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The fight over formats

A Bafta and Directors UK panel brought industry experts together in London to discuss whether or not shooting on film is still viable in the digital world. Wendy Mitchell reports

Kevin Macdonald recently finished the shoot for the first feature he has shot all digitally, How I Live Now [pictured]. So how did he take to the digital revolution? “I don’t have any regrets.” That’s a big endorsement from an Oscar-winning director who has worked predominantly on film in the past, with both documentaries and fictional features — not to mention the fact that he is the grandson of one of film’s greats, Emeric Pressburger.

He made the decision to shoot How I Live Now, about teenagers fighting for survival as war breaks out, for creative, not financial, reasons. “We decided to shoot on digital because we’re shooting a lot with children and animals, and I thought, ‘Let’s give digital a go…’

“It was that flexibility I loved. If you were going [for] a certain spontaneity and capturing a sense of life as it happens, then digital is wonderful for that,” Macdonald told the crowd at Bafta during the recent Film Vs Digital panel, co-hosted with Directors UK.

He has a “big period film” he wants to shoot in Africa and would like to shoot that on film. “It’s a case-by-case basis; I would like to ensure that both [film and digital formats] would continue,” he added.

That importance of film-makers having a choice between film and digital emerged as the majority opinion at the November 13 panel.

‘Digital is wonderful for spontaneity and capturing a sense of life as it happens’

Kevin Macdonald

“The perceived wisdom was that digital is quicker and cheaper than film. The message that was getting across was that film’s time was up,” said the panel’s organiser Iain Softley, film chair at Directors UK and director of films such as The Wings Of The Dove, K-PAX and the forthcoming Trap For Cinderella. “This is not an attack on digital, but a desire to keep film as an available option.”

It is a topic broached in Keanu Reeves and Chris Kenneally’s Side By Side documentary (which premiered in Berlin) and called into focus again recently as Fuji announced it would stop manufacturing film stock by spring 2013, spurring whispers about ‘the death of film’.

One big fan of film speaking on the panel was cinematographer John Mathieson, the DoP on films such as Gladiator, X-Men: First Class and 47 Ronin, who said with the switch to digital, that “level of craftsmanship and expertise is being pushed aside”. He also complained about the way flesh tones look when shot digitally. Yet for certain films, he does see the point of shooting digital — “it has its place”, he noted, pointing to films that worked on digital such as urban thriller iLL Manors.

At what cost

Much has been made of how shooting on digital is cheaper than using film. But what are the realities today?

Anita Overland, co-producer of Ron Howard’s Formula 1 drama Rush, said that shooting on digital for that project had both its pluses and minuses. “We were using eight different formats, which were very complicated. They all have different transcoding issues, so that was very hard to manage.”

She continued: “When you have digital you seem to breed cameras, and they are all over the place. We had to manage that number of cameras in terms of continuity.”

Overland noted there were not huge cost savings working at the high end of digital, such as shooting in ARRIRAW, compared with film, especially adding in extra lab people who may need to be on set with digital. For Rush, shooting digital was about £165,000 cheaper than shooting comparable footage on film, but on a budget of $50m that is hardly a game changer.

“If you’re shooting a lot of footage then probably digital is slightly less expensive than film,” added Overland. “If you want to shoot film and you can be more disciplined with how much film you shoot, then I’m sure you can make it all work out financially.”

Overland worked on Revolution Films’ Red Riding Trilogy — one on super 16mm, one on the RED and one on 35mm. She noted in those instances the cost differences “were pretty negligible on those £2m budgets”, with the decisions driven creatively.

Will film become niche?

Christopher Nolan, a 35mm aficionado, has recently called for his peers in Hollywood to push to keep shooting on film so that it doesn’t disappear or become a niche product that is less economically viable for everyone.

Bill Lovell, head of digital and 3D at ARRI Media, said such concerns have to be addressed seriously by film-makers. If they don’t choose film, who will? “As a company, we have been saying to people [for] many years now there is nothing at all wrong with shooting film. If that’s your choice and you can afford it, great. But if you don’t choose to do that, then my suggestion is that you won’t have that choice five years from now.”

Many in the room bemoaned the fact that film started to slip in the UK in late 2006, when the BBC said it would not accept 16mm source material for its high-definition programming.

‘Nobody tells a painter not to use 500-year-old oils… or tells Radiohead, no acoustic guitars’

Iain Softley

Another elephant in the room was the fact that as digital projection becomes the norm (especially with Hollywood studios), then the economics are tough for companies who want to produce film stock without those regular bulk orders coming through. That’s thought to be a factor behind Fuji’s abandonment of film.

Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy in January, has said it still wants to manufacture film. David Webb, Kodak UK’s general manager, told the Bafta crowd: “The commitment is there to still make film but for how long, who knows — the economics of film have changed drastically since 2009… We’ve become more cost-effective, there has been a change in manufacturing process, lots of things have been going on to make sure film is still around.”

Charles Fairall, the BFI’s head of conservation, noted that the market for film stock is also a concern for archives across the globe, which are banding together to talk about the “transitional challenges we face as film stocks become less and less available”.

The archive world is also adjusting to working on digital assets alongside film. Fairall added: “We have to take digital seriously… The thing about preserving digital is that interfaces will change, and eventually hard drives might not work in 15-20 years’ time. You can’t just put digital content into a vault like you can with film and expect it to last. You have to devise a path, a direction, that is sustainable… from one platform to the next, to the next, to the next.”

Film’s still alive

Hugh Whittaker of camera and equipment company Panavision was bullish that shooting on film was still a popular choice for many people. “If you add up globally the people that want to shoot on film, there are a lot of film-makers our there that still want to shoot on film.” He said demand was still strong for both, which was an encouraging sign: “We’re out of film cameras and we’re out of digital cameras.”

Billy Williams, the DoP on such legendary films as Gandhi and On Golden Pond, thinks digital has its place, but hopes that film will live on. “At the moment we’re still in the position that we’ve got horses for courses. I think it would be a sad day if there was only one horse left standing.”

For Softley, it is about the option of shooting on film being available for artistic reasons, for years or decades to come. He closed the discussion by saying: “Nobody tells a painter that they can’t use 500-year-old oil paints. Nobody tells Radiohead that they can’t use acoustic guitars.”

Readers' comments (2)

  • It's likely to be the case that pretty soon film won't be produced, so won't be available.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

  • i am assuming that skyfall was shot digitally one of the most insipid and terrible looking films i have ever seen, it just looked flat and uninteresting throughout.

    Unsuitable or offensive?

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