Part One

It’s a rare event these days, but last weekend, after hocking a non-essential organ, we decided to go to the movies en famille. Family film nights are usually a replica event at home: dark room, popcorn, rustling sweets and a snuggle with Mrs A. whilst we argue for half an hour with the children over what to watch on Netflix. But this time we opted for the big screen and Christopher Nolan’s latest offer, Interstellar. I avoid plot spoiler websites and teaser trailers and I promise that you won’t find any here, not even a review. However, my head and body squarely above the parapet, I will claim Interstellar to be a cinematic masterpiece. This film, both story and photography, is beautiful, poignant, intelligent and epic. I recommend it without reservation and suggest it goes straight to the top of your 2014 movie bucket list.

After one hundred and sixty nine minutes of willing disbelief suspension, we paid our respects, as always, to the hard-working team of hundreds of men and women involved by staying to the end of the credits. We like to name spot, see which VFX houses were involved, locations etc… geeky, day job stuff. Whilst still in the first flush of my Interstellar experience, the final frame appeared and without the aid of 3D glasses the following statement floated out from the screen towards me; “Shot and finished on film”.

What’s this? Of the millions of cinema-goers predicted to see this film, I can’t imagine that many would give a flying fig how the images were acquired, so it was clearly a message meant to resonate with anyone inside the industry. Digital v Film is a stale bun fight but I somehow felt there was something more to this. I left the theatre intrigued by this cryptic meme and immediately researched Nolan’s Easter Egg statement online. The argument in favour of film is often portrayed as reactionary and sentimental but it didn’t take long to discover that Nolan’s stance was neither. So why the fuss? Why the declaration?

First let me list a few of the recent large studio projects shot on film; 12 Years a Slave, Captain Philips, American Hustle, and, still in production, Star Wars Episode VII. Quite a list, each one an Academy Award winner, and for the sake of argument let’s assume that Nolan’s and J.J.’s efforts with Interstellar and Star Wars will reel in nominations in 2015/16. For Nolan the argument is simple: film is the Gold Standard. His stance, with which a host of A-list filmmakers agree, is that until digital surpasses this standard and can offer substantial benefits over celluloid, he’s staying with what works.

You’ll be aware that over the last decade or so there has been a sea change in the feature and broadcast world where the primary method of image acquisition (still or moving) has shifted from traditional celluloid and silver halide crystals to digital sensors. The number of features opting for the digital route has been steadily rising and 2015 will be the tipping point where ‘Born Digital’ will be the most common workflow in feature film production. This trend follows the already established pipeline that broadcast and video production has adopted, where the economic benefits of digital acquisition are easier to quantify.

The master cinematographers and post-professionals of the big screen, whose opinions on such matters actually count for something, all agree that we should champion both tools.

The fractal beauty of film grain adored by so many, coupled with the increased possibilities for enhancement and manipulation afforded by a digital post production environment (made possible by increasingly powerful workstations) has evolved over recent years into an established and trusted workflow for feature film production; Digital Intermediate. Film – Digital – Film. This term is now more commonly used to describe the digital post production workflow of the colourist and finishing artist, but the relentless slide towards an all digital path led Nolan to speak out, and at CinemaCon 2014, he spoke eloquently about his approach to filmmaking, explaining why he doesn’t use 3D and his principle of trying to capture as much as possible in-camera rather than relying on greenscreen. When asked about his preference for film, he added, ”I’m a fan of technological innovation, but for me, it’s going to have to exceed what came before, and it hasn’t yet.”

For film, Time of Death has been called many times, but after years of silent observation Nolan finally rang the alarm when the choice to shoot film was evaporating. The cabal of Hollywood A-list directors he enlisted to the cause and their timely intervention saved both film as a format and the remaining supporting industries. Tarantino, Abrams, Nolan, Apatow and Scorsese all recognise that digital has huge advantages, but lobbied hard to retain the unique artistic qualities of film.

J.J. Abrams decision to shoot e.7 of Star Wars photo-chemically (I can barely contain myself) to match the photography of the original trilogy adds yet another authorial voice to the choir of ‘shoot it on film’ industry pros. DP Daniel Mindel worked with Abrams on previous projects such as Star Trek and Mission: Impossible III, also shot on film.

As J.J. Abrams argues, “Film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the standard goes away.”

It is a powerful message. When industry leaders speak out and say the tech isn’t quite there yet we should sit up and listen. Confused? You’re not alone. That’s not the line that the various Digital Cinema Camera manufacturers are spinning, and that’s why we should heed the checks and balances approach. Whilst Nolan hints at dark forces with vested interests driving the change in the industry, I’m not one for conspiracy theories and in business the competing forces for change v maintaining the status quo are economically driven. It’s simply a matter of perspective as to which camp is cast as the devil.

Like most sensible, right-thinking folk I’m pro choice. Credit where it’s due, thanks to the actions of Nolan and friends Born Digital won’t be Hobson’s Choice.

However, if we accept the premise that acquired on film is the Gold Standard then Houston, we have a problem. The dipole shift between the dominance of one format over another has an effect on the economies of scale. The shrinking market of film is most obviously reflected in the disappearance of photochemical labs around the globe. To put this into perspective, Kodak is the sole supplier of film stock to the major studios. Technicolor maintains a lab in the UK whilst Fotokem in California is one of the last surviving labs in the US.

