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Hollywood in digital

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We live in a digital world – and even the greatest film directors are entering. When reading about Sofia Coppola’s film The Bling Ring’ premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, I pondered why reviews kept remembering to mention she had filmed in digital. Why is that such a big revelation? Turns out, it’s offending some big time film makers.

 The magic of film
Keanu Reeves’s documentary ‘Side by side explores this by interviewing A-list directors and cinematographers. They all agree about an undeniably special atmosphere on film sets. That sound of film running adds pressure and tension as everyone knows film is money. When it runs out after ten minutes (after which it has to be reloaded), that’s it – unlike a digital card that can be re-used.
 
On set, no one knows what the final image will look like except the cinematographer, a kind of voodoo savant. Directors only see the result the next day when they receive dailies of film that have gone to the lab to be printed. It’s like magic, really – the excitement of not being conscious of your image and wondering at night what the final product will look like. Film is also loved for its grainy texture, which digital editors will often try to mimic.
 
Digital convenience
Digital doesn’t have this tradition of surprise and excitement. It lets directors see exactly what they’re filming, lets them shoot for as long as they want without ten- minute interruptions and gives them total control over the image. This convenience is winning directors over one by one. (Although not always actors – Robert Downey Junior once protested the lack of breaks by leaving urine-filled jars on set).
 
Coppola summed up well why directors are opting for digital: “It feels more immediate, and since you’re not limited by the film in the camera you can go on and on and have really long shots.”
 
Danny Boyle could not have filmed 127 hours without a digital camera to run for over an hour while James Franco attempted to escape from being trapped by a boulder, nor could he have filmed children running through the streets of Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire without a tiny portable camera. Digital allows directors to be so much more creative with their image.
 
In Bling Ring, Coppola used the famous RED ONE, a 4k digital cinema camera that shoots at a resolution several times higher than high definition. It’s basically a sensor with a computer in the back. Shooting without lugging heavy magazines of film and being able to change flash cards in seconds means time and money are saved.
 
Better business model
It’s not only the load removed from directors’ shoulders, but the one removed from the business model of films. The entire process of shooting digitally is cheaper. This also means that anyone can cheaply and easily make a film – although this democratisation has left professionals thinking this means the loss of good quality content.
 
Image is everything
For some, digital means a new sense of self-consciousness. Being overly aware of how actors, light, background look means a possible loss of meaningful performance. Coppola notes what she didn’t like: “I spent more time watching the monitor than being on set. It felt passive. I see how it can distance you from the action. I had to keep reminding myself to get back on the set. I’d shoot on film again, if it’s still available.” For now it is, but not for long as manufacturers have stopped making new film cameras.
 
Is film dead? Pretty much. Yes, it’s the loss of an era, but those who prefer the old fashioned way are fooling themselves, because what’s more important – your ego or your film?