December 30, 2012 by Ian Goldstein
Without much fanfare, we are currently witnessing a sea change in American cinema. Movies, which were captured and projected on physical film since their inception, are increasingly being shot and shown digitally. This is probably the most significant cinematic revolution since sound films replaced silents in the late 1920s and color replaced black and white in the 1960s.
Many of 2012’s highest-grossing films, including The Avengers, Skyfall, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, were captured with digital cameras, and the number of these films is increasing every year. New cameras such as the Red Epic and the Arri Alexa are disrupting Panavision’s monopoly and gaining adherents among cinematographers who were previously loyal to 35mm film.
The switch to digital projection is happening even faster. More than half of screens in the United States are already digital, and news outlets have reported that studios will stop distributing film prints by the end of 2013, forcing theaters to either go digital or close their doors. The local theaters I frequent have already abandoned film; most did so with no media announcement or even signs in the lobby.
My feelings about the film-to-digital switchover are decidedly mixed. Digital projection has a number of advantages over film, and it’s easy to see why so many distributors and theaters have jumped on the bandwagon. Digital projectors don’t have shutters and are hence flicker-free. In my experience, their pictures are invariably sharply focused, which is sadly not the case with film. And unlike 35mm prints, digital films do not degrade after many showings.
Digital distribution is much cheaper — it’s more efficient to copy a file onto hard drives and ship them to theaters than to print and ship thousands of reels of heavy film. When Internet connections are fast enough, the need for physical shipments will disappear entirely. Digital cinema is also well suited to 3D projection and higher frame rates (as with The Hobbit).
The advantages of digital cinematography are also obvious. Film stock is expensive (over $600 for 1000 feet, or eleven minutes) and film cameras are bulky; bits and bytes cost little and digital cameras are small and portable. Digital “footage” (a soon-to-be-anachronistic term) can be viewed immediately, whereas dailies must be developed overnight. Now that digital technology has improved to the point where it can arguably match film’s resolution and dynamic range, the economic and efficiency advantages cannot be ignored.
Nevertheless, I can’t help feeling nostalgic and mournful about the demise of 35mm film. A longstanding medium of art and entertainment is disappearing. Film has a distinctive grain, color palette, and flicker, and not all digital movies can mimic it — nor do they try. Seeing the blurry, green APPROPRIATE AUDIENCES banner appear and then (hopefully) be adjusted into focus is more exciting than the abrupt switch-on of a digital projector; the whir of 35mm film is more evocative than the sterile cooling-fan sound of digital. Some film purists still insist that 35mm quality is still superior to pixels, but their voices are being drowned out by the movie studios’ inexorable march.
The advent of digital projection is presenting serious challenges for independent movie theaters, which lack the financial capital of the major chains. Digital systems cost about $75,000 per screen, money that cinemas with small budgets will need to produce just to remain open once studios stop distributing 35mm prints. The cost is especially onerous for drive-ins, family businesses that only operate for part of the year. Movie studios should either keep the film option available or help defray the costs of conversion, for it would be a shame if more independent theaters — already a rare breed — have to close.
Perhaps the saddest thing about the end of film is how little attention it’s getting. I wonder whether the average moviegoer even notices the change. Many viewers don’t know the difference between 2K and 4K projection formats, so theaters that install inferior 2K systems face few commercial repercussions.
Film projection will survive at colleges and historical archives, but it will be scarce elsewhere. I find it bizarre that a few decades from now, people my age will be telling youngsters that “In my day, movies were shown on celluloid film at twenty-four frames per second, with thousands of feet moving through the projector,” which will no doubt be met with incredulous glances. I now cherish every movie I see on film, such as a recent showing of It’s a Wonderful Life at a John Eberson movie palace. I also know that my 35mm trailer reel of Mission: Impossible III will remain a prized possession.
For further information on this topic, I highly recommend the 2012 documentary Side by Side, produced and narrated by Keanu Reeves. The movie, which I ironically saw on a fairly low-resolution digital projector, provides a fascinating history of the steady penetration of digital processes into filmmaking, starting with editing, color timing, sound, and special effects. It also explains how new digital technologies can rival film’s image quality and features interviews with digital boosters (James Cameron, George Lucas, et al.) as well as film die-hards (Christopher Nolan). The documentary deserves a wide viewership; the fact that it barely got a theatrical release should be a scandal.