Editorials / Features

Before the Digital Takeover: Digital Movies vs. Celluloid Films

by Hassan Alhejaili


A Love Letter to the World Film Industry:

One of the biggest fears that the world cinema is facing is the new issue of digital replacing the film print. Digital is transforming the film industry, or soon will. All the filmmaker legends used celluloid films such Ingmar Bergman, David lean, Andrei Tarkovsky, Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick. Using a print film has its own beauty as you are using a medium that been used by the world greatest film makers. For the love of film, this study explains the importance of film print versus digital technology.

Images in the Digital Age:

The mystery of film requires the creation of images. In film, images are the major tools used to create a story that enters and is absorbed into our brains. The images on the film create the illusion of life. The images move faster than the brain to present the magic of the film. The film interacts with the brain and takes the audience, both as a group and individually, to another world, a dream-like world playing out in a dark room.

Technology has had a profound impact on everyday lives which almost everything is now stored digitally in this day and age. During this period, many film scholars agree that technology has a heavy impact on cinema ever since the rise of the digital era into the history of film. This research is to assimilate and understand the essential elements as well as the critical aspects of the digital impact versus celluloid on film.



A Brief History of Motion Pictures:

In the year 1878, the magic of film started when Eadweard Muybridge created the first motion-picture projection. He captured time of a moving horse (16 frames per second) in a kinetoscope which is an early motion pictures device. Then, in 1890s William Dickinson in association with Thomas Edison opened the first movie production studio, Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange, New Jersey. Capturing light, drawing, and moving images, Thomas Edison turned them all to business in 1900.

Film devolved and used images to tell a story. In 1920s, United Artists opened first film studio with artists like Charlie Chaplin Mary Pickford Douglas Fairbanks and D.W.Griffith. Late 20s was the end of silent era and the beginning of the golden age with films like Metropolis, Un Chien Andalou, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, SunriseThe General, and Passion of Joan of Arc. In 1927, The Jazz Singer introduced sound in film. Film with sound was referred to as “the talkies.” Charlie Chaplin opposed the talkies, and mocked them in the opening of the masterpiece, City Lights. By the end of 1920s, cinema becomes a form of art with movements like Dadaism, Surrealism, Avant-garde, German Expressionism, and Italian Neorealism.

In the 1930s, Walt Disney’s released his first full-length animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The late 30s was the interdiction of television. Cameras were used for television and the film industry. By 1972, HBO begins on cable television. In the 80s, filmmakers started to use digital cameras under the name of electronic cinematography. However, in May 1999, George Lucas was the first film maker to release a successful movie using a high definition digital camera in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

The Meaning of “Digital” in Cinema:

Understanding the meaning of the “digital age” can be difficult—its meaning has changed and broadened throughout the years. Digital age involves social life and even education nowadays. To shed light on the issue, one must understand the meaning of the digital cinema, a part of the digital age. According to Charles Swartz, in the book Understanding Digital Cinema, “Digital Cinema describes the packing, distribution and exhibition of motion pictures in digital form. This term does not specify how those motion pictures are originated, produced, and finished.” Digital cinema refers to film in a digital form without looking at the production elements of the film. Digital is helpful in restoring old movies, but still the old movies were captured on a celluloid camera . This research is about the way that the images are captured on movies.

Digital Cinematography:

This study deals with the merits of film versus digital cinematography. In May 1999, George Lucas was the first filmmaker to release a successful movie using a high definition digital camera in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Slumdog Millionaire was the first digital film that won the Oscar in 2009, opening the door to many other movies.

First, we have to distinguish the differences between two important elements, such as the use of digital production on films and the use of digital cinematography in films. The use of digital production occurs when the story is filmed within a celluloid camera, and technology is used for the production aspect only. Some modern film auteurs argue that the use of digital production is helpful. For example, the modern successful auteur Wes Anderson said, “It’s easy to use digital production in things such as flip the frame and the use of the speed.”

Many major big globally filmmakers use digital production or have used it before. Filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jean Pierre Jeunet, Coen Brothers and Wes Anderson use digital production with the using of celluloid camera. Digital production actually was being used long before these film-makers by auteur Stanley Kubrick in his masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Therefore, this study makes exception for the use of digital production on films with the use of a celluloid camera. Over the last two year, films that used celluloid cinematography and digital production have been more successful critically than the movies that used digital cinematography and digital production together.

