Film stock is mean. It's an angry, unforgiving, analog medium that requires constant light, attention and pampering or it will ruin you. But this 100-year-old plus format also captures the most aesthetically-pleasing image imaginable when compared to digital, videotape and other motion picture media.
After making movies on video for the past eight years, I finally shot my first short on 16mm film stock while abroad in Prague this past spring. The camera weighed about 30 pounds and whirred like a lawnmower, and every camera setup had to be meticulously checked and rechecked for exposure. The high price of the film stock—roughly $2,000 to expose, develop and transfer an 11-minute reel—limited us to one or two takes of each shot. Worse still, we nearly lost the entire second reel of film due to a light leak in the camera's magazine.
But my God, did the celluloid image make the movie look real.
For this reason, digital amateurs have been continuously tinkering with frame rates, shutter speeds, and depths of field in hopes of achieving that Holy Grail "film look" on videotape. Up until the last five years or so, digital technology had not yet caught up with the image resolution of standard 35mm film. Shooting digital on a major motion picture was only done for logistical or stylistic reasons, like in "28 Days Later" (1999), which required the nimbleness of digital to shoot in briefly closed-off areas of London.
In 2007, Red Digital Cinema Camera Company released the Red One with an image that rivaled 35mm celluloid. Developed by Oakley Sunglasses founder Jim Jannard, the Red One shoots at 4K resolution (4,096 x 2,304 pixels, or roughly four times that of 1080p HD) and can be outfitted for under $50,000, whereas a 35mm film camera setup can cost upwards of a cool half-million.
Every camera company has their own flavor of high resolution digital; Sony's Filmstream, Arri's Alexa, Canon's EOS C300, but the Red is still industry standard. If you've been to a mainstream theater in the past few years, it's almost certain that you've seen one of these cameras in action—watch for "Presented in Sony Digital 4K" at the beginning of shows at the Cook's Corner Regal.
There are trade-offs to digital video: colors are slightly harsher, motion doesn't have the same fluidity, and cinematography becomes more technical and less artistic. But this hasn't stopped many directors from taking the plunge. David Fincher's "The Social Network" (2010), Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant" (2009), and sci-fi romp "District 9" (2009) were all shot on Jannard's rig. And Peter Jackson personally bought 48 units of Red's newest hi-res camera, the 5K Epic, to the helm of his upcoming adaptation of "The Hobbit."
I recently spoke with Jennifer Baichwal, acclaimed director of documentaries like "Manufactured Landscapes" (2007) and a Red Epic enthusiast. Her first impression of the 5K cam: "It is singularly unsuited for documentary filmmaking...But it looks beautiful."
Baichwal said she finds the camera clunky, difficult to maneuver, and hellish for capturing sound, but says those problems are offset by the high-resolution imaging and various aspect ratios the Red camera offers.
The logistical problems of film—like those I encountered in Prague—are only exacerbated by documentary-style filmmaking, which often requires mobility, immediate shooting, and much more film stock. Red cameras do not seem to be the ideal solution.
Earlier this week, however, Red announced a November 17 release date for their eagerly-anticipated Scarlet—a 4K camera about the size of a tissue box, which will retail for just under $10,000. With this new package, Red may have hit the sweet spot with a low cost camera that offers high maneuverability and imaging as good as what you'll see in any movie theater.
Many are already hailing the Scarlet as a democratic film revolution. Online tech site engadget.com now claims that "for the price of a used Honda Civic, you can shoot video that essentially looks as good as those made by pros like Peter Jackson."
Provided, of course, you have the moviemaking skill. And the cash.
What's been absent from the discussion is how the change from celluloid to digital will affect the next generation of filmmakers. Sure, I whine about my on-set struggle with real film stock, but experiencing such hardships was eye-opening and made me completely rethink how I made movies. The Scarlet will soon probably become standard among film students. The University of Southern California—home to arguably the best film school in the world—uses only digital cameras. Their students may never have to worry about running out of film, but they may also never learn to grow and adapt to the constrictions posed by celluloid.
Baichwal concluded that while digital offers a number of practical advantages like nearly unlimited shooting and bypasses the difficulties of traveling with film stock in the wake of 9/11, the Epic feels strangely familiar.
"We have learned to use digital filmically," she said. "The thing I miss the most about shooting film is the intention that is acute every time the camera is turned on. Video is the opposite—casual. And while interesting accidents happen that way, I still prefer intention. Shooting with the Epic has been more like shooting film—for better and for worse."