The Battle That Never Was | The Separation of Film and Digital

For over a decade a fiery film vs digital debate raged among both creative and technical professionals in the motion picture industry. In recent years this fire has all but reduced to cooling embers, barely glowing as the debate itself has ceased to command any real meaning.


For over a decade a fiery film vs digital debate raged among both creative and technical professionals in the motion picture industry. In recent years this fire has all but reduced to cooling embers, barely glowing as the debate itself has ceased to command any real meaning.

This is the result of some interesting and unexpected twists and turns, some, in retrospect now seem inevitable, although not too long ago the outcome was far more difficult to predict.

Those of you who know me and have followed my writing over the years will know that this is one of my favourite subjects. I find it absolutely fascinating, not just because of the technological arguments, but even more because of the sociological and cultural changes that have taken place.

As I walk past rows of the latest UHD TV’s it’s clear that our brains have been rewired for the “digital look”, despite all of digital cinema’s efforts to achieve the “film look”.

The Battle That Never Was – The Separation of Film and Digital

Film has reigned as the supreme and unchallenged medium of the motion picture for more than a century. It is technical, expensive and the pride of what is often considered to be “the old guard”. Things have changed a lot in recent years, even in Hollywood but at one time, not too long ago, these were the protectionist elite, those in command of the largest studio budgets who looked down in superiority on anyone who dared to stare back up at them. They occupied and defended this territory from great heights atop an impenetrable wall that was (and still is) Hollywood’s studio system. They were the gatekeepers.

Digital 35mm however, is the young and rebellious child of DV (Digital Video), and grandchild of analogue video (and television) before it. It is new, energetic and accessible. Born with sights set firmly on taking down this wall, and levelling the playing field, it grew in strength with every leap in technical and creative advancement.

The Gold Standard

One thing was universally accepted by everyone, at least in the beginning, and that was the fact 35mm film set the gold standard. Digital technology would have to meet this standard if it had any hope of competing artistically or commercially. This is why Hollywood’s answer to a standards committee for digital cinema (Digital Cinema Initiatives, or DCI) set the bar for digital, and the bar was based on meeting or exceeding film.

It was a tough challenge to set.

First off, super 35mm film provides a much larger imaging area than the comparatively tiny broadcast sensors found in video cameras at the time. The larger area played an important role in the optical characteristics of the film aesthetic. This would require any true digital cinema camera to shed the beam splitter and individual CCD’s of the broadcast camera and take on a single, super 35mm size imager.

Secondly, film is exposed by a mechanical rotating shutter at a 24fps standard frame rate. This shutter travels across the film gate very quickly, leaving the entire frame exposed in its entirety for most of the exposure. Digital “film” would have to shed the interlaced line by line read-out and take on progressive scan capabilities at 24fps, not 25fps or 29.97fps of PAL or NTSC video standards.

Of course, I have not mentioned here the challenges at that time of overall image resolution, and of course a massive discrepancy in dynamic range which digital has only matched in the past two years.

Film commanded the high ground, unmatched in overall quality and access to traditional resources, but the promise of digital 35mm captured the hearts, minds and imagination of an entire generation of would-be storytellers and creatives hungry for more.

Digital film was set to become bigger than anyone realised at the time. The scene was set for the revolution and battle to come.

Viva La Revolution!

The very first Digital 35mm guerilla fighters were equipped with the first super 35mm optical adaptors for standard definition prosumer camcorders, such as the infamous Mini35 and Pro35 made by P+S Technik. Shooting DV to tape, the Panasonic DVX100 was the weapon of choice. So much grass roots support grew from these oddball camera/adaptor/cine optics combinations that online forums swelled with independent filmmakers tired of being limited to consumer grade video imagery. Some of the most prominent industry leaders today are the rebellious users and creators of these independent forums of the late 90’s and early 2000’s.

Digital 35mm… and Digital Cinema as a whole achieved a critical mass when two things occurred.

Hollywood and Video Camera Manufacturers Wake Up

In 1999 George Lucas teamed up with Sony to create the first Sony CineAlta camera. The Sony HDW-F900 was effectively a 24P capable, 2/3″ CCD HD camera optimised for standard cine accessories and Panavision’s specially designed “Primo” digital cine lenses. Star Wars episode II: Attack of the Clones is widely regarded as the first mainstream Hollywood feature to be shot digitally.

