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Thoughts on Film and Digital


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#1 Brent Powers

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 07:26 PM

I am old enough to have seen many a revolution: oil paint to acrylic, 78 RPM to 45 to 33, monaural to stereo, analog sound recording to digital, and finally film to digital. All of these have been resisted by purists, giving rise to niche markets and special interest communities. 

 

I went to art school at a time when acrylic paints had recently been introduced and many of us students hated them at once. They dried too fast, couldn’t be worked, and the finished product had no depth. 78 mono records sounded fine, 45s less so, and 33 RPM was too slow for quality sound. Stereo was of course just a novelty — like 3D. To this day many audiophiles prefer LP heritage albums released at 45 RPM mono and will pay high prices for this.

 

As for digital, well … My own first response to CD was horror at their lack of spaciousness — they sounded like they were recorded in a vacuum. This was later improved somewhat with various oversampling schemes but it wasn’t until quite recently with SACD discs and HD downloads that digital approached the fidelity of analog.

 

Now we have the film vs. digital video debate. Most people don’t notice the difference, especially when cinematographers are at such pains to mask the analytic quality of digital with fog filters, soft focus and the blurring of backgrounds in an effort to create a filmic look. I can usually see the difference but as time goes on it is becoming increasingly difficult. I find this pleasing because it is much easier — and vastly cheaper — to work in digital. Movie cameras are bulky and clunky, and the process of classical filmmaking is wasteful and time consuming, with the long waiting times between shooting and editing, and now there is an additional step with scanning to digital, which is enervating in the same way that oil painting can be with sitting out drying periods between layers. 

 

I gave up on film entirely for thirty years, mostly due to poverty. It wasn’t until I bought a Flip to conduct some interviews in the mid 2000s that I discovered I could do everything I had wanted to do in the 70s with this little toy camera and iMovie. But the Flip was only stepping stone back to film. Soon enough I was up on Ebay buying 8mm and Super 8 cameras at a fraction of their original cost. Now I’m moving into 16mm, as who could resist? Of course, the camera is the cheapest element of the whole process. When I was a student, film was. (Recently I bought a Nizo S560 for $70.00; film, processing and transfer runs $160.00 at minimum.) 

 

As I write this, I am watching episodes of Game of Thrones. This whole epic was shot digitally. Most TV series, and more and more feature films are being shot digitally — e.g., Knight of Cups and The Revenant, both by the amazing Emmanuel Lubezki, just to name two. I know these works are digital but I don’t really care. My enjoyment of them is not compromised by the format. Knight of Cups is one of the most visually compelling features I’ve seen. In fact, without Lubezki’s digital cinematography it wouldn’t stand up at all. As narrative it sucks. The characters are silly, for all their existential posturing. Yet I found myself  completely swept away by the delirious tracking and dollying camera. This is what keeps you watching a rather offputting  movie. It is helped by some wonderful editing and music, both original and repertoire. 

 

That said, I still prefer film and I still can’t quite say why. Well, I’ll make the audio comparison again. I was very excited by high resolution audio formats when they appeared in the ’90s. These have reached the point that digital video is now approaching. A 24/192 music file SHOULD sound as good as analog vinyl or tape … but it doesn’t.  I can’t say why but it doesn’t. I always hear a slight edginess to the music. I will  listen to the same recording on a vinyl LP or tape that I’ve just heard on di and I can always tell the difference. For one thing, I relax when I’m listening to analog. Digital makes me nervous. Not quite the same experience as digital video. Both can be described as analytic. Etched is another good word for it. The image is somehow too precisely delineated. I feel like a  voyeur, like I’m right there, up close and personal, and I shouldn’t be. I need that slight distancing glamor that film provides. And even though I’ve had a lot of fun shooting, uploading and editing complex videos in a matter of hours, I am about to launch my first 16mm film project — while I’m waiting for some Super 8 footage to come back from the lab so I can sort through it and send it back to be scanned so I can edit it on my computer. 

 

Go figure.


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#2 Giray Izcan

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 07:53 PM

Knight of Cups was shot on 35mm film.
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#3 Brent Powers

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 07:55 PM

Whoops!  Just read somewhere that it was digital. It LOOKS digital.


