Film vs Digital

It’s an age old debate, since the invention of digital cameras filmmakers have been comparing them, and digital (or video) has suffered at the comparison. The debate was always about the quality of film vs the convenience of digital acquisition, and in truth the difference at first was stark.

But now, with the current generation of digital cinema cameras (Alexa, Sony F55/65 and others) that difference is hard to find. While there is a pleasing aesthetic look that is built in to film acquisition, a modern digital cinema camera, well exposed, would have no problem being matched.

Case in point, I’ve attached work-in-progress images from a short film directed by Conrad Rothbaum, and shot by Jeffrey W. Hagerman. One of these stills was shot on a panaflex camera on 35mm fuji stock, the other phantom 4k flex.

We won’t tell you which is which, because it doesn’t matter. Rather, what matters is that the DP took care to shoot with regard to his tool. He lit appropriately for the device he was using, considered that the Phantom offered a more limited dynamic range and required much more light, and adjusted accordingly. The result, once graded, cuts seamlessly and effectively. The film benefits from the technical capabilities of the high-speed Phantom, and gains the aesthetics of it’s 35mm acquisition. 

We’re often asked what cameras we prefer to work with as colourists, or whether we prefer to grade with film or digital sources. The answer is usually the same: the best image is the one captured by a talented cinematographer, under careful lighting, with good art direction, properly exposed and white balanced. That’s true of many professional cameras, even some not costing very much (BMD makes a few). In an ideal world, from our perspective as colourists, the camera “burns-in” as little of the look as possible, and just captures true to life information. The truth is, if the camera has enough information, the film “look” can easily and very effectively be added by a talented colourist. In other words “the Colourist is the new film stock.”

What’s more, when film is poorly exposed, it can be incredibly difficult to produce a workable image from it. If something is shot wrong, it’s preferable it be shot wrong on a digital camera (recording high quality raw or even log), as that is generally far more recoverable.

That’s not to say that shooting film is not worthwhile, it certainly is. When shot properly, a well chosen print and negative stock (or negative stock and print emulation, or just negative) will get you where you want to go fast, and will do it well. But often shooting film or digital isn’t a choice, but a necessity. If you do find yourself begrudgingly shooting digital, don’t feel bad, your perfect image is only a ColourSpace away.