The Sony HDW-F900 and more advanced F950 (subsequently used to shoot Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith) were however still rather compromised and early crossovers from what was essentially still an HD broadcast camera system.

However, it was a totally unknown name to the industry that invented the true digital cine camera as we know it today. In 2003 a company known for its medical imaging devices, DALSA corporation, launched a monster of a camera system called the Origin.

The DALSA Origin did everything a digital cinema camera needed to do, it featured a single super 35mm CMOS imager with a Bayer color filter array, and output 16-bit RAW image data to an attached storage subsystem. The Origin delivered about 13 stops of dynamic range.

RED Digital Cinema was founded in 2005 by Jim Jannard, who had previously started Oakley, and a team of then prevalent users and enthusiasts with a vision for the digital future of cinema and an entrepreneurial spirit. One of these was Jarred Land, who currently runs RED Digital Cinema, and had previously set up none other than the hugely significant DVXUser forum, dedicated to users of the aforementioned Panasonic DVX100 camera.

In this period Silicon Imaging launched the digital super 16mm camera, the SI-2K recording over Ethernet in the increasingly popular CineformRAW. Arri also launched its super 35mm D-20 platform in 2005, replaced by the D-21 in 2008.

These were mostly new players, and apart from Sony essentially modifying its existing broadcast based HD camera technology in its CineAlta line, the uptake from the traditional established camera manufacturers was somewhat slow.

However, in the years that passed following the success of RED Digital Cinema’s first camera, the RED One, we’ve seen everyone else join the fray.

The rest as we all know, is history.

The Battle That Wasn’t

Where once it looked like two heavyweight fighters would bout to the death, leaving only one victorious, the actual outcome is not nearly so clean cut.

It has taken many by surprise in recent years, myself included to see the two technologies (and associated aesthetics) separate to their respective sides of the ring and take the gloves off.

Kodak’s high tech Vision 3 emulsions represent the absolute pinnacle of film technology, with higher than ever dynamic range, fine grain and well matched imaging characteristics across all film speeds. These are the world’s most advanced camera negative film stocks designed for optimal performance in today’s high resolution scanners, perfect for digital intermediate workflows. Equally the last generation of Arri and Panavision film cameras represent the most reliable, user friendly and precision engineered cameras ever designed.

However, it wasn’t enough to resist the global demand by independent filmmakers outside of Hollywood’s stronghold, and the commercial potential in direct user (owner/operator) camera sales that manufacturers finally recognised. It is the combination of growing demand (insatiable appetite actually) for new camera tech and ever cheaper supply by manufacturers that has fuelled nearly unstoppable advancements in digital imaging and fierce competition.

Digital imaging technologies have now met and surpassed film in every critical aspect, every aspect but one.

It’s Still Not Film

Despite everything, all the advancements in resolution and dynamic range, sensitivity and color science, the digital image doesn’t and never will look exactly like film.

There is no battle for technical or aesthetic superiority because the two mediums have in fact now evolved past each other.

The Economic Battle

Economically, digital acquisition has of course taken the majority share of high-end television and feature films that would been shot on film in the past, but in most cases it’s been a choice of economic reality, not of technical superiority.

Film will always be film, and we’ve seen a real push by some of Hollywood’s most respected heavyweight directors to shoot film, both 35mm and even 70mm, a format so vastly uneconomical many considered it dead forever.

The future of these two mediums is now one of different visual aesthetic and purpose. Film will still be chosen by some who value its unmatched visual charisma and beauty for as long as Kodak consider it viable to manufacture. Many can’t and won’t ever be able to afford that choice, and so digital acquisition has replaced film for almost all of the imagery we are subject to daily.

This has permanently altered our perception and experience of the moving image, especially for an entire generation now coming of age that may have viewed very little if any imagery that was originated on film.

The crisp, clean, hyper resolution world of UltraHD and beyond is the new standard, the new normal visual aesthetic for the moving image.

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2 thoughts on “The Battle That Never Was | The Separation of Film and Digital”

  1. Yes, I think many do, especially those who grew up with it. For the younger generation, I’m not sure they know any different. That’s the topic of my next article following on from here, how a whole new audience has acclimated to digital origination as well as projection, and how expectations have changed.

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