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#4 Giray Izcan

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 07:59 PM

There are some parts on Red and Alexa M but the rest is on 35 and 65 film I'm pretty sure.
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#5 Brent Powers

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 08:15 PM

Actually, I was confusing Knight of Cups with The Revenant, which he did shoot in all digital. 


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#6 Shawn Sagady

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Posted 26 June 2016 - 08:52 PM

Interestingly coming from a completely opposite world my appreciation for film has been growing and growing even though if you had asked me a year ago I would have told there is no way in hell I would ever even attempt shooting on film because digital was easier and cheaper.  I am now in development for my first short shot entirely on film and have spent the better part of the last 6 months really really trying to study and understand and appreciate the sometimes subtle differences between the two.  But honestly I think it was Tyler on these forums that really swayed me just with the argument of having your film on an analog format that I can keep on a shelf for a long time, and even if the world drastically changed and computers and the internet were to vanish, I would still have my film and be able to share the story.  As well having done some narrative shooting, I despise the pace of digital, and I think it is really a detriment to creative story telling.  Everyone expects to do a million takes to try things out, and that might eventually get you something good, but I think it also waters it down.  Shooting film forces an immediacy and intimacy that I can only equate with performing for a live audience.  You have to give it your all and really commit to decisions and tell your story with conviction.

 

Now that may sound overly romantic and even silly to some people, and I am sure I will continue to shoot on digital for projects that simply can not afford film, or where film would be impractical but I am falling for film a little more every day.  Even going back to study some of my favorite movies that were made with film but I have not seen in ages, and it gives me new appreciation.

 

Thanks for the original Post OP and while I come from a totally different generation, and have worked my way to this idealism from the opposite directions I completely agree with your sentiments about film and analog in general.


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#7 Brent Powers

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 12:07 AM

"Everyone expects to do a million takes to try things out, and that might eventually get you something good, but I think it also waters it down.  Shooting film forces an immediacy and intimacy that I can only equate with performing for a live audience.  You have to give it your all and really commit to decisions and tell your story with conviction."

 

That's it exactly. It takes a lot more judgment, and a little bit of Zen, to shoot film. In school, one of our first projects was shooting an in-camera film, meaning you have one chance for each shot, also keeping in mind that you are  editing while you shoot. It is very much like performance. It's good to go for broke on every take, to trick your mind into thinking that you only have one each time. 


Edited by Brent Powers, 27 June 2016 - 12:10 AM.

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#8 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 12:27 AM

A few small tidbits...

Professional digital cinematography requires MORE processing and is far more time consuming to deal with then film is in the modern world.

Lab's are 1 day turn around, so if you're local to a lab, what you shot monday is seen tuesday or wednesday if you have to ship. The results aren't instant, but they're fast enough and unlike digital which uses an encode/decode method of viewing, what you see with film dailies is what you get. Unlike digital which the image is created through the use of another artist; the colorist. This person didn't really exist prior to digital filmmaking.

No doubt film has an associated cost that digital doesn't and if you have no budget, film unfortunately is ignored as a shooting option. However, the wonderful things about motion picture film is that it has an instant "filmic" look no matter what you do. With digital, most filmmakers (as you pointed out) strive to emulate and unfortunately, very few get it right.

The "Revenant" was suppose to be shot on 65mm and Alexa for intimate scenes. Unfortunately due to the logistics, it wasn't possible to do that, even though they started shooting on 65 and switched to all digital early on in the project.

Today, more and more filmmakers are switching back to film. Mostly because people are done experimenting with digital, they've had their play time and when it comes time for serious filmmaking, the vast majority of shooters still prefer film. Since the next generation of filmmakers aren't as exposed to film, a lot of them are excited to experiment, so we're seeing a brand-new movement of young people shooting, which is very exciting. It's why I teach filmmaking on motion picture film, to high school and college kids. It helps them get the hands on experience necessary to understand how to work with film in our digital age.

The next movement will be people projecting on film as well and that just started with Hateful Eight and most likely Quentin and his Weinstein groupies will work out deals for future 70mm releases. There have been two releases already this year and perhaps more as the year goes on.

