Can film survive our digital future?

Posted on Thu 14 Feb 2013

Now is a pivotal time in cinema history. For almost a century, film was the exclusive format to capture, develop, project and store movie images. Over the past two decades, however, digital has emerged to challenge this long tradition. A new documentary opening on Friday, our February podcast, and a recently published collection of panels and talks on DShed take a closer, critical look at this digital revolution.

Side By Side is a master class on the movies. Led by Keanu Reeves, it takes you on a tour of the past, present and future of filmmaking, meticulously examining all aspects of the art: from capture to edit, visual effects to colour correction, distribution to archive, revealing the differences in each stage for movies shot on film versus those shot digitally.

It is a rare chance to sit at the feet of world-class directors, cinematographers, editors and actors (including Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Vilmos Zsigmond, David Fincher, George Lucas, Anthony Dod Mantle, David Lynch and many more), who offer their thoughts on both sides of debate, raising countless questions.

For all of the ringing death knells, film still has its fans and purists, the most passionate of whom is Christopher Nolan (his Dark Knight trilogy was shot on film), who praises the format's aesthetic advantages, saying there isn't yet a superior (or even equal) imaging technology to film.

Nolan is sceptical of digital, and worried that the wisdom and rituals of the craft will soon disappear. Some of these rituals, however, proved frustrating to others: film gifted the cinematographer a certain power that was almost magical ("they loved the voodoo of it" claims David Fincher). After shooting all day and night, you had to wait until the following morning to see if anything actually worked ("like painting with the lights off" as Robert Rodriguez put it). With digital, the results are immediate, and anyone could chime in and tell the cinematographer exactly how things should or should not look.

Digital has many advantages in terms of versatility, cost and accessibility. Seasoned filmmakers such as George Lucas and James Cameron, and newcomers such as Lena Dunham, rightly highlight the fact that some of their work simply could not have been made in any other way.

Digital means more rapid filmmaking, too. David Fincher shares a particularly insightful anecdote from when he was shooting the digitally-created Zodiac, and how Robert Downey Jr grew so annoyed at Fincher's demanding schedule (previously, shooting on film meant actors could have more breaks) that he left jars of urine around the set in protest.

The impact of digital continues into the distribution world: with digital, films can reach more people, in a greater number of ways, ways not limited to time or space. The Matrix's Lana Wachowski claims that watching films in the digital age is a much more interactive experience:

"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." Is digital the death of cinema, or just part of its natural evolution? Well, ironically, film may be digital's future: the best way to preserve digital movies is with good old-fashioned film prints.

For film fans - and we think there may just be a few out there reading this - Side By Side is absolute heaven, an experience worth a year in film school. It's necessary viewing for anyone who cares about cinema's legacy, a postcard from the future of film. Where do you stand? Does the analogue vs digital debate even matter to audiences?

As David Fincher succinctly puts it in the film: "I don't believe for one second that digital imaging or tech will ever take away the humanity of storytelling, because storytelling in itself is a wholly human concern."

In February's Podcast our Head of Programme Mark Cosgrove explored the issues and challenges of the impact of digital in conversation with Terry Flaxton, Professor of Cinematography and Lens Based Media at University of the West of England.

Mark and Terry talk about Peter Jackson's decision to shoot The Hobbit at the higher 48 frames per second rate, Michael Mann using two different directors of photography to film Collateral on both video and film, Mark's 'rediscovery' of Taxi Driver after watching it in 4k, the nostalgia for 35mm, and the subtle but profound changes anticipated for cinema audiences.

In the podcast Mark mentions that his original idea for February's Sunday Brunches was to screen classic films half on 35mm, then half on digital, to gauge if it made a difference to people watching. We couldn't quite pull that off, but our Side By Side Brunches include five classic films, shot on 35mm, that have been remastered digitally. Does it change the nature of your experience and do you notice the quality of the image? Mark would love to know your thoughts on the issue: just email him at and share your ideas.

Finally, to complement the release of Side By Side, over on DShed we have put together a collection of panels and talks discussing Cinematography in the Digital Age, all of which raise pressing questions and concerns on the changing role of cinematography in the digital revolution. As a little taster, here's a panel discussion hosted by Terry Flaxton on the pros and cons of the pair: