which were produced when digital was becoming the go-to format for that kind of movies.
In 2013 Nolan started filming his sci-fi epic Interstellar, this time with Hoyte van Hoytema as his DP, and the choice was once again film, specifically 35mm with numerous sequences shot in IMAX 70mm. In his interviews, Nolan has often made very clear how to his opinion film remains qualitatively superior, but is also more reliable, since its use has been developed and perfected over the last 100 years.
While it’s safe to say that he will continue to shoot in film, it will be interesting to see if Nolan’s interest in technological innovations will ever bring him to use, to some extent, digital. As he said promoting Interstellar, “I’m in favor of any technological innovation, but it will always have to exceed what came before.”
3. Steven Spielberg
“After all, this “stuff” of dreams is mankind’s most original medium, and dates back to 1895.”
Steven Spielberg is keeping an impressive diversity to his filmography and is maintaining a certain pace in doing so, not unlike his colleague and contemporary Martin Scorsese. When digital took the film industry by storm, Spielberg showed that despite his interest for new techniques he is still attached to shooting in film and intends to “remain loyal to this analog art form until the last lab closes”.
While promoting his latest movies he repeatedly stated that he still sees film as a fundamental element of “movie magic”. Spielberg described the outcome of digitally filmmaking as too clean, while with film the resulting image, due to its texture and grain, creates a veil, a concrete surface of molecules that is a sort of imperfection but also the visual effect typical of films as we know it.
This “veil” has had an ulterior advantage for Spielberg since his recent movies (Bridge of Spies, Lincoln, War Horse) have been historical films, so they have benefitted from the “retro” atmosphere of celluloid. Spielberg’s only attempt at digital filmmaking to date is 2011’s The Adventure of Tintin, a 3D animated film.
4. Paul Thomas Anderson
“I don’t want to tell you what to do, I don’t want you to tell me what to do.”
Paul Thomas Anderson has become one of the most acclaimed directors of the last twenty years; his unique takes on ensemble films à la Altman and character-driven dramas have always revealed an impressive technical awareness, especially considering that Anderson was born in 1968 and has only 7 films to his name.
After the epic There Will Be Blood starring Daniel Day-Lewis as oilman Daniel Plainview, Anderson started working on what would become 2012’s The Master. A drama set in the 1950’s, the film followed World War II veteran Freddie Quell (played by Joaquin Phoenix making his comeback after the performance art mockumentary I’m Still Here), who gets involved in a growing cult which mirrors real-life’s Scientology, led by the charismatic Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
This was Anderson’s first movie without Robert Elswit as his DP; he worked with Mihai Mălaimare, Jr. and decided to shoot most of The Master in 65mm, a film format he initially had chosen only for portraits but ended up employing much more largely. The unusual 65mm creates a much more detailed image, and the effect, especially for wide shots, is mesmerizing.
Paul Thomas Anderson’s use of film was renewed for his next film Inherent Vice, and the director himself, along with his friend and colleague Quentin Tarantino, often publicly advocates for the preservation of celluloid filming, although he remains less combative in the debate; as he once said about the film/digital debate: “I certainly throw my hat into the ring with what I like, but I also find it difficult to get on anybody if it’s their bag”.
5. Wes Anderson
“I’m one of the least digital guys”
Wes Anderson’s peculiar style is immediately recognizable due to a series of elements which recur in most of his fmovies, to the point that he has frequently and easily been parodied. These elements include the quirkiness of his characters, symmetrical shots, colore palettes,1960’s music, and so on; another entry to this list could be the “vintage” and nostalgic element of his films.
Wes Anderson’s appreciation for a certain style from the past is reflected by his visual taste and this has been made clear by Robert Yeoman, Anderson’s long time DP, who has been vocal in his appreciation of film’s visual outcome as opposed to digital, even if Yeoman himself is open to using digital cameras for the more mainstream comedies he has worked on (mainly Paul Feig’s).
Out of all of Anderson’s movies, the ones where the choice of film stock stands out are The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom. The former is mainly set in the 1930’s and replicates many stylistic choices of movies of that time; the use of 35mm film takes a big part in creating a certain nostalgic effect.
For Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Anderson and Yeoman went as far as shooting the whole film in 16mm, a simpler format with smaller gauge, which gave the movie a somewhat more intimate feeling, in addition to being adherent to the 1960’s setting of the movie.