The Debate is (Still) On: Top DPs Discuss the Differences Between Film and Digital

Which side do world-renowned cinematographers take in the battle between film and digital?

There's no denying that the topic of shooting on film versus shooting on digital is a source of real contention amongst filmmakers. Some die-hard fans of celluloid tout it as a living, breathing vessel for moving images, while those shooting on digital proclaim it the medium of the future. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, it's worth learning about what today's top cinematographers say about the great debate.

In this video from Cooke Optics, Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave), Ed Lachman (Carol), John Mathieson (Gladiator), John de Borman (An Education), and many other DPs weigh in on the strengths and weaknesses of shooting on both film and digital, as well as why it doesn't actually matter which you choose.

Like anything, there are pros and cons of shooting on both film and digital. We could talk all day about the uniquely beautiful aesthetic of film—the film grain, the color, the overall look that digital itself has been trying to emulate for years. We could talk all day about the economy of digital—how filmmakers today can make films for next to nothing in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. However, it seems as though film and digital both have their major advantage and disadvantage.

What many of the DPs mentioned in the video was how film forces you to be present, to be principled and respectful of the moments being captured. Because digital affords you the freedom to just let the camera roll without having to be to scrupulous about what you shoot, film can make you a much more disciplined observer. 

However, digital has become the great cinematic equalizer. Inexpensive digital cameras, memory cards, and data storage made it possible for anyone to pursue their dreams of filmmaking without having to go through the gauntlet of Hollywood. Digital is accessible and easy(ish) to use, and with each passing year, digital gets better and better in terms of resolution, color gamut, and dynamic range.

And because shooting on digital means having files ready to go into post almost instantly, that makes the thought of having to go through the whole costly process of acquiring film, processing it, and getting it digitized extremely unpleasant—especially if there aren't any labs in your area.

Still, digital, at this point in time, looks "digital", in fact, some of the "advantages" of shooting on digital, like capturing vibrant colors and super sharp images, seem as though they are actually disadvantages when it comes to image making. As Borman says,

The color spectrum is very different [on digital]. The color is a false color, it seems, on digital. You always have to pull back the color.

He goes on to say,

I don't think that images that are super sharp are necessarily more beautiful. For everything to be really sharp, does it make it more beautiful? I don't think so.

But, at the end of the day all the DPs agreed—the most important thing about shooting a film is not whether you shoot it on celluloid or digitally. The most important thing is the story. Period. It doesn't matter if you've got a beautiful Panavision 35mm camera or an ARRI Alexa if your story is lacking. So, get all fan boy if you want, but remember—there are pros and cons of shooting on both, and yes, film may be fading and digital may not be quite there yet visually, but when all is said and done, none of that matters if you've got a great story.     

Your Comment

31 Comments

GH3+Canon FD 50mm/1.8 set between f/1.8-f/5.6=film look.

September 15, 2016 at 2:40AM

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Jerry Roe
Indie filmmaker
1610

hhahahhahahahahhahaha!

September 17, 2016 at 3:30AM

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Great insight.
Def agree that it doesn't matter what you shoot on, it's the story you are shooting. Totally agree that shooting on film and doing post digitally is the best combination. Keep in mind though, that's if you had your pick. What really matters is the story. What Sony and Panasonic have given us in their affordable cameras already is really amazing, and with good color grading and appropriate lighting and composition you will still get striking images for your hopefully good screenplay. The other tip of shooting film photography will teach you more about your mistakes than shooting digitally is definitely true. I've only shot film photography personally for close to 3 years because of all the factors you learn and observe that you wouldn't notice with digital. Though for business marketing I still shoot digitally due to faster turn arounds. But once again your content is what is more important

September 15, 2016 at 2:56AM

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It does matter. If story was the only important thing, you could also just write a book. What camera or lenses you use influences a film just as much as music or lighting would do. I always like to think: "Story is paramount. But if you got a talented filmmaker, give him/her the best tools to work with"

