Today I’m going to join a debate that’s been going on for a few years now. I’ve been quiet about it even around friends and colleagues because some of the people I worship are the DPs I get to work with and I know that my opinion is something many of them would cringe when hearing.
I hate working with actual film. I hate it. I hate it. I hate it. The loading, the limited number of minutes you get before you have to load yet again. The dangers of losing the film or flashing it or what can happen in the development process. I hate that people still worship film like it’s some kind of magical potion that makes everything look great. I hate the limitations that film cameras have with movement and stabilization. I hate everything about working with celluloid – and so do most people!
If you insist on working on film chances are I will never want to work with you
Most cinematographers I know would give their right arm for cameras to weigh two pounds, have internal body stabilization like the panasonic GH5 has, be incredibly sensitive in low-light like the A7sii, and have 16 stops of dynamic range. The smaller and lighter cameras get the better the camera movements get and the quicker things get on set.
How Are People Still Putting Up This Fight?
The only thing and I mean the ONLY thing people like about film is that it has a certain aesthetic…and the difference between film and digital is so negligible that literally nobody, not a single non-cinephile audience member in the world actually knows when something is shot on film or when it’s shot on digital.
If your audience can’t tell the difference WHO THE HELL CARES? Go with what’s easier to work with? You don’t see editors talking about how amazing it is to cut on a faltbed and how they refuse to work digitally. You don’t hear doctors saying how they miss the days before anesthetic – this whole debate is totally insane to me. It’s also been talked into the ground by everyone. It’s gotten to the point that even DPs hate talking about it. Here’s a great clip from the Hollywood Reporter Roundtable series recently where DPs talk about how it’s stupid to even bring it up anymore:
What Does Matter in Your Image?
What really matters is what’s in the frame, how the light falls, how the camera moves, if the the image is soft or tack sharp. You miss the grain? Add it in post. You miss the allure that something accidental might happen to your film during processing? Have your editor surprise you with some random LUT before he starts cutting.
Was This Debate Ever Logical?
The film vs. digital debate was a really valid one in the early 2000’s right when the first three Star Wars were being produced. Back then the cameras only shot 1080 (which honestly is still just fine by me – I never bought the whole 4k nonsense), the dynamic range of the cameras wasn’t anywhere near what film could produce and the mechanical beasts of cameras that processed these HD images were nearly as big as a Ford Focus.
I remember that the rentals on HD cameras were so astronomical that there was almost no benefit in shooting digitally. It was actually cheaper to shoot on film back then unless you were shooting a crazy amount of takes – and I remember the cost even took into account the cost of doing a telecine digital transfer for your edit.
What About Archiving?
Some make this archaic, sophmoric argument that film is a better archival medium. That’s a ridiculous claim. Films are still consumed in the theater for the moment but who knows if that will last forever. One thing that certainly won’t be so prevalent in the near future are theaters that still project celluloid. So while the 35mm master print of the film in question may be able to be preserved, where the hell are you going to screen it? It will be the equivalent of finding someone who has their vinyl record player hooked up to a massive stereo system in a few years and in one generation or less it will be more akin to renting a victrola to screen the film.
While people are right in saying that digital mediums change way too often, if something is worth preserving it will be preserved. My wife had a bunch of photos of her grandparents and relatives who have passed sitting in a shoebox in the garage. I asked her if they were meaningful to her? As soon as she said yes off they went to get digitally scanned and put on the cloud.
How Often Do You Really Watch Anything Old?
I still have a library of video tapes but you know what, I can’t really think of anything that I need to watch on VHS. I found a couple tapes of old birthdays. I think I watched them for about two minutes on a rainy Sunday and then switched back over to my phone to catch up on whatever Netflix show I was binging at the time.
If I’m being totally honest, I’ve never watched my own wedding video. The videographer used three different cameras of vastly different quality and the first three minutes were cut so aggressively and to such intense music that I felt like it was more of an intro to iron chef than a wedding montage. He asked me to give him notes but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him that there was literally zero way to fix his edit so it sits in a drawer somewhere destined to be watched for five minutes by my kids before they get bored of it too.
My Dream Camera and Lighting Package
I love reading about gear and learning what is available so I know the possibilities for movement and lighting when I talk to my cinematographer. But as much as I love learning about gear I hate owning it, hate operating it, I hate touching it. To me an idea camera is one that is small enough that we can hide it in someone’s jacket, light enough that it can’t ever be a burden, turns on fast enough that we’re never waiting on it to boot up, and has an image quality that would not make a regular audience question it as anything “cheap.”
As long as the image looks great, who cares how you got it?
Notice how I didn’t really talk about dynamic range and all that stuff – I don’t care. If the audience doesn’t know it’s 35mm it’s good enough for me. I’m not a big fan of super shallow depth of field anyways so the Micro Four Thirds format is fine with me.
Similarly, I can’t wait until lights get powerful enough that they can be the size of a flashlight or even a pen. I have no problem with big, collapsible lighting modifiers like softboxes and umbrellas – those things fold down quite small and are never that heavy – but if you’ve ever lugged around ballast boxes and big old HMI’s you know they’re a real pain in the ass.
One Trend I Do Hate
I absolutely hate that people are making movies on iphones. I hate it because you can tell they’re shot on iPhones. They look horrible. They look absolutely detestable. I hate it as much as I hated it when people were shooting on the old sony dvx2000 or dvx1000 when they could have shot on 16mm. The two don’t even look close to as good. One looks like a BAD reality show pilot that someone put together over a weekend and the other is indistinguishable from 35mm to 99.9999% of the people who see it.
I know there might be a handful of you who bring up “Tangerine” or “Unsane” but all I can say is that even Sean Baker clearly hated the iPhone otherwise he wouldn’t have shot on 35mm to get as far away from it as possible when he shot The Florida Project.
Warning: I’m Going to go Off on a Soderbergh Rant
As for Soderbergh – he’s hit and miss for me. I love a lot of his work. I think The Limey, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Side Effects, Oceans 11 & 12, Out of Sight are all great movies.
But I will never forget the painful process of watching Full Frontal at a small theater in Los Angeles and getting angry that someone wasted that much of my time – that was a horrible horrible horrible movie that should have never been released.
It’s Not Like it Was a One Time Occurrence Either
It really pissed me off and just as I got over it, I got sucked back into another Soderbergh self-indulgent moment with Bubble. He did it again not long after with The Girlfriend Experience. I have a hard and fast rule with Soderbergh that if it’s made on anything other than a RED camera and/or no lighting was used I wait for the Rotten Tomato score to come out before lining up to see the thing.
To me it’s no coincidence that all of the stuff shot with corners cut also happens to be the weakest writing of all of Soderbergh’s work. It’s almost as if he finishes a script and thinks to himself “well, this is just okay. I’ll just grab a cheap camera and skip the lights and see if anything magical happens but I’m not going to bother with an actual crew and all that for this one.”
I hope, I really do hope that Unsane can change the pattern for me but I’m not getting my hopes up. That being said, I was the first in line when Logan Lucky came out in my local theater and I if something Soderbergh makes looks like it’s on that level I’ll still show up opening night.