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Film 40, 2013 Back to Reports & survey Listing

As the growth of digital cinematography increasingly pushes film to the margins of production, some DoPs still argue for the importance of retaining film as a format. David Wood reports

One of the major ongoing debates in features is the demise of film as a medium and the growth of digital cinematography. Although some of the biggest features continue to be shot on film – including Oscar-winning Les Miserables and Lincoln – the growth in digital acquisition using cameras such as the Arri Alexa is raising concerns amongst cinematographers that film as a medium may be living on borrowed time.

Although many cinematographers still argue that the combination of grain and the colour saturation in the latest film stocks gives them unrivalled potential as a visual medium, the reality is that the vast majority of features are now shot on digital cinematography cameras.

One important reason for the rise of digital is the significant practical advantages of digital acquisition, advantages that appeal particularly to producers who hold the purse strings. 

One key benefit is that digital can speed up production and save money. Digital rushes can quickly be given an on set grade to give an immediate approximation of what the final pictures will look like. In addition, digital film camera sensors work particularly well in low light, making them a must on films with a lot of night exterior shooting and poorly lit scenes. Also the increasing number of films that involve complicated vfx work tend to be shot digitally because it enables more practical and cost effective workflows.

Features that involve a lot of portraiture, on the other hand, tend to be shot on film because it has a reputation for handling human skin tones.

Cinematographer and president of the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC) John De Borman (Quartet, The Full Monty) insists that in a perfect world there would be room for both mediums. “It’s not film or digital – it’s film and digital,” he insists.

“Both formats have positives and I have been working very hard at the BSC to make clear that it’s not either or, a battle between the two. The anamorphic possibilities of film, 8mm, 16mm and 35mm formats are all worth fighting for,” insists De Borman, who shot Quartet and his latest feature Half of a Yellow Sun on film because both projects were suited to the medium.

“It’s horses for courses. In fact, there’s no reason why you can’t shoot your portraiture sequences on film, and use digital cinema cameras for night or thriller sequences in the same feature. It doesn’t happen this way at the moment but it might be much better if we could persuade producers to  use cameras this way.”

Colourists at UK post houses which major in film grading such as Molinare and The Mill note that while the debate over film and digital rages on, at a practical level most of the material they see is shot on digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa, which was Roger Deakins’ choice on the vfx heavy Bond film Skyfall.

Prime Focus colourist Alex Gascoigne argues that while film will continue to have its place, with DPs such as Wally Pfister (The Dark Knight Rises) continuing to fly the flag for film-originated cinematography, it will become harder to justify the cost as technology continues to advance. “That’s why one of the most common request from directors and DPs in the grade these days is “How can I make this look like film?,” 
reveals Gascoigne.

Already notable DPs such as Ed Wild, Sam McCurdy, David Katznelson, Dick Pope, and Chris Seager have embraced digital and are pushing it as far as it can go, notes Asa Shoul, film colourist at Molinare. “British crime thriller Welcome to the Punch is a film destined to be talked about all year in cinematography circles for Wild’s “neon noir” look,” says Shoul. “So while some DPs are still trying to make digital match their film stocks, others are embracing its own qualities and using it as a new stock. 
As the digitally shot image has no grain and very little noise, you can introduce more contrast in the grade and so punchier and more saturated looks are possible.”

De Borman adds: “This sharper look certainly suits thrillers, sci-fi and factual features in areas such as as natural history where you want the clarity that digital offers.”

Whether shooting on film or digital the fundamental skills that make a great cinematographer haven’t changed much, says De Borman. “Lighting and composition are key, but you also have to be good at collaboration, communication and expressing oneself both verbally and visually. Visual interpretation is also very important. It’s all about being able to visualise a script. With a good cinematographer you can turn down the sound on a film and get the gist of what is happening. It’s not just about technical skills. It’s about understanding what images say to people.”

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