September 15, 2016 at 12:36PM, Edited September 15, 12:38PM

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That is true, but we're not talking about lenses. The point was that the line is so thin with film cameras and digital cameras that it just becomes a waste of energy to obsess over it to an unhealthy point where you forget about the story, actors, art direction, costumes, etc. Alot of "filmmakers" and company sales reps have this obsession that in order for your movie or yourself to be professional you have to shoot with a ie. RED. And honestly there is so much horrible stuff shot with the camera, that you realize the movie's strength isn't solely the camera. It's main strength is the story and the actor's performance. And that's what the DP's were trying to say. Alot of the major productions this year have been shot digitally and with film. They pretty much all look fantastic. But which ones were actually good movies. Very few if any. Telling stories visually is different than writing stories through books. Demeaning the story aspect of film is kind of not the correct way of going through this, since most people go see a movie to see a good story, not to see if it was shot with an Alexa or RED. And of course the best tools are always the best if you have them at your disposal!

September 15, 2016 at 11:37PM

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"It's easier for us to reshoot . . . than it is for them [the editors] to find the material." There's a wake up call.

September 15, 2016 at 3:00AM

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That! Too many people run around calling themselves a DP or a Director, who allow the camera to just roll continuously.
AND
Substituting flags and set lighting design w/ Resolve power windows - this hurts my brain so much. No amount of power windows & grading can substitute for lighting! The idea is almost as bad as shooting everything in 8K/4K with a wide angle lens, and extracting close-ups and medium shots from the 8K footage for 4K/2K deliverables.

Digital does a great job of enhancing shots - not replacing the act of good photography in the first place.

September 15, 2016 at 11:29AM, Edited September 15, 11:33AM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
1340

Every tool has a purpose. Even the tools that debate this question.

September 15, 2016 at 5:23AM, Edited September 15, 5:23AM

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Chris Hackett
Director, Director of Photography, Writer
1056

I'm still not sure why this has to be a debate at all. Art is not a zero sum game. Craft isn't either. Everyone has their own preferred medium, and must decide for themselves what they as a creative like best. The only way somebody "wins" in this case is when great movies are made.

The real debate here is producers forcing the hands of directors and cinematographers so they can save money (and spend it somewhere else.) Do people really want to support strongarming filmmakers into using digital just because they prefer it for themselves?

September 15, 2016 at 10:59AM

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absolutely!

September 15, 2016 at 11:58AM, Edited September 15, 11:59AM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
1340

If/When I create a story of feature length with studio money, I absolutely would shoot it on film.
Even SFX plates, I'd have that shot on large format.

For indie features, digital makes a great compromise - especially for those using DAD techniques: https://blog.filmsupply.com/articles/operation-avalanche/9

Digital is great, but many forget that to get film "equivalent" requires oversampling due to bayer patterns. The Sony Cinealta F35 is basically a 5K something down-sampled in camera to 1080p - for every final pixel, 6 unique photosites are samples (RR GG BB). See: http://www.provideocoalition.com/non_technical_f35_guide/

Film scans can go up to 6K. To get the equivalent of a 6K 35mm film scan from digital acquisition requires a 12K bayer sensor as a minimum!

However

If the target deliverable is for digital streaming only, the above matters far less due to compression.

September 15, 2016 at 11:59AM, Edited September 15, 12:12PM

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Daniel Reed
Hat Collector
1340

I think it's beyond ridiculous that this is still treated like a serious debate.

The argument from those in favor of film has never been that every single project should be shot on film; the argument is that someone who desires to shoot on film should have the option to do so. Yet, the argument from the other side seems to usually be that every single project should be digital, and anybody who chooses differently is a failure wallowing in nostalgia.

The introduction of a new tool doesn't instantly make its predecessors obsolete. Imagine if everyone had stopped using paint the instant that oil pastels were developed.

