Film: not quite dead yet

FOR APPALOOSA, ACTOR/DIRECTOR ED HARRIS WANTED AN OLD-FASHIONED WESTERN, WHICH MEANT SILVER GRAINS, NOT PIXELS, FOR AUSTRALIAN DOP DEAN SEMLER.In a digital world, analogue is considered to be on the path of extinction, but film capture is not ready to go quietly into the night. Miguel Gonzalez found that DOPs and big companies still have something for film.

There are no statistics about the film/digital split in Australia, but with fewer Hollywood projects shooting here, film companies have suffered.
Fuji felt the lack of big budget international productions; in 2009 they only had one major Hollywood project, the thriller Don’t Be Afraid in the Dark, which was shot on film in Melbourne using, atypically, both Kodak and Fuji stock.
The digital adoption trend is real, according to Fuji’s general manager for recording media and motion picture film Marc Van Agten, but mainly in the smaller budget feature segment.
“If you rate your movies by budget or success, most big ones were shot on 35mm film last year,” he said. “The ones that picked up awards and had reasonable budgets of more than $6m were shot on film: Mao’s Last Dancer, The Boys are Back, Bright Star, Charlie & Boots, Beautiful Kate, Disgrace… even films with a smaller budget like Samson & Delilah were also shot on film.”
Kodak’s manager for sales and marketing in Australia and New Zealand David Hill agrees: “It’s difficult to obtain accurate data in regards to the film/digital split due to the large number of films being shot in Australia, everything from shoestring budget features to international studio productions, but the majority of motion pictures that make it to cinemas and receive award nominations are still produced on film. The same is true for TVCs for international brands.”
According to Van Agten, the initial cost difference between digital and film can be a deciding factor for a production when looking purely at the cost of shooting per minute or per foot. But digital projects tend to shoot a higher amount of extra footage, which makes post-production costs go up.
“That doesn’t happen with film because you’re trained to shoot on a 400ft can of film so you shoot on those increments.”
The cost factor has also been alleviated by the increasing popularity of 2-Perf cameras, which make a film load last twice as long. Film is normally pulled down into the gate four perforations at a time, to
produce a frame that is normally cropped down to 1:85:1, wasting a considerable amount of film.

This ‘2 Perforation Pulldown’ or techniscope technology, first developed in 1966, pulls down only two perforations at a time, using half the amount of film for a 2:4:1 frame, which is significantly smaller than the 4-perf frame in terms of surface. The popularity of 2-Perf was limited because it required an optical lab process as opposed to a contact print, but with the advent and lower costs of Digital Intermediates, 2-Perf has become more viable.
Panavision offers the Panaflex GII and Platinum cameras in 2-Perf, and ARRI too has made its Arricam and Arriflex available as 2-Perf.
The recent Australian hit Bran Nue Dae had a budget that initially did not allow for film, but DOP Andrew Lesnie was able to shoot on film using 2-Perf.
“Lesnie has received critical acclaim for the look of the movie and the way the landscape was captured, so 2-Perf is a real alternative to going digital,” said Fuji’s Van Agten.
While 35mm has been re-vitalised by 2-Perf, not all film formats are still going strong. Stefan Sedlmeier, general manager at ARRI Australia, foresees the decline of 16 mm as an acquisition format, as low and mid-budget productions – the type that would traditionally shoot on 16 mm – are precisely the ones transitioning to digital.
“It is not necessarily a format that can be sustained much longer for acquisition in Australia and New Zealand,” he affirmed. “It’s still preferred to shoot at remote locations because of its reliability and robustness, so it won’t disappear completely.
“While film will still be there for different reasons – for purists, for quality-oriented customers, for exhibition, for international exchange for developing countries, or for long term archiving – it will be 35mm and alternatives such as 3-Perf or 2-Perf, but 16mm is definitely declining.”
Digital is prevailing over the 16mm format in Australia, a country that is usually defined as an early adopter of technology. Sedlmeier believes one of the reasons is that high definition has become a standard for Australian productions, and 16mm is not good enough for HD.
“The Australian industry loves new products; they are early adopters of new technology, and they have fast-changing minds. These are very passionate cinematographers,” he said.
Discussions about film’s aesthetic and technical advantages are as fierce as a religious or political debate. There are facts but the main assessment remains one of perception. According to Sedlmeier, current digital cameras can’t replace 35mm in versatility and quality.
“It’s not just the pixel count; it’s the fidelity and natural qualities of the image. Film is still a very powerful medium; it can store the equivalent of about 1GB per second of data and it doesn’t really matter
how long it is, film can cope any kind of data amount. This is not necessarily true with digital storage yet, especially long term storage,” he argued.
Kodak has a campaign entitled Film. No Compromise to educate the industry on the benefits of shooting on film, but according to Hill, the company is “technologically agnostic”.
“With film, there is no compromise on image quality, production values and efficiencies, post-production workflow, and the ability to repurpose content for the future,” he explained. “But there are so many new opportunities to make, manage and move images and information; we serve the marketplace with solutions across different workflows, film and digital, and helping those technologies work seamlessly together.”
Academy Award-winning South Australian cinematographer Dean Semler (Dances with Wolves, Mad Max 2 and 3, 2012) has done seven projects on Panavision’s Genesis camera and believes the quality of the images is “as close to film as you could get”, with the advantage of instant high quality rushes, long running times and the ability to shoot in extremely low light levels.
Still, he “thoroughly enjoyed” the opportunity to work with the western Appaloosa in 2008, and finds the latest fine grain stocks from Kodak and Fuji “remarkable”.
“They still hold an edge on the digital images,” he admitted.
David Gribble (The World’s Fastest Indian, Fires Within) has a metaphor for it: digital is “like a painting without brushstrokes”.
“A digital image doesn’t have the grain structure to it. Maybe it’s because we’re used to seeing grain, so it’s as if you suddenly saw a painting without brushstrokes, you might think ‘this is terrible!’
“The grain look can be achieved in post, but it costs time and money, so it’s not necessarily cheaper. Besides, a cinematographer has to be aware that promises made in the field aren’t necessarily kept in
the post for a number of reasons.”
Not everybody agrees on the superiority of film.
Ben Allan (All Saints, The Will) was an early adopter of digital high definition and his work made him the youngest person ever to receive the ‘ACS’ letters from the Australian Cinematographers’ Society. He also created The Grading Sweet, a package of colour grading plug-ins for Apple’s Final Cut.
“It’s past the point where there’s definite technical reasons to say film is the way to go for the ultimate quality and it’s easy to demonstrate that,” he said.
According to Allan, the choice is now purely a subjective creative one because the technical superiority has been overcome.
“These high-end cameras offer as much latitude, depth of field control and colour control as 35mm film.”


