A while back I came across an open question about whether Skyfall would look as good as Casino Royale, the latter being shot on Super 35 and the former on the Arri Alexa. The question was prompted by a shot in the Skyfall trailer showing Bond looking out over a skyline that was blown out, which made the asker wonder whether that was a stylistic choice or a limitation of the Alexa. After viewing the trailer with a critical eye (as opposed to one excited to see a new Bond movie), and doing a bit of research, I feel confident saying it was certainly a stylistic choice. Roger Deakins, who is the cinematographer on the film, stated in an interview with /film that he felt that the Alexa had more dynamic range than film. Add to that some similar blown out skies in Jarhead (also shot by Deakins for director Sam Mendes) and the fact that a 150 million-dollar film could no doubt afford to throw some light on Daniel Craig to ensure proper exposure.
But this post is about the larger issue of electronic vs film acquisition as I see it in 2012. First, a little background. I was in film school when George Lucas announced he was moving to 100% digital HD acquisition for Attack of the Clones, and it freaked me out (as an aside, I can’t remember anyone making a fuss about the two scenes from The Phantom Menace that were shot in HD). Were the skills I was spending all this time and money learning suddenly worthless? As with any paradigm shift, the people who were vested in the old system were (and many still are) threatened by the new. I remained a pretty die-hard film guy for several years, until cost reasons drove me to shoot my short “Dead Wrong” on HD on the Sony F900. At the first test shoot I became a believer. I had never seen a moving image so clear and sharp with no film grain (which is, after all, noise).
In the intervening eight years, Moore’s law has given us exponentially better cameras, formats, and media. The F900 recorded 1920×1080 sub-sampled to 1440×1080 in 4:2:2 color space at 144 Mbps to HDCam tape. Now we have cameras recording 2k to 5k RAW data using visually lossless wavelet compression to solid state media cards. Increasing computer power makes it actually easier and cheaper to work with this higher-quality footage than it was to work with HD footage years ago.
This brings me to the real allure of shooting digitally. A lot of bloggers seem to be of the opinion that Hollywood producers are pushing directors and cinematographers to go digital because its cheaper than shooting film. While it may be cheaper, on a big budget film like Skyfall this is a non-issue. The format is chosen by the cinematographer and director based on their creative vision and the way they wish to work. It is the workflow that really seduces filmmakers to digital. That’s what turned me. If you could make a theatrical-quality film with the same ease of use as your home movies, would you not? The rise of digital video as a cheap medium in film schools has created a whole generation of filmmakers for whom this is an attractive proposition.
There has always been a trade off between workflow, image quality, and cost. Remember that 35 mm film at 24 frames per second is a compromise. If ultimate image quality were the only concern, we would have been shooting IMAX at 120 frames per second for the last forty years. (I’ll save the rest of my thoughts on frame rate for a future post.) That being said, image quality has, until now, been the limiting factor in the adoption of digital acquisition. Different film makers have different thresholds of image quality at which the workflow inconveniences of film become no longer worth it. For George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez, just getting to HD was good enough. For David Fincher, it was being able to shoot uncompressed and full 1080p in the 2.37:1 aspect ratio (using the Viper Filmstream’s non-square subpixels). For a lot of filmmakers, the Red One was the breaking point, with a resolving power more-or-less equal to 35 mm (roughly 3.5k).
With the latest camera systems meeting or exceeding the resolution and dynamic range of 35 mm film, the naysayers can no longer argue for film on the merits of its technical superiority. That doesn’t mean that film no longer has any place. Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, and others still shoot film because the look it provides matches their vision. That’s as much of a legitimate reason to use it as any; no rationalization is needed. Likewise, today’s digital cinema cameras are capable of delivering beautiful images in the hands of a competent cinematographer. Digital cinematography has become another tool in the filmmaker’s kit, an alternative way to capture images with its own strengths and weaknesses. It’s time to move beyond the old image quality debate. Let’s respect the choice to shoot on film or digital – even if you disagree with it – and approach the photography on its own terms.