September 15, 2016 at 3:14PM, Edited September 15, 3:15PM

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Sorry, after about 20 years of this nonsense, I'm STILL not buying this:

" The most important thing is the story. Period. "

I've been hearing that since The Blair Witch Project came out (on Hi8), and when everyone was shooting MiniDV and claiming it didn't make a difference. Anyone here still feel that way about shooting on MiniDV & Hi8? I didn't think so. The quality of the image DOES matter, a hell of a lot. Yes, if the story sucks, high quality imagery won't save it, but a good story that looks like crap is still crap.

September 15, 2016 at 5:09PM

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Matt Pacini
Writer/Director/Composer
135

If the filmmakers would have shot The Blair Witch project with a 5D, Alexa, or RED, (if it was available in 1999) it will def not have the home video realistic feeling that the film conveyed to audiences....soooooooo yeah.

September 15, 2016 at 11:42PM

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>>>Still, digital, at this point in time, looks "digital"

Everything you see projected on the screen today is done via a DIGITAL projector, so unless you happen to be lucky enough to see an actual film print, everything we see today is digital.

>>>in fact, some of the "advantages" of shooting on digital, like capturing vibrant colors and super sharp images, seem as though they are actually disadvantages when it comes to image making.

Digital gives you options that film might not.

You can choose to have vibrant saturated colors or NOT, it's your choice.

You can choose super sharp images or NOT, again it's your choice.

Having more choices is NOT a bad thing. Digital gives you more choices.

September 15, 2016 at 7:48PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

I think one of them was complaining about dynamic range, which film still leads. Film still holds the most latitude with well lit scenarios and has the best highlight falloff. But with sensors like the ones on the Alexa, it becomes minimal. Especially with the low light advantage of Arri

September 15, 2016 at 11:45PM

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In HDR mode RED cameras have roughly 3-4 MORE stops of dynamic range than film does. ( DR for film is 14+ F-stops, HDR RED is 18 F-stops )

Panasonic and Fuji have been working on new digital sensor technology for the past five years that should deliver 20 F-stops of dynamic range when it's finished. Currently it looks like this tech is still 3-4 years from being ready to use in a camera.

September 16, 2016 at 8:59AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

HDR mode is a joke on RED. It ghosts badly when there is movement. That's why it's rarely ever used. It's mostly used for landscape, photography, or time lapses. RED's new sensors have 14 stops of DR (that includes the Helium sensors), not 16+. Trust me, I've tested them. Vision 3 500T film has about 16+ stops. Some film labs say they can get 19 stops. Kodak Portra 400 has about 21 stops, but that is used for photography. Remember it's not just about how many stops, but also highlight falloff. Also color and skintones. Alexa is the closest digitally, but there is still has a while to catch up on some specifications. And the DP was speaking about right now, not in the future

September 16, 2016 at 10:51PM, Edited September 16, 10:53PM

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I haven't seen much HDRx footage where ghosting was visible, but I'm sure it's possible. According to RED, the second highlight-exposure frame is typically shot at a much higher frame rate than the standard frame rate.

So if you wanted to increase the dynamic range by 4 F-stops and were shooting at 24fps with a shutter at 1/48th of second, the second exposure would be shot at 1/768th of a second. So the finished HDRx frame would be incorporating a 1/768th of a second of movement in the finished shot. I can't imagine seeing much of a "ghost" image when the second shot is made at 1/768th of a second after the first shot.

Here is what RED has to say on HDRx: https://goo.gl/YjIuWv

Here's a really interesting demo made using the RED HDRx format, of a car driving through a tunnel and then into bright sunlight using one single F-Stop : https://goo.gl/NcCnPl

Here's an article about this car shoot: https://goo.gl/ukMYU1

And here's a NFS article about RED HDRx : https://goo.gl/S69dKw

Also, the ARRI ALEXA achieves it's 14+ F-stops of dynamic range using pretty much the same HDR technique by combining two images together to create the finished image. I don't know if these two images are from the SAME exposure, or if they are doing it the same way RED does.

Way back in 2011 the Zacuto folks invited a few ASC cinematographers to help them with a big camera shoot-out, that would compare everything from low-cost to high-end digital cameras, and they included a couple of film cameras in this test. The results were analyzed and several graphic charts were created to illustrate how the cameras performed.

