Of all the areas of the film industry, cinematography has perhaps been the most impacted by the advent of digital technology. Not only is it the most apparent change due to its visibility, but also due to the controversies and debates it has sparked in recent decades. This is mostly due to the decline in use of 35mm film cameras thanks to the preferred use of digital ones.
Thanks to digital technology, cinematography has evolved greatly between the 1990s and the present day. 90’s cinema was captured on “real” celluloid film, whilst most modern films are captured or even rendered entirely through digital means. George Lucas’ Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was seen as the turning point in this transition, as it was one of the first major feature films to employ the use of digital camera technology, putting celluloid film to one side. Lucas has been seen as almost a pioneer into the digital fray, beginning with principal photography in Attack of the Clones in 2000, and with having a helping hand in Robert Rodriguez’s Once Upon A Time in Mexico in 2001 which was shot with a Sony HDW-F900 camera in 24 frame-per-second high definition digital video.
Avatar (2009) is a landmark when considering digital technology. Almost all of the movie is entirely rendered on computers and wouldn’t have been achievable without heavy use of CGI, and has become the second-highest grossing movie in the history of cinema, a fact that bodes well for the case of digital cinematography, as did Slumdog Millionaire becoming the first mainly digitally shot film to earn the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. In coming years, the digital movement took even further steps, with films such as Martin Scorecesse’s The Wolf of Wall Street becoming the first major feature film to be distributed entirely digitally.
The rise in popularity of digital is partly due to its ability to more easily integrate special effects, such as the aforementioned CGI in digitally rendered films. Some believe that the rise in digital cinema is not a change to be feared but a resource to be cherished, such as director James Cameron who relishes the opportunity to add a spark of digital magic to his films. Esquire’s Nancy Griffin recalls visiting Cameron during the process of editing Titanic in 1997 and wrote that he was “massaging Titanic to life” and that his digital editing system was an “extension of his imagination, allowing him to orchestrate his vision like a conductor”. In truth, digital holds a lot more possibilities for the future of cinema and made the entire filmmaking process much more streamlined and capable. George Lucas himself stated of digital, “It makes the medium much more malleable, you can make a lot of changes. You can cut and paste and move things around, and think in a more fluid style – I love that… I don’t think I’d ever go back to analogue… It’s too cumbersome, too slow… It would be like going back and scratching things on rocks!”
Clearly Lucas’s attitude is one on the extreme end of the scale. His willingness to leave film behind and consider it a product of a by-gone age is an example of the mindset that some directors – and not necessarily young or modern ones – already have. In fact, only a handful of famous directors remain that still prefer celluloid to digital, such as Quentin Tarantino and Christopher Nolan. The instantaneous nature of digital means less waiting is required and production can move faster, as the factor of waiting for film to develop doesn’t come into the equation. This, combined with its “malleable” and more constructive nature, would seem to put digital miles ahead of its celluloid ancestry. If that was the case though, why hasn’t regular film already become extinct?
Mainly, because digital isn’t all just advantages. As Tarantino and Nolan have made very clear, the world of digital cinema can leave much to be desired. In terms of aesthetics, digital cameras are slightly less interesting than film cameras. The grain of film has always been an identifiable trait of cinema and has come to be an aesthetic that many cinephiles love. The crisp, clear nature of films shot on digital cameras risks losing some of the artistry of older films as it gives it a very polished and sometimes artificial feel, especially in quickly-made franchise movies such as Marvel or those in the superhero genre. The colour is also usually restricted to hues of blue or orange due to their ability to capture light, but with celluloid cameras, a much larger range of colours can be captured giving a vaster array of looks for a picture. Digital cameras are also considerably more expensive due to film cameras, and in some cases the cost of this can outweigh the benefits of not having to pay to develop film. Tarantino is a self-confessed film “purist” and is on the opposite side of the spectrum to Lucas, arguing that film shot through digitally cameras technically isn’t real film and is basically public television, “As far as I’m concerned, digital projection is the death of cinema,” Tarantino has said. “The fact that most films aren’t presented in 35mm means that the world is lost. Digital projection is just television in cinema.” He did admit, however, that with digital, “A young person can make a film on a cell phone… They can actually make a movie, and they can be legit. Back in my day, you at least needed 16mm… that was a Mount Everest most of us couldn’t climb.”
While it’s clear that the digital form of filmmaking has taking the cinematic world by storm, its impact is still ongoing. While both sides have their pros and cons it can’t be denied that beautiful and memorable films have been shot on both film stock and digital film, posing the question of why both styles of cinematography can’t exist together in an ever growing and changing industry?
<Nigel M Smith. “Quentin Tarantino Blasts Digital Projection at Cannes: ‘It’s the death of cinema’.” Indiewire. May 23rd, 2014. Accessed April 29th, 2016. http://www.indiewire.com/article/quentin-tarantino-blasts-digital-projection-at-cannes-its-the-death-of-cinema/.>
An article on Quentin Tarantino’s strong feelings towards digital cinema.
<Simon Reynolds. “Tarantino Can’t Stand Digital Filmmaking.” Digital Spy. November 30, 2012. Accessed March 07, 2016. http://www.digitalspy.com/movies/news/a441960/quentin-tarantino-i-cant-stand-digital-filmmaking-its-tv-in-public/.>
Kapell, M.W. and McVeigh, S. (eds.) (2011) The Films of James Cameron. North Carolina: McFarland and Company.
Baxter, J. (1993) George Lucas: A Biography. Great Britain: Harper Collins Publishers.
<Wikipedia. 2016. Digital Cinematography. [ONLINE] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_cinematography. [Accessed 1 May 2016].>