Putting the Film Back into Films

Most movies aren't shot on film anymore, and even the ones they are tend to be projected digitally. Is film dead?

Referring to what we see on movie screens as ‘films’ is becoming something of a misnomer. It is increasingly the case that the movies we enjoy are shot with digital cameras, saved onto a hard drive, and projected digitally, without a frame of celluloid involved in the process. It was George Lucas who spearheaded this digital revolution 15 years ago when his second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones, became the first major studio film to be shot digitally. Since then, digital cameras have advanced rapidly, growing to replace traditional 35mm celluloid in everything from independent cinema to mega-budget blockbusters.

In the past few years, the majority of top-grossing pictures have shunned film cameras in favor of digital alternatives, a trend that shows little sign of slowing down. For those of us who enjoy the fidelity of genuine film stock, however, all is not yet lost. Despite its declining popularity, a wealth of filmmakers are embracing the aged format and exploiting its immense potential.

Of course, a great many blockbusters continue to be shot on conventional film. J.J. Abrams notably relies on traditional anamorphic film to achieve his desired effect, meaning his 2015 Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, was predominantly shot on 35mm, thus ending the franchise’s love affair with digital cameras. In the same year, the James Bond series returned to film for the 24th instalment, Spectre. The same is true of 2016’s Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, and Jason Bourne, to name just three of last year’s blockbusters shot the old fashioned way. Film, then, still has its champions at the very top of Hollywood.

A more interesting development, however, is directors choosing to adopt peculiar, even archaic techniques when shooting on film. Grainier 16mm film is regularly used for period pieces like Todd Haynes’ Carol or Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom.

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On the other side of the spectrum, larger and higher quality film stocks, once a staple of 1950s epics, have made a resurgence in modern blockbusters. Christopher Nolan pioneered this trend when he used cumbersome, highly expensive IMAX cameras (then mostly associated with nature documentaries) to film some scenes of 2008’s The Dark Knight. Since then, it’s become common for action films to feature lengthy sequences filmed in IMAX, from the first of The Hunger Games sequels to Nolan’s upcoming war-epic Dunkirk.

Similarly, director Paul Thomas Anderson illustrated the potential of large film formats when he made his 2012 drama The Master on old-fashioned 70mm film (the first film shot this way since Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in 1996). Quentin Tarantino went a step further with the 2015 western The Hateful Eight, shooting on 70mm with Ultra Panavision 70 lenses, resulting in a spectacularly wide aspect ratio of 2.76:1.

Indeed, peculiar aspect ratios are another trend that seem to have resurfaced of late. Idiosyncratic director Wes Anderson took this to extreme lengths with 2014’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which the aspect ratio and film stock repeatedly changed depending on the time period in which any scene took place. But there are subtler examples in recent years.

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, the musical which seems destined for Oscar glory this year, was filmed on 35mm Cinemascope, producing a wider ratio of 2.55:1. This indulgent aesthetic intentionally harks back to the ’50s musicals which inspired Chazelle, and certain nostalgia seems to be driving at least part of this trend. A less mainstream but nevertheless noteworthy example was Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, a beautifully shot biopic of Jackie Kennedy which was projected in 1.66:1, a rarely seen aspect ratio mostly associated with British films of the 1960s. These are all subtle effects, and it’s unlikely that much of the audience will even notice, but in a sea of blockbusters photographed in a dull, digital orthodoxy, it’s a relief to see mainstream filmmakers experimenting with otherwise overlooked technologies.

In many instances, the format in which a film is shot has become a marketing point. When Tarantino’s Hateful Eight was released, 70mm ‘roadshow’ screenings were widely publicized and discussed. Trailers for Nolan’s Dunkirk, due for release in July, are already carrying the IMAX logo, as will those for December’s Star Wars attraction, The Last Jedi.

Indeed, the great benefit of these large film formats and ultra-wide aspect ratios is that they contribute to a cinema experience that can’t be replicated on the small screen. Such a move has echoes of the innovations seen in the American film industry during the 1950s. It was in this period of early competition between cinemas and television sets that innumerable gimmicks were developed to differentiate the big screen from the small. Among the results were widescreen, drive-in movie theaters, and 3D. Today, as cinemas face a new threat from online streaming services, they likewise have to prove that the movie house is the only place for the authentic experience.

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Unfortunately, while it remains relatively commonplace for popular movies to be shot on film, it’s become a tremendous rarity to actually see them projected as such. More or less every multiplex screen in the country has, by now, converted to digital projection. As a result, the novelty of a properly projected film reel has become an attraction in itself.

Independent cinemas such as London’s Prince Charles or Truro’s Plaza pride themselves on regular screenings of both new and old films in 35mm and 70mm. The picture often isn’t quite as crisp or pristine as one would expect from a modern, 4K digital projector, but there’s something intoxicating about seeing a genuine strip of still images projected, imperfections and all. At the request of Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is set to open two days early in theaters with 35mm or 70mm projectors. Perhaps this high-profile endorsement will give a shot in the arm to the art of physical film projection, even if only temporarily.

The state of film, then, is unclear. On the one hand, the number of movies shot in this traditional manner are in a gradual but certain decline. On the other, influential film directors and cinematographers are continuing to champion the physical format and all that it has to offer, leading to a fresh breed of expensively shot, widescreen extravaganzas. Such advocates, however, are in the minority, and it remains to be seen if this option will still be available in years to come.

Digital film-making has undeniably been a liberation for much of the film industry. Its affordability and ease of use has made it simpler for both studios and independent producers to get their movies made and distributed. Celebrated cinematographer Roger Deakins, for example, has fully embraced the versatility of digital cameras, citing his frustration with the “technical problems of film.”

Meanwhile, Director Martin Scorsese has shot his two most recent pictures, The Wolf Of Wall Street and Silence, on a combination of film and digital, allowing him to play to strengths of both formats. Indeed, so advanced are the latest wave of cameras and post-production techniques that it has become more difficult to discern the difference between movies shot digitally and those made on film. Soon, perhaps, film will be forced to concede its existing advantages.