How many theatrical features are still shot on physical film? Judging from my own survey, about a third of them.
Back in 2012, my first survey found 14 films shot digitally and 13 shot on film. By 2015, 20 films were shot digitally, and eight – a little more than a third – on film.
This year, 16 were shot digitally, and seven on film. One movie, Doctor Strange, used a combination of both formats. Four others were disqualified because I couldn’t easily find out how they were shot.
My rules were reasonably simple: I started with the Internet Movie Database’s list of films screening in my area. I disqualified animated films and documentaries, because shooting them on film seems almost absurd these days. I also disqualified films dated any year except 2016.
I checked each qualified film’s IMDB Technical Specs page to find out how it was shot. As I mentioned above, four of them lacked the technical information needed.
Why do directors and cinematographers still choose physical film, despite digital’s considerable practical advantages? It’s been years now since digital surpassed film in resolution and dynamic range. But many prefer a film “look.” Also, some artists prefer to stick to the tools they know. In the documentary Picasso and Braque Go to the Movies, Martin Scorsese explains that he “understands” film, but not digital.
Filmmakers might also choose physical film for a period piece on the grounds that a movie set in the 1960s should look like a movie made in the 1960s. Four of the seven shot-on-film movies in my survey (Fences, Jackie, Hidden Figures, and Loving) were set in the 1950s and/or 60s. Another, La La Land, while set in the present, was clearly an homage to the Allen Freed MGM musicals of the 1950s. (Jackie, by the way, was shot in 16mm – a low-cost film format that has gained considerable image quality thanks to digital blow-ups.)
On the other hand, Woody Allen’s Café Society, set in the 1930s and ’40s, and Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, set in the 1950s and ’60s, were both shot digitally – a first for both of these directors.
It appears that physical film isn’t going away yet – at least as a production format. As a fan of both film and digital, I’m glad that filmmakers have a choice.