The majority of movies now are filmed digitally – thanks to a major turning point in 2002 – but has this been to the benefit of the films themselves?
In the summer of 2002, over 20 years ago, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack Of The Clones was released. While undeniably financially successful, it has a somewhat spotty reputation to say the least. For many, it came to represent everything wrong with the Star Wars prequel trilogy – an overabundance of cold, computer-generated effects, combined with questionable dialogue and wooden performances.
Today, lines in the film have transcended to full meme status: “I don’t like sand,” laments Anakin Skywalker to his lover, Padme. “It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything is soft and smooth.”
It’s hardly Keats, in fairness, but while writer/director George Lucas was never a great wordsmith, he was nothing if not an innovator. After experimenting with digital recording methods for 1999’s The Phantom Menace, he fully embraced the technology for Attack Of The Clones, making it the first major blockbuster release to be shot entirely using digital cameras.
Lucas and his director of photography, David Tattersall, used brand new, state-of-the-art Sony HDW 900F cameras, which recorded high-definition footage to digital tape. The decision would have a profound impact on the whole film industry.
Lucas, Tattersall and Sony proved that digital video technology wasn’t just the domain of home movies and scrappy indies. It was now possible to shoot a big, Hollywood production – Star Wars, no less – without touching a roll of celluloid. Say what you will about its love story, but it’s hard to deny that Attack Of The Clones looks the part.
Digital technology has swept across Hollywood in the subsequent two decades. In 2009, Anthony Dod Mantle became the first person to win a cinematography Oscar after shooting on digital (for Slumdog Millionaire). 2013 was the first year where, of the top 200 grossing live-action films, more were shot digitally than on film – a mere 11 years after Clones. Last year , all but one of the Oscars’ cinematography nominations went to films shot entirely digitally.
At times, the rise of digital has been seen as a battle, with deep encampments on both sides. In 2011, Christopher Nolan invited a group of big-name directors to watch the first six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises. Really, the point of the gathering was for him to argue for the continued use of analogue formats. The lines in the sand, apparently, were drawn. “There is a war raging in Hollywood,” declared LA Weekly. “A war between formats.”
But sometimes it can be hard to understand what all the fuss is about. Most moviegoers have no idea about the difference in formats, and simply don’t care. Audiences usually don’t want to think about the technicalities of the camera when at the cinema. For a layperson, digital filmmaking has not had an obvious aesthetic impact – in that respect, it’s nothing like the transition from silent to sound, or black and white to colour. So why is it such a fiercely debated topic?
One reason often given is that film stock has a certain ‘look’ that digital struggles to replicate (even if most moviegoers have no idea what this is). Last year’s The Batman was shot digitally, then printed on film, then re-scanned to digital, to achieve an apparently authentic 1970s neo-noir feel. J.J. Abrams, whose Star Wars sequels were shot on 35mm, said that “you just know when you’re looking at something shot on film, there’s a reality to it – you just can’t deny it.”
Nolan put it more bluntly: “film has tremendous balls… Film is oak, digital is plywood.”
Increasingly, evidence is mounting that disputes claims like these. In 2019 Steve Yedlin, a cinematographer most famous for his work with Rian Johnson (Knives Out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi), created a little video he called the ‘Display Prep Demo’: a series of pairs of shots, one captured using a 35mm film camera, and one using a high-end digital machine. Yedlin showed this to an audience of industry professionals, with clear results: it was impossible to determine which was which. Film’s mysterious, inimitable visual quality could be a myth.
Yedlin’s point is not to strike back at the Nolan camp, it’s to change the way we think about the camera. He believes the camera doesn’t create the look of the film – that’s the result of a series of artistic choices made at all stages of the image-making pipeline.
One of these is the choice of film stock, with the stocks themselves being designed by creative people. But the camera is simply a device for recording data, and whether that data goes onto a roll of film or a hard drive is moot. The ‘look’ of the final image is decided by the people making the film, not the camera. The proof is in the pudding: Knives Out has a far more 'classic’ look , with its grainy, warm aesthetic, than Tenet's smooth, modern spectacle. But Knives Out was shot on digital, and Tenet was all film.
Director of photography David Raedeker shot The Souvenir and The Souvenir Part II using a mixture of analogue and digital formats. He’s keen to emphasise that, in many ways, film and digital have converged.
“Film stocks nowadays are quite similar to digital. It’s not like the old days,” he tells me. “The colour depth on digital is as good as film now – objectively, they are as good as each other.” Most film processing now also begins with simply scanning the film in digitally. “Apart from the recording, everything is digital,” Raedeker notes.
So why bother shooting on different formats at all?
There’s another side to the discussion: not what it looks like to the audience, but how it feels for the crew. Raedeker knows that the technical visual difference between formats can be slim, but that’s not the point. “For me, the ‘look’ is a really small difference. It’s much more about what’s going on behind the camera.”
