A few weeks ago, a friend in academia asked me for my thoughts on shooting with film cameras rather than on digital video — not to rank one technology over the other, but simply to compare the aesthetic experience of working with each one. Is using film and film cameras onerous work that distracts from the filmmakers' creative vision because of the format’s inherent limitations? Or does the more-than-century-old work with motion-picture film and analog cameras offer unique experiences that are lost in the digital universe?
And does today’s filmmaker even have to choose “the lady or the tiger?"
Early this year, I stood on a Santa Monica Boulevard rooftop with the Hollywood sign in the distance, hand-cranking a 1908 Pathé movie camera. Our small crew was recreating a scene from a more-than-century-old movie made by the pioneering woman director Alice Guy. The roll of 35mm film in the camera’s magazine was black-and-white Double-X 5222 that had been manufactured in Kodak’s Rochester, N.Y., plant only a few months earlier.
This single-shot film tribute to Guy is an illustration of the connection between filmmaking’s materials: a perforated, emulsified strip of flexible polyester plastic that unspools inside a light-collecting box with a lens, passing over a gear-driven, intermittent pulldown claw that freezes movement in its “gate” one frame at a time. Steampunk technology in all its glory!
This mechanical wonder, a perhaps tottering totem of the industrial age, is also a magical time machine that collects and preserves our history and lives and stores them as actual photographs. Despite what some critics and academics might extol, this much beloved analog motion-imaging system called “film” is not a relic of another era, but simply, as movie historian Rob Hummel says, “a mature medium.”
The history of any art form is not only the record of the dance between aesthetics and technology, but also the very human story of the men and women who create that art. Some might argue that art history is largely a study of formal, intellectual properties and social forces, but working artists know that it is their bodies, their hands and eyes, forcefully engaged with raw materials and tools, that create “art.” It is this visceral contact with its constituent elements that gives artists such abiding satisfaction and delight in their work.
I had never felt that delight so strongly in my blood and bone as when I hand-cranked that antique but still resolute film camera on a Hollywood rooftop (or even a few years before that day, when Joe Rinaudo let me hand-crank his 1909 Powers Cameragraph movie projector during his ongoing series of silent movies at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater).
In a 1925 MGM studio-tour film, there is a famous panning shot of several dozen contract cameramen hand-cranking their personal cameras that gets to the essence of what it was to be a “cameraman” in that early, pre-motor-drive era. In the memoir of early American movies One Reel a Week, pioneering director Fred J. Balshofer and cinematographer Arthur C. Miller (winner of three cinematography Oscars) talk about their early career in Fort Lee, N.J. Balshofer had begun as a cameraman, but once he trained Miller, he went on to become a prolific producer/director. Miller recounts, as did Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown in their respective memoirs, how he developed and printed his film late at night, after the day’s shooting. Reading these pioneers’ accounts makes me realize just how physically engaged making movies was in those days, a time when film was processed in small batches in hand-cranked developer tanks. (Some cameramen even perforated their film stock to circumvent the ubiquitous Edison Patents detectives.)
The history of motion-picture technology is the story of the development of ever more complex camera systems, formats and film emulsions. But in the century-long “film” era, one thing remained constant: no matter how intricate and sophisticated the cameras and lenses became, a roll of “raw stock” (unexposed film) was loaded into a magazine, threaded through the complex innards of the camera, exposed, and then developed and printed at the lab. For decades this was a secular ritual that ended with the movie crew filing into a screening room to view the previous day’s work in projection. Thus it remained until about a decade ago, when digital cinematography and digital dailies trumped the screening room and replaced it with individualized iPad or laptop viewing. Some contemporary filmmakers may ask, So what? Why should anyone wait 24 hours to watch work that can be seen in real time on the set on an array of monitors, the so-called “video village”?
But if there really were enough good reasons to abandon film cinematography, why are so many young filmmakers still eager to shoot on film, a medium more mysterious to “digital natives” than to us analog veterans? And why are so many still photographers who came of age in the digital era returning to emulsified film and the photochemical darkroom, resurrecting “obsolete” processes like Daguerreotype, wet collodion and platinum printing?
A single word might partly explain this: “process,” which means “to perform a series of mechanical or chemical operations on something in order to change or preserve it.” (A colloquial expression for developing film in the photochemical era was “to process.”)