Not all is said and done in terms of film. While it is true that major breakthroughs are unlikely to take place in the world of film cameras and stock, demand
is still there and both Fuji and Kodak continue to release new products. They’re still spending money on research and development, to produce improved ‘neg’
and post stock.
“All parties continue to invest in the film business, and someone like Kodak or Fuji wouldn’t be pouring money into it if they didn’t see a future for it,” said
Van Agten.
Fuji is looking at developing higher speed stock that can be shot in lower light, as well as achieving richer blacks and expanding the range for low-contrast films.
Its new Vivid 500 was used in Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark and it is designed to produce colour intensive images in challenging conditions such as night scenes.
A new 250 daylight stock will be launched in mid-2010, with samples currently being sent to cinematographers.

In terms of post stock, Fuji’s R&D helped the company – and its engineers Ryoji Nishimura, Massaki Miki and Youichi Hosoya in particular – receive this year’s Academy Award in the Scientific and Engineering category, for the development of the first motion picture film designed specifically for use in converting digital image data to negative film (Fujicolor Eterna- RDI). Because no intermediate film had been designed specifically for conversion from digital master to film reproduction, there had been a large disparity in image quality between both, and this new stock helps correct that problem.
And in April last year, Kodak expanded its Vision3 line with a 250D product. The entire Vision3 platform was developed with a film/digital hybrid approach in mind, and the company’s motion picture film portfolio will continue to grow with new additions.
“If you go back 10 or 15 years we had three film stocks, daylight, low light, and very high speed. Now we’re up to eight different types of stock, and about to release and develop new ones,” said Fuji’s Van Agten.
“It’s a very positive thing. I would be disheartened if we had not come up with new film stock.”
Both film companies’ consumer division has also undergone a significant change as only professionals still use film and everyone else is using digital cameras.
Free of the cost of film, they are shooting more photos than ever before, and still printing many of those. The result is that Fuji and Kodak are selling more paper and chemical products for consumer photo labs, and they are now offering online storage facilities where customers can keep their photos safe and order prints.
Fuji is even launching 3D cameras to capitalise on that growing trend, and will soon offer 3D prints.
The consumer division is also serving the lowbudget spectrum of the film industry as many feature films are using very low cost digital cameras that shoot high definition video.
“It’s not where we want to be long term,” admitted Van Agten. “It won’t replace our business, but we’ve got the technology to capture video on cards and stills cameras. Who knows where that’s going to take us?”
Overall, both companies have seen a growth in the stills photography division that is not apparent to the general public who may think the film giants are endangered species.
Both companies have a clear message to the world: they are no going anywhere.
“We’re not going to fight digital, we embrace it. DOPs have never had this much choice on what format to shoot on, but Fuji’s roots lay in motion picture film, and our CEO has always been said we’ll be the last man standing,” said Van Agten.
“At present, we believe the best professional motion picture workflow still starts with film. That said, we continue to assess opportunities in digital solutions across the entire chain to complement our film business,” added Hill.
According to Sedlmeier, ARRI’s R&D priorities are 85 percent digital, 15 percent film. In terms of film cameras, they’re still selling the Arricam LT and ST; they won’t be launching a completely new camera but revised versions with improved features.
“Our main focus is the development of digital devices such as the film scanner Arriscan and the new ARRI Lexar, which will be launched at NAB 2010.”
Other ARRI offerings include the digital ‘A’ series, but ultimately Sedlmeier believes that in the camera market companies are not just direct competitors, but also business partners, because they use the same recording techniques and their customers use each other’s components in their own solutions, e.g., ARRI lenses on Sony cameras.
Sedlmeier firmly believes that reliability is more important for ARRI than having the latest technologies.