In short, a film crew working with a tactile, physical medium seems to behave differently to one working with ones and zeroes. “There’s this kind of concreteness with film. Everybody knows something is running through the gate, it’s something very physical. The loader chucks the last bits in the bin and everybody sees that… It’s quite basic.”
The nostalgia about celluloid, then, perhaps comes less from the way it looks and more from the way it feels to work with. The presence of a physical medium can ground the crew in something concrete, engendering a more collaborative, focused atmosphere.
This isn’t surprising: surveys suggest that jobs involving physical labour are roughly twice as rewarding as non-physical roles. It could be that the physical aspect of shooting film makes it simply more enjoyable for the crew, which would explain why so many industry professionals are fighting to keep it alive.
This might all seem overly romantic – especially to producers, who would have to spend vast sums on film stock just to keep their crews a little happier. But that’s not really the point. “There’s a relationship when I film the actors – I influence them as well; I’m the audience in that moment,” Raedeker says. “Maybe it’s my imagination, but it just feels very different to shoot on film. The actors have a different awareness.”
Perhaps the format is important to the film, but in a more nuanced way than just through grain or sharpness. “The ‘look’ is also the performance, the feel and the atmosphere of the piece. There’s always a connection between the content of what you’re filming and how it’s done. Form follows the content, or whatever you want to say. And then it’s feeding back, going the other way.”
Director of photography Andrew Dunn, whose credits across over 40 years range from The Bodyguard and Gosford Park to Hot Rod and Downton Abbey: A New Era, has worked on both sides of the digital revolution. He agrees that shooting film brings a certain intangible delight to the filmmaking process.
“There’s a moment in the theatre when the curtains open and the performance starts, and I think on film there’s a certain excitement about the curtain opening.”
But he’s also aware that digital brings its own benefits. In 2003, Dunn shot The Company with Robert Altman digitally. This meant that they could shoot longer takes than was possible with film. “Altman would create a situation and then give the actors freedom to move and do what they like within that, without the discipline of a length of a roll of film,” Dunn recalls. “It was a benefit to him.”
Another benefit is the low cost of digital video, which allowed The Lonely Island comedy troupe to build an online following, which eventually led to Hot Rod.
“They wouldn’t have got going if it hadn’t been for the digital revolution. And you can call it a revolution,” Dunn stresses. “Digital opens up the world to people who otherwise may not have got a chance.”
There are other practical conveniences of digital. Everyone in the crew can have a monitor that shows, in high-definition, exactly what’s being recorded. “From a craft point of view, it’s a huge difference,” says Raedeker. “Every department can see exactly what they’re getting.”
Digital doesn’t get scratched, and it doesn’t burn, and it lessens the environmental impact that film stock can have. But for a creative, or indeed for a film fan, these are pretty quotidian arguments: there are no awards for convenience or cost-effectiveness, and it’s rare to hear anyone argue for the visual qualities specific to digital in the way that film is fetishised.
Why is this still the case when, as Yedlin illustrated, the visual differences between film and digital can be pretty much eliminated? Well, it’s hardly surprising that Kodak, which has been in the business for well over a century, makes film stocks that look good. A digital sensor is a much more passive observer. “Film naturally has a third dimension, whereas digital wants to be two-dimensional and flat,” says Dunn. “So through lighting, choice of lenses, what we can do in post, we’re constantly trying to get another dimension to it.”
This isn’t a bad thing. With the new possibilities offered by digital technology, Dunn suggests there may be creative freedom. “You can look at it on the set and say ‘I think we can actually push this further. I think we can go hotter in the background, more flare, less focus…’ because you’re seeing the image there and then.”
There are also more options in post-production. “There are more tools at your disposal to play with the image in post. On film you can alter the colour a little bit, you can alter the density a little bit, but you can’t really alter the contrast and other things.”
These sorts of freedoms open up a wealth of creative opportunities for filmmakers using both formats. Take The Souvenir as an example. Raedeker says “It was supposed to be a montage of different textures and formats to reflect the different stages our main character was in. Her relationship with her lover didn’t go anywhere – it was kind of stuck. And so that rigidity seemed to be more fitting for digital.”
These are nuanced artistic choices that transcend a simple question of convenience or superiority. “You just have to see what the format does to you; and not just visually, on a much broader scale. It might be very personal.”
End of the story
In the two decades since Attack Of The Clones, the fundamentals of filmmaking haven’t changed. “What we do is tell stories,” says Dunn. “And I just use this thing – a camera – and it’s a means for us to tell a story. From the Lonely Island guys on Hot Rod to Julian Fellowes and Robert Altman on Gosford Park, it’s all about storytelling.”
This hasn’t changed for all of human history, whether we’re scratching woolly mammoths on a cave wall or projecting an army of clones onto a cinema screen.
“What really counts is something else,” says Raedeker. “At the end of the day, people want to be entertained.”
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