How Many Films are Still Shot on Film

When I tell people who work in technology, but not in cinema, that most professional, theatrical movies are still shot on film, they find that shocking. It seems counterintuitive.

Well, of course most filmmakers still shoot on film. It looks better–whether it’s projected on film or digital.

Or do they? And does it really look better?

Since I’m not Karl Rove, I decided to test my assumption against reality. And reality won. The fact is that, based on a quick survey, more current films are shot digitally. Depending on how you count them, it could be a lot more films.

To find out, I checked out movies listed as playing "near you" by IMDb, going to each film’s Full Technical Specs page to see how they were shot. The "near you" page lists 50 films, but I only counted 34 in the survey. Why? Since I wanted a snapshot of new films, I skipped those dated earlier than 2012. Others I skipped because their IMDb page lacked technical specs.

I came out with 21 films shot digitally, and only 13 shot on film. That’s nearly two thirds of the pictures shot digitally.

On the other hand, those 21 digitally-shot movies included four animated pictures, two live action ones shot in 3D, and one "found footage" mockumentary. Since it’s pretty much unthinkable to shoot any of these genres on film these days, perhaps they should be disqualified. The filmmakers really didn’t have a choice to shoot them on film.

If we consider only pictures that might have been shot on film, the numbers become much more even–14 shot digitally vs. 13 shot on film. Nate Silver would probably tell you that, considering the small sample size, this is a statistical tie.

Does the change bother me? No. It’s inevitable, and as digital cameras improve, the differences become irrelevant. I saw Skyfall a couple of nights ago, sitting close to the screen at the Cerrito. It looked gorgeous. I only discovered afterwards that it was shot with the Arri Alexa–a digital camera. This isn’t the first time that I’ve seen what I assumed was film, and later discovered was the Alexa.

If digital looks this good, I have no complaints.