“It’s not always necessary to have the latest software version, but it is necessary to provide reliable equipment because if the camera goes down, you have the actors, the set, everything becomes a disaster.”
So with so much R&D happening, what should film companies be working on, according to their end users, the cinematographers?
David Gribble believes storage and preservation is an area they should concentrate on, because it’s unclear at this stage how digital stock will store. Ben Allan adds that while the possibilities are the same as  what already exists, there is room for progress on grain structure, resolution, latitude, and colour response.
Ever since the introduction of digital capture, the debate has been whether to choose one format or the other, but a number of DOPs have rebelled against these limitations and chosen to work with both.
Last year’s Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire (DOP Anthony Dod Mantle) was shot both in digital and film, not only for budget purposes but also depending on the needs of particular scenes. Handheld digital cameras were used for fast-paced scenes, running through the alleyways, but the spectacular panoramic shots were done on film.

“Some well-known DOPs who were very dedicated film people and are now very dedicated genesis cameramen and it suits their style. The secret is complementing both and being comfortable with
all the different formats. The most successful DOPs know what each format is capable of and where it might suit the look of the movie,” said Van Agten.
Kodak’s Hill adds: “You will often hear film and digital described as competitors. We see them as creative allies; the business will always be about telling stories in which the technology is transparent.”
In our digital era, film is one of the exceptions were ‘old-fashioned’ technologies are not necessarily associated with older generations. Young DOPs may have grown up surrounded by computers and started their careers with a number of digital tools at their disposal, but that doesn’t mean that they will automatically prefer digital, or that they see film as something from the old days; they are more
technologically savvy but appreciate the qualities of both old and new.
“Students, as well as emerging filmmakers, continue to aspire to shoot on film. With a film-based education, students enter the industry with a solid discipline in the art of filmmaking,” said Hill. “While technology, innovation and marketplace dynamics continue to evolve at an ever-increasing rate of speed, some things will never change.”
Regardless of personal opinions and perceptions, the market does change, and the signs are clear to everyone. A privileged few, those with experience and credits, might be able to exercise their power and tell producers that they only want to work with film – or digital – the way they’ve been able to decide the brand of stock they prefer.
That elite club might get their way, but others will be forced, if not to change their preferences, to at least be flexible. That is why Gribble believes that embracing change is a healthy attitude and cinematographers need to keep their options open.
“I remember a respected cameraman I was trained under and when someone told him ‘Take the camera in your hand’ he said ‘What? How dare you?!’ He was telling us about it in the pub, how ridiculous this handheld camera was. And this guy in a couple of years was sitting in the pub with no work,” said Gribble.
“When you see change, even if you don’t like it, embrace it and see how you can use it to your advantage, because some changes totally take over.”
Even if digital penetration continues, film will still be there the same way colour hasn’t kept people from working in black and white; there will always be a niche market for it.
“When it gets 20 stops down the line and you have more pixels than the grain in the film and therefore more control, it will be like when factories took over shoe-making,” argued Gribble.
“But there are still hand-made shoes today, just like there will always be hand-made films. Maybe I’ll get a call in my old age asking ‘Did you really work with film?’”


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