Film vs Digital. Neither is better.

Film Vs DigitalFilm Vs Digital

Now back when I first started writing this article (in about December) this article was going to be about the FS7, a camera that I’ve had my eye on for a while, and when that first spectacular leaked photograph emerged, with the likely release at IBC, I even wrote “FS700 MKII Day!” in my diary. However, the more I wrote, the more it became an article about the state of film in the movie industry. Three months later, it’s nearly finished. There are several tangents in the following article. You have been warned.

Anyway. Enough waffle. So there I was watching the product release video, on Vimeo. Now YouTube comments…everyone knows about YouTube comments, but Vimeo is a lot politer, and the more specialised you get, the politer you get, so there I was reading rather…horrible comments.

Now what I have since realised is how polarising Digital Cinema has been. There are some who believe that film formats are essential and will always be around, and there are others who always film on digital, whether for budgetary, visual or post production reasons. Now, people were saying this like “This is crap.” “Typical Sony, looks like [digital] video.” and my personal favourite was “What f**king idiot lit this? One side of her face looks normal, and the other looks like the terminator!”

Now to me this didn’t look like video. Video has that very particular 50i or 60i well, video feel that’s apparent in the first four seasons of Doctor Who, for example. This product demo to me looked digital, and for me that’s not a bad thing. Digital noise is usually ‘cleaner’ than film grain, and some people do genuinely prefer digital over film. But the anger was slightly more complicated.

Many people complained that the FS700 was a great camera, with the Slow-Motion and the 4K capability, but that it really lacked any form factor at all. The FS7 has gone for a more ENG style form factor (if a little front heavy) that benefits single man documentary crews, and not necessarily film crews. The FS7 is even put in the same category as Sony’s F65, F35 and F3, which are (or were) really good digital cinema cameras, but to me this isn’t really a Digital Cinema camera, but rather, as I said earlier, an ENG style more suited to filming either very low budget work for internet delivery, documentaries or corporate videos. It, to me, falls into the same category as the C100 and C300, except for the fact that it’s better, and cheaper (than the latter).

The thing is, people expect different things from a camera. If you’re shooting a big budget film, you’ve got two options. Either film it on film (genius!) or film it…digitally. If you’re going down the digital avenue most people choose Red or Alexa, and a few choose Sony. The HDW-F900 (dubbed the Star Wars camera) was one of the first that offered true 24PsF and 23.98PsF (where progressive frames are transported as interlaced in an interlaced system) 1080p, and despite having a relatively small 2/3 inch sensor, wore the CineAlta badge well. The camera would go on to produce several films, and was used in production environments up until recently, and kick started Sony’s F range of Digital Cinema cameras, that includes the Fs7, and arguably was the first viable digital cinema camera.

An HDW-F900 camera "Sony Cinealta" by Ricky Norris - originally posted to Flickr as sony cinealta. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

An HDW-F900 camera
“Sony Cinealta” by Ricky Norris – originally posted to Flickr as sony cinealta. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

What was apparent, then, is that what people want is a digital cinema camera, that records to digital, is cheap (less than 10k), has great low light performance, a super 35 sensor, great ergonomics and looks like film. This camera is impossible. If you want something to look like film, shoot on film! There is honestly no reason why a big budget production couldn’t shoot on film, and shooting on S35 film compared to digital S35 often adds less to the production costs than hiring an A-list actor.

That being said, Hollywood’s relationship with film has always been slightly confused, which in itself is also confusing. To avoid some of this confusion I will refer to the physical medium of film as Photochemical Imaging. A big word, and rather technical I know, but bear with me as I struggle to remember what I actually wanted to say. Oh yes, that’s it. You film films.

It seems blindingly obvious, in fact I guarantee one of you reading this will go “duh” and then immediately tune out. Now, there is an exception. You might video something, but I bet most of you will say film. I’m going to video this doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as film, and unless you’re referring to a physical VHS cassette, it’s unlikely someone would actually say “what a great video” when referring to the movie they just watched. Film has become a byword for movie, the idea that a few thousand different still images, when played back can become something more *gets emotional*. Okay I’m done now. Moving on.

There is one exception to the Photochemical Imaging cost rule. IMAX. IMAX film is around 6x the size of standard S35, and can cost almost 10x as much per frame, due to the physical size, better quality and the fact that not many people use it. Christopher Nolan is a big fan of IMAX cameras, and film in general. For his film the Dark Knight, he shot around 30 minutes on IMAX film, including big emotional and physical moments, like the first onscreen appearance of the Joker. For The Dark Knight Rises Nolan chose not to use 3D cameras, but to again use IMAX, shooting around 70 minutes of the film on IMAX, truly impressive. However, not even Nolan could get the studio to release the funds to shoot the entire film on IMAX film, and a similar thing happened with Interstellar.


Christoper Nolan using an enormous IMAX film camera to shoot Heath Ledger’s first appearance onscreen as the Joker The Dark Knight. Nolan is a big fan of  the IMAX format.

This things really are huge "IMAX camera 1". Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons -

This things really are huge
“IMAX camera 1”. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons –

IMAX (or more accurately 65mm film) was invented because when projected on a very large screen, visual deficiencies in the film began to grow more and more apparent. These deficiencies and high levels of film gain were not as evident in the original camera negatives, but were in the various reprints of the film, like a bad photocopy, each one worse than the last. The solution, rather than to improve the S35 reprinting process, was to invent a larger, higher quality film format. People had been experimenting with 70 and 65mm film since the late 19th Century, with many technical advances made.