The cool thing is that, like the retro vinyl movement, the whole film thing is growing thanks to it being different then digital. If you make a movie on film and it looks good, there is a much higher likelihood of it going somewhere, then if it was shot on the same digital cameras everyone else uses. It adds a layer of interest that just doesn't exist with the standard digital fare.
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#9 aapo lettinen

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 12:40 AM

 what you see with film dailies is what you get. Unlike digital which the image is created through the use of another artist; the colorist. This person didn't really exist prior to digital filmmaking.

 

there was color timing and timed dailies in film era too. and the telecine operator affects considerably to the end result and look of the video dailies so there is still other artists involved. with film you are dealing with at least the lab technician and color timer/telecine operator so technically there's MORE people involved in the creative process. it helps learning pre planning and developing communication skills so it's not a bad thing at all though 


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#10 aapo lettinen

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 12:45 AM

pro labs are very fast indeed, 3 days including shipping can be easily arranged even from another country although fast shipping is a bit more expensive. if you need dailies on video the labs can usually arrange FTP download so that you can get the dailies back before the films


Edited by aapo lettinen, 27 June 2016 - 12:46 AM.

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#11 Brent Powers

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 09:33 AM

I just had a fast turnaround from Pro8. Film was back out to me next day. However, I cheaped out and opted for ground shipping. If I were in a real hurry, I'd have gone for next day. I was exaggerating in my original post, of course, to make a point. I went to Trump University. 

 

I'm delighted that film is catching on again. There is a magic  to it that just hasn't been captured on digital thus far. It is encouraging that Kodak has come back to film with their new camera and stock options.


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#12 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 09:26 PM

there was color timing and timed dailies in film era too. and the telecine operator affects considerably to the end result and look of the video dailies so there is still other artists involved. MORE people involved in the creative process.  


Well you don't need to do scene to scene correction with film, you can do one light no problem. Also with telecine, all you do is balance as that's all you can do... So it's an entirely different process then working digitally. Digital cameras look like crap until you rework and retool the image heavily in post.
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#13 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 09:51 PM

Well you don't need to do scene to scene correction with film, you can do one light no problem. Also with telecine, all you do is balance as that's all you can do... So it's an entirely different process then working digitally. Digital cameras look like crap until you rework and retool the image heavily in post.

 

 

I'm sorry but this is simply not true.  I could show you the Rec.709 one-light dailies made from ProRes Log images from the Alexa that I recorded in camera for my TV series or one of my features and then show you the final color-corrected image -- and they would be rather similar.  The images didn't "look like crap" until they were heavily retooled in post. They were very close to being a straight conversion from log to display gamma, the same would happen if working with a log scan of film.

 

In fact, digital images tend to be so much more consistent shot-to-shot than film scans that often color-correction time scheduled for a theatrical D.I. is often shorter if you shoot on digital instead of film.  If digital needed to be retooled heavily in post, the opposite would be true, you'd have to schedule more time for something shot digitally.


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#14 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 27 June 2016 - 10:00 PM

I had a whole thread on the production of "90 Minutes in Heaven" and posted dailies frames made by applying a simple display gamma LUT to my ProRes log files, such as this one:

90M13.jpg

 

I've shot many features in film and digitally and certainly don't feel that the digital ones took much more work in post just to get an image I wanted -- if anything, it tends to be that the digital movies have gone through color-correction faster because since I can see what I'm shooting on an HD monitor, I can do more things in-camera to get shots to match.


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#15 Tyler Purcell

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 12:35 AM

I'm sorry but this is simply not true.


I don't know, I mean I work on the post production side and have worked on many decent sized shows and the digital workflow is far more complex then film.

Most shows have special LUT's made by a special technician which is costly to the production.

A full-time technician is on staff with most films (DIT) to manage and monitor color during the production.

Things like monitors now need to be specialty items, designed to display accurate colors as reference, again more technicians to make those work.

Then in post production, all of that prep work needs to be translated first to the transcode of media for editing. Then to the colorist for the final color.

When it hits final color, the point where the cinematographer sits in and works on it, the show has already been tweaked heavily. Most movies final color includes substantial re-working of shots, with multiple mattes, nodes/correction layers.

