RIP Film, 1878-2010

In With a Horse, Out with a House

In 1878, Eadweard J. Muybridge used motion pictures to prove that all 4 of a horse's hooves leave the ground in gallop.

Last night’s episode of Fox’s “House, MD” marked the conclusion of a long debate, “film vs. digital.” As a filmmaker, I have been a longstanding proponent of film. It has always been standard-bearer for moving image-makers. And HD, despite certain conveniences and an apparently lower price had yet to level its own playing field.

In the early days of HD, Brad Anderson’s 2001 offering “Session 9” (the first theatrically-released movie shot on a digital format) was an engrossing piece of filmmaking and a great horror movie, but it had a nasty video-ey look. In “Star Wars” episodes 2 and 3 (2002 and 2005, respectively), both of which were shot on Sony HD Cameras, there seemed to be more life and detail in the animated characters than the human beings which made sense as the sensors in the HD cameras were incapable of working at the resolution of ILM’s visual effects wizards. As time went on, the digital moviemaking “revolution” found ways to make visually-appealing films that worked HD’s strengths and versatility, like Robert Rodriguez’s “Sin City” (2005) or Mario Van Peebles’ “Badassss” (2003), but HD wasn’t quite soup yet.

Time passed, new cameras like the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper, the Dalsa Origin, Silicon Imaging 2K, Vision Research’s Phantom high-speed camera, the Panasonic HPX3000 (which was used on my own feature, “Alien Raiders”), the Sony F23, the Arri D-20, and the much-balyhooed RED One came into the professional camera marketplace and each chipped off a little piece of film’s stranglehold on the marketplace.

Then in 2008, two movies shot digitally, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” (shot on the Thompson/Grass Valley Viper camera) and “Slumdog Millionaire” (shot on the Silicon Imaging 2K Mini) were nominated for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards and one of them, “Slumdog Millionaire” won. So the “can digital compete with film” debate was over, but most professionals at that time still preferred to work with film. After all, Film has history. Film took us from Muybridge’s first accidental movie of a horse galloping all the way to 1999 with very little competition. Film is predictable, has a scalable workflow, works as well handheld as it does on a Technocrane, works well in low light, and has over a century’s worth of R&D in lenses that will give the operator guaranteed results.

So if digital cinematography won the friggin’ Oscar 2 years ago, why are we still having this argument? Well, big-budget features can afford to have huge crews and more lighting so as to act as a living laboratory for the newer cameras, but television and commercial production – which both run at higher speeds and rely on more predictability than features – were often stuck somewhere in the middle. Less look-intensive shows like “The Office” had adopted HD, but big network dramas like “24” had played with digital only to go back to shooting celluloid.  But also two years ago marked the release of the Canon 5D Mark II, a middle-to-high-end Digital SLR camera that cost only $2,400 and shot in HD. Although late to the party, I blogged about it here. It was a matter of time before something uber-professional was shot on one of these cameras, and last night’s season finale of “House, MD” (shot by veteran DP Gale Tattersall) was the first one to lay that claim.

Gale Tattersall and his new toy. The camera is that little thing on the end of the rig.

The episode entitled “Help Me,” from a visual standpoint, was everything “House” is known to be – a bit dark, a bit witty, and visually stunning. To most viewers of the show, they probably didn’t notice any difference, and that’s my point. These cameras still have a long way to go and a laundry list of issues users want solved. But finally they’re able to penetrate virtually every sector of filmmaking and give filmmakers high-quality results which are viewable immediately and require no chemical processing to be viewed. They are light, work well in low light, and increasingly can be built up in a modular fashion like film cameras. And frankly they’re only getting better. If you want to stay as current as possible on everything in the DSLR filmmaking movement, check out the Cinema 5D blog.

And in the ensuing months, look for Arri’s new “Alexa” camera, RED’s much-hyped “Epic,” Aaton’s “Penelope,” as well as other offerings from Sony, Panasonic, etc. And by the time filmmakers get those into their hands, there will be countless more offerings in the DSLR world, and more ways to integrate them into traditional production. And as these become increasingly viable options, I’m hard pressed to think of a single reason to shoot on film anymore.

Watch the full episode here.

Note: For more information, check out the Q&A with Tattersall, show director Greg Yaitanes, “House, MD’s” Post Producer Alllen Palmer, and DSLR luminaries Cali Lewis and Philip Bloom that was posted here. Good stuff.


9 comments on “RIP Film, 1878-2010

  1. Great piece, Ben. It’s been interesting to see the gap in overall visual “quality” at film festivals between the anchor films and the dirt cheap indies get smaller and smaller. TINY FURNITURE which I saw at SXSW this year was (I believe) the first feature to be shot on the EOS 7D. It looks phenomenal. The days when there was a barrier between the viewer and the film because of the shoddy look of digital are LONG over. Just that preview of House is pretty breathtaking.

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by John Gholson and Jason Whyte , Brian Kelley. Brian Kelley said: Very interesting! RT @Neptunesalad: RIP Film, 1878-2010: http://bit.ly/9wXksP […]

  3. Love your blog, man. Good to see that format is finally, truly irrelevant. We might actually see an end to the film vs. video culture wars, so we can totally concentrate on geeking-out over the latest equipment. Of course, no one has an excuse NOT to shoot a film anymore. Coincidentally, just ordered my 5D Mk2 today, and will be shooting with an Alexa this summer (fingers crossed). I’m happy to say I haven’t put my hands in a changing bag since 2003. Still, shooting with that Pana Gold pkg. on “The Meeting” was pretty durn sweet.

    • I have only shot film one time since 2002, and that’s when I was doing a project where we wanted something to look like old Super-8 film and Super-8 was the fastest, cheapest way to do that.

      And I actually think that sweet camera support is going nowhere, and frankly what made “The Meeting” look the way it did was the talent behind the camera (you). If we made the same film on the 5D, the only real difference would be that we would be able to shoot as much coverage as we wanted without fear of running out of film (which we did as I recall).

      If anything, now we’ll be using more varied lenses than ever before because we’re not relegated to HD lenses. Alicia’s short, “Rite” was done that way with the RED One, and it was equally sweet without ever having to check a fucking gate. The dream has always been to have all the tools of image-making available at a reasonable price, and now they are. It kind of makes me a little afraid of what we might be shooting on 2 years from now.

  4. thank you for best infomation

  5. This is a very exciting time to make movies and be part of this. A decade ago (when I started my career), we were having that film vs. video debate. Back then I had saved for an entire summer to buy a used Arri BL and film stock. Now I am totally blown away by these innovations. We haven’t settled on a format for our next movie – even if we do, by the time we start prep, everything will probably have changed…

  6. I’m a big fan of the Canon 5D Mk II (obviously), but I’m also of the school of “don’t buy it until you NEED it.” If you think that’s the way you want to go, you can always rent it and when you’re ready to pull the trigger something better will have come along.

  7. […] depth-of-field has become moot. With cameras like the RED One, upcoming RED Epic, and the current DSLR craze, camera manufacturers have given anyone from indie filmmakers to big-budget television access to […]

  8. […] busy working director (he had a feature released by Warner Brothers last year), finds the time to blog about stuff that he finds interesting.  His most recent was about the state of 35mm film and the […]

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