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by Paula Bernstein
January 22, 2014 4:24 PM
5 Comments
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Here's What Sundance Cinematographers Think of Shooting Film Vs. Digital

"Listen Up Philip"

Filmmaking increasingly doesn't involve film at all as the majority of films -- both Hollywood blockbusters and small independent films -- are shot digitally. It's so noteworthy for films to be shot on film that The Hollywood Reporter recently highlighted the handful of films at the Sundance Film Festival that were shot on film, including "Listen Up Philip," "Low Down" and "Happy Christmas."

As part of our "How I Shot It" series, we've asked cinematographers with films at Sundance 2014 to tell us if the shift from film to digital is good or bad.

Here's a selection of their responses: 

"It's great! Digital cinema tools are giving us new ways of telling stories, and not taking any of the old ones away. Storytelling isn't about pixels and noise vs. emulsion and grain. It's much bigger than that." -- Cinematographer John Guleserian ("Song One")

"The shift from film to digital for me, just is. I've tried to never get too caught up in that battle, I just try to keep focus on what is best for the story I'm trying to tell. Whether it's film or digital, the aesthetics in storytelling is the same for me." -- Cinematographer Brett Pawlak ("Hellion") 

"It's all just tools in a toolbox, certain ones are better for certain things. Lots of people have a lot to say about this subject and I am not one of them." -- Cinematographer Zachary Galler ("The Sleepwalker")

"I think there are pros and cons to both film and digital these days, but the bottom line for me is to create an aesthetic that is tailor-made for each individual script and story. I'm actually excited to see what great cinematographers are doing with the latest technology, and the abundance of recipes that give us more and more options to make our projects unique, whether it's film or digital. I like to do tons of tests and play with the options until we all say "that's the look" and go from there." -- Cinematographer Christopher Blauvelt ("Lowdown")

"It just is - a camera is a camera is a camera." -- Cinematographer Rex Miller ("Private Violence")

"I think the shift from film to digital isn't good or bad - it just is what it is, and it isn't going to stop. I'll use either when it is appropriate, and I enjoy shooting both for very different reasons. I think digital is a great tool, and should be treated as that - another tool in a filmmaker's tool belt." -- Cinematographer Alex Disenhof ("Fishing Without Nets.")

"I think it just is. I'm still a huge fan of film, and will continue to choose it whenever I'm able. And although I think that digital capture will catch up eventually, I suspect it'll be a couple more generations of cameras before you get that magic that well-shot film offers. That said, there's not a camera out there today that can't make beautiful images if you use your eyes and put in the work." -- Cinematographer Ben Richardson ("Happy Christmas")

"I think it allows the world of filmmaking and cinematography to be much more interesting. The vast choices of how you tell a story are enhanced by the range of styles you can create from film or digital. The best part about digital is that it has allowed shooting to be more approachable and a further possibility for amazing moments to be captured." -- Cinematographer Rachel Beth Anderson ("E-Team")

"I don't see it as a bad thing. I'm sad that I became a DP right around the time when film was on its way out. Fortunately I was able to shoot 20+ short projects on film while studying at UCLA. This really helped me cut my teeth, particularly with lighting. I have also shot a handful of professional projects on the medium as well. I always suggest film, and it is almost always shot down. I think I will make a habit of continuing to suggest it and see what happens. It truly does make a lot of sense for some projects, just as digital makes sense for others." -- Cinematographer Topher Osborn ("Dear White People")

As much as I loved learning how to make movies on film and the magical feeling of watching dailies for the first time, I have to say I would never be in the position I am now without the availability of the digital platform. The first two features I shot ('Medicine for Melancholy' and 'The Myth of the American Sleepover') would never have existed without the advances in digital cameras, so ultimately I have to say that the shift is a good one. I also pay a lot of attention to how the process by which projects are made effects the final film, and have to say that especially for young filmmakers, being able to look at a monitor and see what you have and make adjustments on set accordingly is a huge advantage for both cinematographers and directors, especially if you are pushing the boundaries of the medium. Waiting till too late to see that you went too far OR didn't go far enough can be a huge disappointment for everyone involved." -- Cinematographer James Laxton ("Camp X-Ray")

"We've shifted? I'm still shooting film. Along with digital, film is just another choice (at least for now!)." Cinematographer Darren Lew ("Jamie Marks Is Dead")

"We have been debating the merits of film versus digital cinema for 15 years now. It's time to put that conversation to rest and champion both tools." -- Cinematographer Joe Anderson ("Dig" and "The Case Against 8")

"I am not a Luddite. We live in a world in which technology moves very quickly. Personally, anytime I find myself presented with new technology I experience great learning and great growth. For this reason alone, I embrace the digital medium." -- Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski ("Infinitely Polar Bear")

"People like to overdramatize the whole film vs. digital thing. I learned how to edit by splicing 16mm film together and I think that there is something perfect about learning the craft by actually physically handling the imagery. Film is beautiful and organic and gentle. That said, it's also a huge pain in the ass. There are several advantages to using film that will never become obsolete. Unfortunately, for the film stock manufacturers, the advantages that digital cameras have over film are now far outweighing the benefits of the celluloid system. The only real major downside I see with digital is encapsulated in this analogy: If you have a machine gun and you are trying to hit a target you'll hold that trigger down and fire a million bullets. Eventually you'll hit the center of the target but you'll make Swiss cheese out of everything around it. If you have three bullets and a revolver you are going to take your time and really aim that gun perfectly before you shoot one of your precious bullets. That's film vs. digital." -- Cinematographer Jay Hunter ("Life After Beth")

5 Comments

  • Karl | March 28, 2014 1:03 PMReply

    Ha I love Jay Hunter's analogy. I'd like to think of myself as a precise machine-gun shooter though, I hate the thought that we can just shoot anything how and when we want with digital, the power of digital is that you have that option, you shouldn't rely on it though.

  • buddy | January 27, 2014 8:24 PMReply

    I think you're over-generalizing based on the low ratio of movies at Sundance shot on film.
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  • joes | January 23, 2014 12:40 PMReply

    Remember, these are essentially a group of first timers making movies on a shoestring. Of course, they will embrace anything that allows them to get a movie made. Talk to a group of filmmakers who work with large budgets and the responses will be much more varied - not to mention much more in favor of film over digital.

  • death of film | January 23, 2014 10:53 AMReply

    I can make a movie with my phone, that doesn't mean I would do that if I had a 50 million budget. What's sad is directors being forced to shoot digital when perhaps the other option would be viable.

  • Jamie Concepcion | January 22, 2014 5:42 PMReply

    I remember the part of the conversation about film vs digital at the Hollywood Reporter roundtable with the cinematographers having quite anti digital opinions.