The death of film


On 6 March 2013, it was announced that worldwide technology leader in the media
and entertainment sector Technicolor was shutting down its infamous Pinewood film
lab, reacting to the shift towards a near total digital cinema industry. Fewer and
fewer directors and production companies are using traditional methods of shooting
film on print, leading to a drastic cut in jobs in the hundred-year-old industry. So, if
the trend is correct, are we witnessing the death of film forever?

Directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino speak in
almost sacred terms about celluloid: its texture, its smell, its organic quality.
“I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes,’ Spielberg

Well, it looks as if the last labs may be closing rather sooner than Spielberg
expected. A year prior to Technicolor’s closure of the Pinewood film lab, they closed
their Toronto lab in Canada. In the US, Kodak is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection
as it tries to reinvent itself as a new company for the digital era. In January 2013, a
court approved financing for the company hoping to emerge from bankruptcy by mid

In October 2012, Fujifilm announced it would stop making film for motion pictures.
Earlier in 2012, 20th Century Fox became the first Hollywood studio to confirm that it
would release its movies in a “digital format’. The others are all slowly following suit.

Five years ago the amount of feature film being processed for film prints around the
world stood at about 13 billion feet, which is about 1.9 million kilometres, the
equivalent of flying to the moon five times. Last year the industry was down to just a
quarter of that figure. It’s not just digital technology that is to blame; the less
demand there is for film stock, the less there will be made – and the more expensive
it will become. A huge factor helping to squeeze the life out of film is the price of
silver, one of the ingredients needed for making and processing film stock. For about
20 years, the commodity price of silver stood at $5 an ounce. In 2010 it suddenly
peaked at $50 an ounce before settling to its current price of around $28 to $30 an

Despite the doom and gloom of the metals market, Kodak continues to produce film
stock and it is interesting to note that in the 84-year history of the Oscars, no
Academy Award-winning best picture has ever been made without using motion
picture film. The 2013 Academy Award best picture nominees include six movies that
were shot on Kodak film: Argo, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Django Unchained,
Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Les Miserables.

Digital fan

But not everyone is faithful to film. One of the industry’s most renowned
cinematographers, Roger Deakins (The Shawshank Redemption, A Beautiful Mind, No
Country for Old Men), recently made the move into digital photography, filming the
latest Bond movie Skyfall using ARRI Alexa technology.

So why would a veteran of 35 years give up the authenticity of film for the sleek look
of digital?

Deakins comments, “Shooting on digital gives me a lot more options. It’s got more
latitude, it’s got better colour rendition. It’s faster. I can immediately see what I’m
recording. I can time that image on set with a colour-calibrated monitor. That
colouring goes through the whole system, so it’s tied with the metadata of the image.

That goes through the whole post-production chain, so it’s not a case of being in a
lab and having to sit there and then time a shot on a shot-by-shot because this has
already got a control on it that’s set the timing for the shot, you know? Whether I’ll
shoot on film again, I don’t know.’


It is unquestionable that film possesses a certain texture that is unrivalled by digital
cameras. However, a talented editor or colourist can easily manipulate digital footage
to look more like film, but this seems contradictory in nature. There are tools in
grading systems like Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve that easily emulate the film
look and feel. Powergrades are plugins (comprised of a single or group of nodes to
create that look) which you can save and then quickly apply to any shot at any time.
Powergrades have a time-saving preset that looks like vignettes, film stock
emulations or specific “film legacy’ looks, like cross-processing and Super 8 film bleach
bypass, for example.

So do we alter digital footage this way because audiences are still not ready to see
the true power of digital? Is the look of a product shot on film ingrained in our
collective vision to the point that we don’t notice it until we see something different?

Many audiences today argue that a crisp image without the grain associated with film
is better-looking. Audiences evolve just as fast as the technology presented to them.
But a large contingent of those moviegoers still want the classic look, regardless of
the content of the film itself. That audience won’t be going away for a while yet – and
neither will the classic film look.

The most important difference between film and digital might be seen on set. Film
reels run out of film. Digital cards run out of space. But when a reel runs out, it is
done forever. When a card runs out, it can be dumped and re-used rather quickly. This
pushes production along financially in a number of ways.

The 2010 biographical survival drama film 127 Hours benefited from shooting digitally
in a scene when James Franco re-enacts Aron Ralston’s exhausting attempts to
escape from being trapped by a boulder. Instead of shooting multiple takes, director
Danny Boyle kept the camera running for over an hour, allowing the real emotions of
Franco’s own personality, coupled with his performance as Ralston, shine through in a
more genuine fashion, something that couldn’t have been done while changing film

No matter how efficient digital filmmaking becomes, there will always be a huge
contingent of filmmakers who prefer the “old-fashioned way’. To supplement this,
some movie theatre businesses have purposely delayed the conformation to digital
projectors. Many theatres have at least one or two projectors that can present certain
films in the film format.

Kodak apps

Kodak is so convinced (and who can blame a company fighting for its life?) that film is
here to stay, that it has introduced a new app for the Apple and Android markets. The
KODAK Cinema Tools application has an Aspect Ratio app that allows filmmakers to
see how different aspect ratios affect a shot. It allows filmmakers to select a photo
from their device and overlay it with 2-perf, 3-perf, 4-perf and 16mm motion picture
film formats and popular aspect ratios. It also includes a Sun Calculator, Film
Calculator, Depth of Field Calculator, How to Read a Film Can, the all important Lab
Locator, and contact numbers for the film sales team.

The reality is that film is slowly vanishing but is certainly not dead. We will probably
see film shift from the commercial mainstream to the more artistic niche. There is
already a backlash by some against the digital revolution, and some might argue that
this may someday produce some of the best works ever been shot on film. The
question is whether or not this should be a cause for regret, as film may be dying but
cinema isn’t. Digital has opened up a whole new realm of possibilities…

By Ian Dormer

Screen Africa magazine – April 2013


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