I've worked with top colorists since post production is kind of my business and they all say the same thing, a film show takes 1/3rd of the time a digital show takes. They've shown me how much easier it is to work with film and I've personally colored film using the modern tools from DPX and Pro Res clips from sequences. Generally film comes in and with the built-in LUT's, already looks great. No reason to make a special LUT like they do for MOST productions. No need to have a DIT/manager to deal with those LUT's. No reason to display any special color on the monitors during production. Heck, one light dailies and you're good to go.

Now I haven't been a DP shooting decent sized movies like you have, but I've done the entire workflow on dozens of movies. Unfortunately, when you work at companies who provide those services, you don't get IMDB credit for them all, which really sucks.

From my personal experience, shooting without a DIT, without a technician to program LUT's, without someone managing/monitoring waveform/histogram on every single shot, digital comes out like shit. You can meter it all you want, it still comes out like shit unless you have those "speciality" tools, which are extremely complex and unnecessary for production. If you don't follow the technical formula, your results will suck in the back end, there is literally no leeway.
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#16 aapo lettinen

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 12:40 AM

here is a comparison between two telecines transfer of exactly the same 16mm frame. a good example how much difference there can be in transfers from the same film frame 

27851371502_e4d32fb7f9_z.jpg


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#17 aapo lettinen

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 12:52 AM

Generally film comes in and with the built-in LUT's, already looks great. No reason to make a special LUT like they do for MOST productions. 
From my personal experience, shooting without a DIT, without a technician to program LUT's, without someone managing/monitoring waveform/histogram on every single shot, digital comes out like poop. You can meter it all you want, it still comes out like poop unless you have those "speciality" tools, which are extremely complex and unnecessary for production. If you don't follow the technical formula, your results will suck in the back end, there is literally no leeway.

that "ease" of using film comes from the standardising of the film stock/developing/scanning path. I bet all those shows used same 1 or 2 film stocks (probably Kodak 5219, 5213 or 5207) for the entire show, always same lab with same processing, and same scanners with the same settings. So there is very little difference compared to the Alexa LogC workflow colour correction wise. 

 

If one does like me, using 10 - 15 different film stocks with different labs and different telecine/scanning with different settings, of course one has A LOT of work color correcting the stuff later shot by shot. 

(we did a short film scenes btw with using only 5207 stock with same lenses, careful lighting and exposing, flat telecine with minimum adjustments and it was very easy to colour correct. the difference comes from how much work you do on set to balance the shots VS how much work you want to do later in post production) 


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#18 aapo lettinen

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 01:02 AM

additionally, film comes mushy very quickly if underexposed so it needs to be exposed more carefully than digital and more based on mid/low range response than highlights. with digital you may need to be careful to not blow out the highlights but most other aspects can be corrected later. corrections are also easier to do because there is generally less "grain" (noise) in digital image so the corrections don't show up as easily as with film where for example contrast boost can be immediately seen in grain texture


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#19 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 01:58 AM

Well, I've shot many hours of television and several digital features without a DIT, without waveforms, etc. just a decent monitor as a reference (and I hardly used my meter for exposure) -- and they didn't come out like shit and they didn't take a lot of time in post to color-correct.

 

In terms of a D.I. I've generally found digitally-shot shows to color-correct faster, but that's because I generally don't mix camera types, it's usually two digital cameras of the same type. But with D.I.'s from film scans, there is more time taken to match shots because of variations in processing, differences in stocks, whatever.  Subtle matching problems usually... but they take a little more time to balance before you can begin the creative work of color-correction.  But I can imagine situations where it is reversed and the digital show takes more time to color-correct because of different camera types used.

 

But assuming the same budget, same shooting schedule, and using a decent digital camera like the Alexa, it is not accurate to say that digital takes a lot of specialized work to make look decent.  Many of us have gone out with an Alexa and just used the Rec.709 monitor look, recorded ProRes Log, and created images that color-correct quickly and come out of the camera looking close to the final product.  The one film I didn't shoot for Michael Polish, I recommended Jayson Crothers for the job (who used to post here) and he sent me some dailies frames that were quite beautiful, and he was just using a standard Rec.709 conversion LUT, no color-correction.

