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In the midst of doom and gloom regarding the future of 35mm and digital cinema overtaking the movie industry, I received a press release from Eastman Kodak several weeks ago, boasting that six of this year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees were shot on Kodak film: Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Les Misérables. (The publicist added, “In the 84-year history of Oscar, no Academy Award-winning best picture has ever been made without motion picture film.”)

Wait a minute. Kodak is still in the film business? And digital technology hasn’t replaced motion picture film after all? It’s true. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, David O. Russell, and Christopher Nolan have spoken of their devotion to film. Paul Thomas Anderson went so far as to shoot The Master in 65mm for release on 70mm film stock.

Although going through a financial restructuring, Kodak is still manufacturing “billions of feet of film,” according to Andrew Evenski, president and general manager of Kodak’s Entertainment and Commercial Films Group. Why? Because so many directors and cinematographers demand it.

I decided to ask a working professional about this and turned to John Bailey, the talented cinematographer (and member of the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). His many credits include this year’s Sundance Film Festival hit The Way, Way Back, along with Groundhog Day and As Good as It Gets. Far from being an old fogey, John shot one of the first high-profile digital feature films, The Anniversary Party, in 2001. Here’s his response to my query:

“Despite my friend Roger Deakins’ insistence otherwise, film is NOT dead and many of us continue to prefer it when we are allowed to and when smart directors support us. Also, you can talk to anyone at Panavision to know that 35mm film cameras with anamorphic lenses are the hottest rental going. I am proud to have had such an ongoing support of film anamorphic to the extent that Panavision created two separate short-range zoom lenses because of my badgering—and now they are always completely rented.

“Despite the fact that I photographed four films last year on the Arri Alexa (two of which were at this year’s Sundance) I am and will be a film person until there is no film available to shoot. It is a different medium than digital by the very nature of the image capture process. The pixel array of digital is static, a fixed grid, and bears resemblance to the concept of a tile mosaic. Film grain is random, no two frames having the same structure, so it is organic, alive, vibrant. Next time you are at a digital projection walk up very close to the screen and you will see the pixels, just as when you blow up a digital photo too much. I believe the mind’s eye, if not the physical one, ‘reads’ this difference. Many digital colorists and cinematographers add an overlay of random
“digital grain” during the DI finishing to break up the static pixel
array, simulating as best they can the vibrant “look” of film grain.

“And despite the ever-improving color space and resolution of digital, it still does not equal film. The digital projection may be wonderful because of its stability but the new film projectors are equally so. The studios abandon film because of print costs and distribution (those bulky, heavy film cans).”

Furthermore, he adds,

“There is still NO archival storage medium on tape or drive. All these movies only on digital are so vulnerable and we will know quite soon just how much we are losing. Though not publicly acknowledged, there are movies on digital files that are locked—can’t be opened even though the files read as existing. My own suspicion is that the greater the metadata files that support these movies, the greater the possibility they can’t be opened. But many movies are going to be lost to ‘digital nitrate’ because of lack of migrating in a timely fashion or because of the inevitable migration errors that always occur.

“Film is by definition self-archiving. I recently supervised a new 4K remastering of Groundhog Day at Sony Colorworks with colorist John Dunn. The scan from the original 35mm film negative was so clean and crisp—and we both agreed that the negative still contains more than 4K information.”

If so many top-tier filmmakers believe in film, how can the industry stand by and allow laboratories to close and suppliers to go out of business? This is the eternal tug-of-war between art and commerce, and it isn’t hard to guess which side will ultimately win. But it’s encouraging to know that some people are still fighting the good fight. In tomorrow’s post another contemporary filmmaker will weigh in on this subject.

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