Film is Dead! Long Live Digital Photography

As far as I’m concerned, it’s official. You can get just as good a picture shooting with a digital camera as you can with 35mm film. Maybe better.

This afternoon I attended a press screening of an independent drama called Valley of the Heart’s Delight (I’ll post my review a little closer to the film’s 10/26 release). Early in the movie, I was struck by the fine, nearly grainless detail in the image. 35mm film rarely looks this good (and it was film; a projection error made that obvious). I figured that the print was probably made directly off the camera negative, which would explain why it looked better than most commercial prints.

Imagine my surprise, at the end, to discover it was shot digitally with a Sony HDW-F900 camera.

I want to emphasize that this was a beautifully shot film, winner of the Best Cinematography Award at the 2006 Boston International Film Festival. It’s filled with atmosphere, including a lot of night exteriors shot with a nourish flavor. All the more remarkable, it’s a low-budget period piece set in 1933, shot in 26 days in Bay Area locations.

During a Q&A session after the film, I asked cinematographer Hiro Narita about shooting digitally. “I loved it,” he responded. He also talked about the difference between watching it on high-def as opposed to on film (as we saw it). “It has an incredible clarity [on hi-def]…Some people who object to the video look like the film version. The two are quite different.” He said he liked them both.

Aside from an artist’s preference for the tools he or she already knows (as a writer who refuses to upgrade to Word 2007, I understand that sentiment), I can’t think of any reason to shoot on film.

2 thoughts on “Film is Dead! Long Live Digital Photography

  1. today i had the opportunity to see this (on film), so i thought i’d respond.

    certainly, video can look good, even if, imo, it rarely does. but when talking about the quality of film vs. video, the issue can’t really be boiled down to “better” or “worse”. they are different, and the key to using them well is to acknowledge their differences.

    i thought valley of the heart’s delight looked very much like video. some tells: the harsh highlights, the pasty fleshtones, the excessive contrast, the limited color gradations, the lack (yes, lack!) of organic detail in otherwise sharp-looking imagery, the noise in the low-light scenes. the cars looked quite good, but insofar as the movie tried, disingenuously, to look like film, i thought it failed.

    of course, the prevalence of digital intermediates in production these days (and the huge runs of high-speed prints) ensures that most films shot on film fail to look as filmic as they should.

    some recent good-looking shot-on-video movies: quinceanera, the quiet, mana: beyond belief. these, i felt, accepted the limitations of their medium and found a good look.

    but there is something special about the way film naturally responds to light that so far no manifestation of video can satisfactorily simulate. even if it could, the ontological fact that film is a physical trace, a direct record, and the consequent epistemic conviction that film engenders do not carry over to video.

    you close by saying “Aside from an artist’s preference for the tools he or she already knows, I can’t think of any reason to shoot on film.” that is a big aside. most art arises out of an encounter, an engagement between the artist, his tools, and his surroundings. the practice of art has always required an intimacy with the tools of art. in the 20th century, this relationship has been questioned and renegotiated, and arguably digital artists strive to efface it. this is certainly legitimate, but it’s a huge departure from working with film. as the world tends towards a digital monoculture, we need to ensure that other modes of working continue to flourish.

  2. One reason to shoot film, mentioned by the DP of “Benjamin Buttons” is speed. The exteriors of that movie were shot on film. Evening out the light, when presented with contrasty exterior takes time. Film has better exposure latitude to handle that situation. .

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