 

And all of the features I shot on the Sony F900 didn't involve DIT's. There are reasons to use DIT's, particularly if mixing a lot of different camera types recording different formats, and also if the plan is to create dailies for editorial on the camera truck, but I don't need a DIT in order to expose shots consistently and correctly so that they go through color-correction smoothly, any more than I needed help exposing when I shot film.

 

Besides, the Alexa and color negative have almost the same dynamic range and one can argue that in some ways, the Alexa image has more latitude for corrections.

 

If digital were so much harder to shoot and took so much more time to color-correct and needed specialized experts to achieve anything, then lower-budgeted productions wouldn't be using digital!

 

And back in the days when everyone shot film, you could certainly talk to a lot of timers who would complain some people's footage being hard to time because of misexposure, etc.  The days of film weren't some golden age where everything that being answer printed went smoothly because film was so easy to shoot.  Either a DP knows how to expose consistently or they don't, the issue isn't a film versus digital one, it's a basic skill level issue.  I mean, there are digital shooters today who record Rec.709 and deliver nice images that don't need color-correcting at all, they often go straight to broadcast.

 

The notion that you need an army of technicians to make something decent out of digital cinematography doesn't jibe with basic practices going on in the industry -- you can find plenty of people shooting good-looking digital footage, some of whom do all of the work themselves, they don't even use professional post houses.  And there are plenty of students and other beginners who create nice images -- if digital were as unwieldy as you make it out to be, this shouldn't be possible but it happens all the time.

 

Having just done a feature in 35mm with a photochemical finish, I've had a refresher in the experience... And though of course there are differences, I don't think it serves anyone to exaggerate the issues involve.  Shooting film also requires expert technicians -- the people doing the processing, the person doing the scan or telecine transfer, the person doing the answer printing, etc.  In fact, that's one aspect of film that is more complex than digital, all those steps between shooting and getting an image into editorial -- when something goes wrong, it can be very hard to figure out what caused the problem -- is the stock bad? Was the processing bad? Was the telecine bad?  Did the lab scratch the film? Did the camera?  Is the dust & dirt from the loader? Or does the lab have some cleanliness problems?  

 

One thing I don't miss about film is getting that note from the lab that something is wrong with what you shot the day before -- you can waste time on set when you should be shooting tracking down the problem in case there is something wrong with your camera, your lenses, your stock.  And then perhaps you have to tell the director that some favorite shot of his or hers from the day before has to be reshot.  


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#20 Stuart Brereton

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Posted 28 June 2016 - 03:23 AM

Professional digital cinematography requires MORE processing and is far more time consuming to deal with then film is in the modern world.

 

Absolutely not true. All professional cameras can record to an easily editable format, such as Pro-Res. Even when recording RAW, the transcoding step is easy and can be done on set.

 

Well you don't need to do scene to scene correction with film, you can do one light no problem. Also with telecine, all you do is balance as that's all you can do... So it's an entirely different process then working digitally. Digital cameras look like crap until you rework and retool the image heavily in post.

Again, not true. My dailies on every film I do are encoded with a basic REC 709 LUT and a few minor adjustments. Nothing more that would be achieved with a one-light dailies process.

 

My dailies are very close to the finished image.

 

Than, not then.

 

I don't know, I mean I work on the post production side and have worked on many decent sized shows and the digital workflow is far more complex then film.

Most shows have special LUT's made by a special technician which is costly to the production.

A full-time technician is on staff with most films (DIT) to manage and monitor color during the production.

Things like monitors now need to be specialty items, designed to display accurate colors as reference, again more technicians to make those work.

Then in post production, all of that prep work needs to be translated first to the transcode of media for editing. Then to the colorist for the final color.
 

My shows don't have or need 'special LUTs', neither do I have a DIT who is color-timing images on set. Our monitors are industry standard Panasonics, or occasionally Flanders. My dailies look 90% of the way they are supposed to, so when we get to color-timing, the job is mostly done.

 

With respect, it sounds like your film bias is making sweeping and inaccurate judgements about digital workflows.


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