However S35 film began to increase in quality very quickly, and before long the reprinting process was also improved, and the effective resolution of a distribution print went up, till on most screens the difference between 70/65mm and 35mm film was no longer apparent, and the higher costs of that film type started its demise. IMAX provided the difference. Many films shot on 70mm were projected on S35, and that presented a bit of a problem. Whilst the quality of the original negative was much higher, the reprints often came in looking not much better than if the movie was captured on s35.

A comparison between the s35 and IMAX film formats. "IMAX comparison" by Carniolus - Vectorized from File:Imaxcomparison.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

A comparison between the s35 and IMAX film formats.
“IMAX comparison” by Carniolus – Vectorized from File:Imaxcomparison.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

IMAX then had an idea. Whilst they weren’t the first cinema to project with 70mm they were the first to do it consistently and for every film. Every film projected in an IMAX cinema would be remastered and then transferred to 70mm for projection. The result? Screens could be much bigger, and audiences could be closer to the screen. No longer did you simply go an watch a film in an IMAX theatre, it was an experience. The IMAX experience.

Then something sad happened. Allegedly, a few IMAX technicians working in one of their R&D labs created a test film. It started with four pixels, two black and two white arranged like a chess board, starting out like this. They showed it to IMAX executives, and their simple discovery perhaps changed the way that the whole of cinema views quality.



And rapidly became more like this.

more stuff

I know you can see the stitching lines. I did my best. You have absolutely no idea how long this actually took.

You see every 5 odd seconds the resolution of the number of pixels would double, from 2p, to 4p, 8p, etc etc right up to 4096p (roughly 8K), but the image on the screen (to the executives standing at the back) had turned grey much earlier, at around 1024p (the actual resolution the image was perceived as grey as is up for debate) and this changed the way that digital cinema worked. The resolutions of the varying film standards had already been calculated. 8mm was equal to standard definition, s16mm was roughly 2048*1080, s35 was roughly 4K (4096*2160), 35mm (full frame) was roughly 6K, and IMAX was almost 16K (at the camera negative). Even despite reprinting, an IMAX distribution print that made its way to the cinemas would be 8K-12K in quality. What IMAX discovered on that one afternoon was that the extraordinary high resolution it used for its film was unnecessary. The pixels were no longer visible at 2K (1080p).

So what came next? Lacklustre digital camera development. If IMAX cinemas could get away with showing 2K prints, what about normal cinemas? The truth is, people sitting at the back of a cinema probably wouldn’t notice if they showed even 720p films. Those at the front however would. The question really then be comes what is more important to the cinema, being able to pack people in at the front, saving money on projection equipment or not driving customers away by having an obviously low resolution screen. In the end, most cinemas chose smaller, 1080p screens. It’s weird to think that the ‘big screen’ actually has the same resolution as a lot of high end smartphones. For a long time 1080p was just ‘good enough’.

Many filmmakers remain attached to film. Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino (to name a few) have spoken out in favour of the medium of film. A lot of people view it as the good standard, when it comes to quality, colours, looks and dynamic range. Until digital cameras can emulate that more accurately, they still want the option to shoot on film. Originally the reason given against digital was the lack of depth of field. The original CineAlta cameras had tiny 2/3″ sensors, and it took several years for a proper s35 sensor digital cinema camera to actually be developed. However, the number of reasons to shoot on film keep falling. Last year there was a massive fall in the number of films shot photochemically, in favour of one specific camera, the Arri Alexa. Whilst the Alexa has again been popular, it is practically limited in quality to just higher than 1080p, and several cinemas now are replacing their (not that old!) 2K digital projection equipment with 4K projection equipment. There are now genuine reasons to go back and shoot on film, especially around quality. s35 film looks best when scanned and mastered in 4K, IMAX (65mm) in 8K+ and s16 looks best in 2K.

One major issue with shooting film is reel times. Films captured photochemically can often feel over planned. IMAX film reels come in sizes from 30 seconds to two minutes, and s35 reels aren’t that much better. The cast of Harry Potter were fined by the production crew if they messed up lines, because the series of films were spending much more on stocks than they should be. The longest s35 reels I know of are just under 10 minutes, which isn’t much time to leave the camera rolling for spontaneous and improvised performance.  IMAX reels are so short that occasionally directors using the format have to start the camera rolling as close to action as possible, otherwise the reel will have exhausted itself before the scene is finished. How much useful film can you get out of a 2 minute reel? One minute? One and a half minutes? What about 30 seconds? The answer is probably not very much. Digital cameras, on the other hand can be left rolling for hours. The entirety of Russian Ark was famously shot in a single take (it took them four attempts), and at 90 minutes long, that feat could never be accomplished with film.

A lot of directors cling to film because its what they grew up with, and it’s true. Film does look special. It doesn’t always look good, but it does look special. The Grand Budapest Hotel made excellent use of the 4:3 aspect ratio for some of the film. At first I found the changes in aspect ratio annoying, but after a few of them, I realised what Wes Anderson was getting at. There is definitely a place for digital. Directors shouldn’t be sneered upon because they want to use digital, and neither should they be sneered upon if they want to use film. What it really boils down to, is that shooting on film should always be available to directors, not because it just looks cool, but as a creative decision. It should always add to the film, and yes, it should always be protected. Film should never replace digital, why? In the same way the VHS never replaced the television, or the telephone didn’t kill the postal service. They’re different.

Post Script: After writing and publishing this incredibly long article, James came up to me earlier and asked if it was written in English. James, despite being very technical, managed to read the article not understanding what it meant. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about, I’m very sorry, but Google is your friend. I’ve got another very technical post coming up, and I will have to include a glossary in that. Anyway thanks James, for crushing my ego.



Write a variety of articles, when I get the time. Usually do more longform and analysis than I probably should. Also an editor.

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