I spoke to Michael Cioni, CEO of Light Iron post-production in Hollywood, following their recent acquisition by Panavision. Michael is an artist who is perfectly positioned to assess the current mood towards digital dominance and offer his own insights into this fast moving industry. In his opinion, the choice to shoot film is emotionally driven and is a perfectly natural response to the inevitable demise of film as the dominant medium of acquisition.

“What we do as humans is that as soon as we learn something is going to disappear, a person or a park or a building or a monument, what do people do? They pay attention to it. A month earlier maybe no one cared right?  But now that know something is going to change or go away for ever or disappear then they pay attention to it and they celebrate it, they celebrate the life of a person that is ending, they celebrate the place that is being demolished or transformed. That’s human nature. I believe that the surge to shoot Film is an emotional response to the acceptance of change. It’s part of the grieving process. There is no creative advantage to shooting Film in my opinion. I don’t care what anyone says. I can do with Digital everything Film can do in the acquisition arena. But I can’t change your heart, and I don’t want to. I can tech-talk anyone to death about the argument between Film and Digital but the people that have passion and love and tenderness, care and desire, there’s no technology that’s going to change that, and nor should there be! There’s nothing wrong with it. So let them shoot Film, let them enjoy this WONDERFUL format at its twilight. It will be gone forever, and it makes perfect sense to me to let people celebrate it while they still have a chance.”

Michael is pretty unequivocal about the eventual outcome for film. We may be witness to the painful yet inevitable transition from Celluloid to Digital acquisition, but until now Digital Cinema has necessarily sought to emulate the ‘look’ of Film and that, I believe, may be the root of the issue as it poses the question framed as an either/or problem. Technological advances are taking us into a realm where celluloid’s iconic properties such as resolution, gamut, response curve and dynamic range are being surpassed, but until audience and artisans alike adopt this new post-celluloid aesthetic, and as long as Nolan et al insist on shooting film the large studios will continue to keep it on life support. Which begs the question; is this now, at best, a boutique industry? Operating under such a business model it’s unlikely that the industry will have access to the same R&D resources it enjoyed in its position as the mainstream medium. Any further advancement for film stock, such as refinements to emulsions to expand dynamic range or the form factor of film cameras, is limited because of the need to pass physical film through the gate. So, if film has hit the wall then surely this signals the end for celluloid? The Digital Cinema Society Newsletter signature reads,

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the most responsive to change.” Charles Darwin

This sobering analogy with Darwin is clear to see; evolutionary pressure to change or face extinction. This applies equally to the toolkit as it does the individual tool user. James Mathers, President of the Digital Cinema Society, explains, “In a nutshell, the mission of the Digital Cinema Society is to help Filmmakers keep up with the ever-increasing pace of technological innovation. While we strive to keep up, we need to make sure that technology does not overshadow our art and ability to communicate as Storytellers. As you indicate, keeping up with the tools of our trade can feel overwhelming, but with the help of the community we can work together and all stay on track.”

We’ll hear more on this subject from James in the second part of this article, when I’ll be looking at the impact of digital workflow on the craft and the ever-expanding skillset required to create and deliver content. There will be more wisdom from Michael Cioni and DNeg’s Garry Maddison, plus Mystic Matt will be interrogating the crystal ball to discover which tech advances will be available to the filmmakers of tomorrow, regardless of capture technology, and ponder this multiverse of opportunities for cinema, TV and web-bound projects. I’ll be talking to my two favourite industry futurologists Maxim Jago, director, editor and writer, now domiciled in NYC, and consultant, academic, artist and polymath Laurence Murphy of The University of Salford @MediaCityUK, asking them to winnow out the vapour ware stories to tell us which developments are pinging on their radar. Laurence’s active research into UHD delivery over cellular networks will soon have an impact on everyone, both industry pros and consumers.

I’ll end part one with some thought provoking feedback from Laurence, who hints at why Interstellar may be a special case and is an unsustainable argument in terms of the broader industry landscape.

“Interstellar was shot using a combination of IMAX and anamorphic 35mm.
Not even Nolan can sway a whole feature shot full frame IMAX. The feature may have been shot IMAX but there are six versions on release at the moment. Only full frame IMAX can show it at full scan. It then readjusts for the 35mm originated sequences.

Whilst IMAX is great when it works, 65mm digital (or 6k) is launching this year.
Last year twin camera 65mm digital IMAX launched with Transformers. Film has more serious and more cost effective competition than ever before.

If film is still the gold standard why couldn’t Nolan shoot the whole feature in IMAX full frame? Reason, it costs too much. Nolan’s ability as a Cinema creative is unquestionable. Dark knight and Inception are in my top ten best films from the last ten years. However, in the words of Kevin Turvey (the alter ego of the late, great Rik Mayall), film technology develops at the pace of “an asthmatic slug with heavy shopping”. Digital Cinema evolves quickly and adapts to add new techniques and complexities of production, into a competitive cost effective deliverable cinema system end to end.

Abrams’ Star Wars Film look-matching argument to make Episode VII look and feel more like Episode III is a justifiable aesthetic reason, but the argument that film is just better doesn’t hold water in a modern cinema industry competing with other media for audience and market share.

Is cinema better with Nolan shooting film? Yes. Will it re-emerge as the way to deliver cinema? I really doubt it.”

We’ll hear more from Laurence in Part Two.

I’m sure you agree that we are working in exciting times, and no doubt some of you are aware of the Ace in the Hole that film still holds in reserve, but let Christopher Nolan’s intervention act as a cautionary tale to everyone as we move forward: Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. This time we came too close for comfort.


Happy New Year 🙂

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