The Box Office and The Critical Response:

Films are not getting better because of the use of digital cinematography. The use of digital cameras on film has been growing over the past few years. Hollywood is increasing the use of Computer Graphic Imaging, digital special effects and advanced technology. The top box office movie hits of 2012-2013 show heavy use of digital film such as Marvel’s The Avengers, Skyfall, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2, and The Amazing Spider-Man.

Digital film making relies a great deal on pre-visualized scenes before they make them. They have a computer vision of the scene before and after they shoot it. These films, however, have failed in winning awards globally. Celluloid films gain more critical attention and praise than digital films, and are more acclaimed and recognized. According to Eastman Kodak, six of last year’s Best Picture Oscar nominees were shot on Kodak film: ArgoLincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Les Misérables. Digital cinematography has the sense that it’s not real because it isn’t, but celluloid is real and it has the sense of that.

Beasts of the Southern Wild

When The Camera Capture:
A celluloid camera capture and a digital camera capture are completely different media. They are used for similar purposes, but they themselves are completely unrelated to each other. John Bailey, when he was asked about celluloid film and digital camera, said:

“Despite the fact that I photographed four films last year on the Arri Alexa (two of which were at this year’s Sundance) I am and will be a film person until there is no film available to shoot. It is a different medium than digital by the very nature of the image capture process. The pixel array of digital is static, a fixed grid, and bears resemblance to the concept of a tile mosaic. Film grain is random, no two frames having the same structure, so it is organic, alive, vibrant. Next time you are at a digital projection walk up very close to the screen and you will see the pixels, just as when you blow up a digital photo too much.”

As a result, there are a lot of technical differences between digital and celluloid films. The nature of celluloid has more details. Celluloid film has higher resolution than digital, and the depth of celluloid is organic. Plus, In Andrea Tarkovsky’s system, the depth of images is real. The atmosphere of his images is alive just like magic. The earth, the air, the water, the fire, and the trees are magical.

stalker 1

For a Low Budget Film:

Here, we are going to examine the use of digital camera and celluloid for a small film budget. The three major focuses are the cost, the time, and the endurance (emotional effect). Each element has its own pros and cons. Celluloid is overall better than digital and certainly more artistic.

Money and management has been always an issue for a lot of filmmakers. These days, digital cameras can deal with this issue by being substantially less expensive than celluloid. The digital camera uses a small electric memory that covers all the shots and the images just in a small electronic piece that opens the door to shoot as much as you want. The memory is much more inexpensive than buying the celluloid film stock. In addition, in digital everything is stored digitally. On the other hand, celluloid is more expensive because the equipment to make a film, such as the camera and lenses, costs money. In addition, the printing of film costs money too.

The second element is the time to process the actual film. Indeed, digital is faster than celluloid. Once a film is shot in digital, it is already stored and you can view it immediately. You can even retake or reshoot it if you desire. In film, you have to wait for the print to come. You have to wait for the result. Celluloid will take more time. However, celluloid will challenge you more to think about your shoot and your artistic creation.

Waiting on film print gave me more time to rethink the editing. When I used 16mm camera on film in school, I had an idea for the beginning of the film whereby I shot it two different times. When the print came, the lighting of the shot was disappointing. It hurts a little, but the using of this shot made me change the order of the story. Ultimately I ended up with a much better result. I was happy with the end result and the new structure of the story. I didn’t change the story substantially, but I started with the second scene of the film instead of the originally planned opening.

While digital film might give us unlimited access to the images, it destroys the mystery of the film. You can watch the scene that you shot. You can edit it immediately it’s a fast satisfaction. Celluloid films are like a sweet fruit that needs a time to grow.

The Magic of Celluloid Images and the Danger of Losing the Digital Data:

Celluloid has a much greater emotional effect than digital camera. Celluloid creates a better cinematic system for the artistic work. The use of the atmosphere and the space of the imagery is like magic. Celluloid films are like a sweet fruit that needs a time to grow. Unless cost and convenience are the only focal items, celluloid film is by far better than digital. In addition, there is no negative in digital film; therefore, we may lose anything that is stored digitally. If we have no access to the computer we have no access to the movie. It is a real possibility that we could lose the digital film and it might never exist again. After one hundred years, celluloid film still lives and all you need to enjoy the film is a light bulb in a dark room.


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