Not everyone is in thrall to the notion of such a time-consuming, labor-intensive “process” in this age of accelerated obsolescence and disposability. But perhaps the very discipline required to work with film is a kind of sparkling lure to today’s students. To photograph with a film camera demands knowledge of basic skills in optics and photochemical sensitometry — not much, but enough to know how to “create,” not “capture,” images in motion. Understanding optical principles like f-stops, depth of field (focus) and focal length, as well as film speed, grain and exposure and how they relate to each other, is crucial to recording images onto film stock. This knowledge of the rudimentary elements of image acquisition is, of course, what we’ve historically called “cinematography”; its guiding tenets are still valid in digital photography.
Let’s look at how an image might be captured in the digital realm. At its most basic level, all you really have to do is power up the camera (assuming you have a hot battery and have removed the lens cap) and flip open the screen or look into the eyepiece. If set in default mode, the auto focus and auto exposure give the camera operator a decent-looking image. Push the record button and voila! This is a very reductive way of looking at it but not wholly inaccurate. No responsible cinema instructor would allow a student to go out into the field so ill prepared, but such a wildcat approach suits the impatient impulses of the iPhone-video, YouTube generation.
The point, it seems to me, is not to make an aesthetic case that “film” is better than or inferior to digital. Oil painting, pastels and watercolors are all different media. You are free to choose one over the other in your personal hierarchy, but your preference is only yours. So, I think, is the claim for the superiority of digital cinematography over film or vice versa. They are simply quite different modes of creative expression — executed by very different technologies, creating inherently different images.
Motion-picture film creates a sensation of animation in the eye partly through its random structure of grain; no two frames are alike. The fixed pixel array of the digital sensor, however, is inherently static, similar to a field of mosaic tile. Some prefer the animated look of film grain, whereas others prefer the clinical clarity of digital.
During a recent discussion I had with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown for a profile on him for an upcoming issue of Film Comment, he used a very succinct metaphor to describe the "organic" connection of film emulsion with the human body:
The slivery nitrates of film were congenial with the carbon chemistry of humans, and those grains still dance in our cinematic dreams.
I belong to that still-working generation of cinematographers who were bred in the film era but have, in the past 15 years, mostly used digital cameras. Perhaps we are unique in that we embrace the distinctive qualities of both media, finding that there is often reason to use both on the same project. It’s a privileged platform to stand on, and I am grateful for it.
I embraced digital filmmaking early on, in 2001, for the low-budget Fine Line feature The Anniversary Party. Since then I have alternated film and digital projects, such as The Architect (digital) and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (film), and in this decade I have watched the tide turn more and more to digital cinematography. Working in the digital realm, I find that some of the disciplines and procedures that were second nature to me with film, have, in fact, slowly fallen away. Some habits are no longer crucial when “what you see is what you get.” But that is not a very creative approach to image creation, and it is also, truth be told, a somewhat specious claim. I am mindful that “what I get” is very much informed by what I have learned from my decades of working with film. Ultimately, it’s easy for me to ignore careless catchphrases of digital cinematography, including the dubious mantra “we’ll fix it in post.” Working all those years in the discipline of film cinematography has given me respect and abiding love for that meticulous process of thinking carefully about every element that finally becomes a shot.
Recall the literary axiom: “Typing is not writing.” Turning on the camera, flipping open the screen and pushing the “record” button of a digital camera is not “cinematography.” The seamier aspect of this idea is the condescending description of digital cinematography as “data capture,” as if the work of the cinematographer and director is simply gathering raw material for the editorial and visual-effects teams to construct and manipulate. (This idea is reinforced by the fact that whereas film shots are actual photographs, albeit ones routinely scanned and loaded into the Avid, digital “images” are numeric files.)
Cinematography (film or digital), like any art or craft, is a skill that comes only by hard-earned study and practice. Learning the requisite basic elements of photochemical image creation is valuable, I think, to mastering that skill. There is tremendous satisfaction derived from knowing the history as well as the working tools and technology of any art form, and filmmaking is no exception. Thousands of artists have made great movies in the medium of film. Why should we not want to feel what it was like to walk in their shoes, even if we don’t choose to trek the Appalachian Trail in them? Knowing how to use a movie camera is its own reward. There is no need to explain further.
There is satisfaction in learning to thread a movie camera with a roll of film, setting up a shot with a full understanding of film’s characteristics, and then, finally, turning on the camera. Just look and listen as that thin strand of quivering celluloid moves from the magazine into the camera body, pauses 1/48th of a second in the gate as an actual photograph, and then disappears like a sprite up into the magazine. It is magic.
Many thanks to Matt Severson for the photographs from the collections of the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library.