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Is Film Better Than Digital or Just Nostalgic?

Christopher Nolan, director of the new successful string of Batman films, has recently gone on record in a Directors Guild of America interview defending film while denouncing digital moviemaking.

Nolan isn’t the only one. It’s an old argument. But in the interview, his strongest supporting statement was that film is “far better looking.” That is about as subjective as it gets.

Who says film is “far better looking”? For the most part, there’s been very little discrepancy between digital and film. In the last few years, most movies were shot on digital without anyone noticing a difference at all. Not only that, but many times digital has a much clearer and less grainy image as a whole.

It’s the same dumb argument people use when defending vinyl as opposed to digital music: “It has a warmer sound.” Bullshit — and even if it is true, digital can replicate that if you really want.

And while it is true that in the past digital has had trouble replicating film’s look, that is no longer the case (such as in the recent film, “The Avengers”). Digital is also trying to go above and beyond, pushing the limits of what movies can do with the moving image, as with the upcoming “The Hobbit,” which is being shot on 48 FPS (instead of the standard 24 FPS, giving it a more realistic feel).

Don’t get me wrong: nobody loves Christopher Nolan — or Batman — as much as I do. But, in my opinion, this seems like the same type of rhetoric that could have kept films black-and-white and silent. I’m not saying that there is necessarily anything wrong with black-and-white or silent films, as this year’s hit, “The Artist,” can testify, but not allowing the technology to grow seems regressive at best, and downright dictatorial at worst.

Of course, in the same interview, Nolan says that he does not want to ban digital by any means. Rather, he would like to see increased resources to keep film as a viable shooting option. However, the fact that he keeps referring to digital video as an inferior means of producing films does not take away the elitist and nostalgic tinge of his arguments.

In the same breath, Nolan also says that it is cheaper to shoot on film than on digital, which does not make sense at all. I don’t want to go into technical details — one, because it’s boring and I have a word limit, and two, because I’m not an expert on the details of big-budget moviemaking.

However, as a student filmmaker, I can say Nolan’s economic argument is also bullshit. Making a short film on 16mm film is close to $1,000 to $2,000 just to develop. That does not even factor in the cost of the rest of production. For a big-budget film like “The Dark Knight Rises,” that’s pocket change, but for aspiring filmmakers, that’s three or four months’ rent. And that makes a difference.

We are in a new age of digital production and distribution. With cheap cameras, like Canon DSLRs, and readily accessible editing software, people can make films more easily than ever before. This follows the democratization of art, wherein more voices can be heard and different viewpoints can be expressed.

Of course, there’s a fear of over-saturation of product — if everyone and their grandma makes a movie, film will be overloaded and impossible to sift through. Have you seen the clutter on YouTube? However, if you make something great, it will stand out.

Just because the cameras, editing software and sound effects are cheap doesn’t mean movie productions will ever be cheap. You still have to buy or make costumes, props and sets, as well as pay for food, transportation and, if you’re smart, talent. But the cheaper the cost of production, the more filmmakers can focus on the mise-en-scène and getting great actors, rather than spending all their money on buying and developing film.

Now, if you want to shoot on film and can afford it, go on ahead. There’s nothing inherently wrong with shooting on film. While I don’t agree that it looks better than digital, I also don’t agree that it looks bad. Does film have its own look? Perhaps — although in this day and age, it’s subtle at best. And to Christopher Nolan: I love your work, and keep making awesome films whichever way you deem best. I am looking forward to “The Dark Knight Rises,” just as almost everyone else is.

But, seriously … fuck film.


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8 Responses to Is Film Better Than Digital or Just Nostalgic?

  1. Matt

    March 31, 2014 at 10:37 am

    for still cameras, a canon 1DX cost around $6000 now- sounds like a lot, but conciderign it can take over 400,000 photos, let’s sompare the cost of the camera to that of having film developed- a roll of film cost around 1-2 dollars, developing costs around 10 dollars or more, but we’ll use 10 as an average- or better yet, let’s cut that in 1/2 for those that are thrifty and find bargains- so around 6 dollars per 24 shot roll to develop for film- sounds cheap enough- but let’s break this down- 24 divided by 400,000 gives a total of 16,666 or so rolls of film- take that number, multiply by about 6 dollars, and you get 99,996 dollars for developing the same number of shots you get out of a canon 1DX for ‘only’ $6000- Even IF you could cut the price of development in half again, that’s still roughly 40,000 dollars for the same number of shots a 1DX would give you digitally- (of course you would then spend money having them printed, but you’d only be printing the ones you liked, and the cost is really quite cheap for digital prints

    Unless my math is completely off, or I’ve forgotten to include some other costs for digital, it looks like film is a very expensive way to go for still shot photographers- I would imagine same thing for movies, but mayb e not-

  2. Robert

    September 4, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    I love how you can characterize Christopher Nolan’s opinion on film as “bullshit.” This from a “student filmmaker,” which is the same as “not a filmmmaker.” You then end your sad diatribe with the words “fuck film.” So this post is not really about weighing the pros and cons of digital and film, as Nolan does, either finding an inherent value in film that should be preserved, or preferring digital. This post is just your puerile opinion expressed as invective. You have a long way to go, little man.

  3. Joseph Molina

    April 6, 2013 at 11:34 pm

    but seriously… fuck you

  4. Mike

    March 6, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    “Many times digital has a much clearer and less grainy image as a whole.”


  5. Seldom Seen Mike

    October 6, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    This is the most ignorant article I’ve ever read.

  6. Tonto

    August 7, 2012 at 1:00 am

    This is an abysmal article. With absolutely no fact checking.. research.. anything at all. Your dismissal of the most successful director of the year’s opinion as ‘bullshit’, without any relevant experience (except a bad degree by the sound of it), is arrogant and misguided. Everyone who uses film or digital reguarly knows that when used well, film far surpasses digital, due to its considerably higher resolution (FACT, it’s around three times as much as the best digital camera), Dynamic range (FACT, film records far more highlights than digital. Digital still cant deal with a sunset, which is a joke.), Higher range of colour (FACT: Film can record deeper, more vivid colours across a range of tones estimated to be 40% more than the best digital sensor sees). And chris nolan’s cost argument – well, as you point out yourself, it costs £1-2k to develop the films. But how much does the camera cost? The cameras movies use can cost 50k and up, just as a start. And they use dozens. Digital, as everyone knows, has one advantage – you can see what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. Perfect for an amateur. Oh and for the record vinyl DOES sound better on the right equipment, it records more information, and has better stereo imaging, but that’s another post that i can’t be bothered to go into.
    In future, please consider your articles more, and do a bit of research. rather than just being knee jerk.

  7. Ray Raimundo

    July 29, 2012 at 5:51 am

    I’m all for anything that helps aspiring filmmakers keep their costs down, and if digital helps creative people do their work. As an amateur photographer, I still prefer the look of film, particularly black and white – which (at least to my eyes and with my limited equipment choices) seems to show better dynamic range.

    I’ll have to see “The Avengers”, though, so I can get an idea of the current state of the art in digital filmmaking.

  8. Damion Damaske

    May 17, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Well, I’m going to comment on this point, since it’s wrong: not only can film cameras shoot at 48 fps (like “The Hobbit”) – meaning digital isn’t what makes that possible – but filmmakers choose not to, since apparently it looks terrible (like a Spanish telenovela).