One of these charts was a dynamic range chart: https://goo.gl/Iqoy9S

In this chart you can clearly see that the Kodak film stock slightly outperformed the ALEXA camera by 0.1 to 0.4 of an F-Stop. In other words, the ALEXA performed almost identically to the Kodak film stock in term of dynamic range. And this was back in 2011, so I would imagine that ALEXA cameras may have improved their dynamic range slightly over the past 5 years. New film emulsions are no longer being developed, so very likely film will perform the same today as it did in 2011.

For more info on the Zacuto 2011 Camera shoot-out, here's a NFS article on it: https://goo.gl/lyzd1i

Nick, I would be glad to read any objective tests with published technical details of the test and the results that show 19 F-stops of dynamic range when shooting on movie film-stock, as this would be news to me.

September 17, 2016 at 2:03PM, Edited September 17, 2:14PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

No it does not; a myth that has died for the past 3yrs. Arri lead the way, Blackmagic is there w/ Sony, as are Red and Canon and even Panavision.

Latitude is a done deal; digital has matched and exceeded film in that department.

September 18, 2016 at 4:56PM

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Finally found the info I was looking for about how the ALEXA sensor uses HDR to create it's 14+ dynamic range : https://goo.gl/SoU9U6

It's the last paragraph on the linked page.

September 20, 2016 at 3:42AM, Edited September 20, 3:42AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

Yeah man, keep reading and not testing. I stopped reading what RED marketing puts out and just look at actual real world results. I never said I got 19 stops, I said a film lab was able to pull 19 stops. Once again you're comparing apples to oranges with an Alexa vs RED HDR. One works the other one doesn't(or at least for moving subjects). I will gladly like to be shown the HDR video you saw. RED is also recording two files, that merge together. You would know this if you shot in HDRx. The algorithm is different on the Alexa sensor , so is the filtering of the photodiodes, and the sensor also has a far superior read out rate. Plus the highlight falloff is far better on the Alexa sensor. And Kahleem, when you shoot 35mm film or higher let me know about your beliefs on Vision 3 latitude. Does digital hold better latitude at higher ISO's? of course, but at lower ISOs it still can't match 35mm + 500T kodak Vision 3 Stocks. Of course latitude isn't everything. But to deny the facts, is just plain dumb

September 21, 2016 at 11:40PM

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So you want people to have more choices, but you DON'T want them to have the choice to shoot on film?

That doesn't really make sense.

September 16, 2016 at 7:39AM

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I have no problems with shooting on film. Shooting on film is the easiest way to get the "film look", where the digital process to get the "film look" can be a lot more convoluted.

What I'm not keen on is people pretending that film is the greatest format ever created, and slagging on the digital process with no real facts to back up their claims.

Right now everything we see in the theater is delivered via a digital projector, so even when you shoot on film it will still end up being shown using a digital medium.

That digital medium enables software post processing of the images we capture so you are free to create almost any kind of look that your heart desires, including the "film look".

September 16, 2016 at 9:07AM, Edited September 16, 9:09AM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

Amen to that.

I personally prefer the film look, done digitally or otherwise. But, I understand that this is MY perspective and not everyone may share it. Most celluloid lovers DO try to religiously shove the idea down your throat whilst having little knowledge of the other side.

Yet many digital artists that I know of have more knowledge of film than not.

Funny how that works.

September 18, 2016 at 5:01PM

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Who cares? People are still the weak link. Most suck at filmmaking.

September 16, 2016 at 7:01AM

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You could say the same thing about other forms of art, like writing novels, painting pictures, creating and performing music, etc...

September 17, 2016 at 2:18PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33758

The very last film lab just closed, another one, which is on it's last leg, like 150 miles away. There's no goddamn point anymore. Just fuck off already.

September 18, 2016 at 5:25PM, Edited September 18, 5:25PM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1671

The RED troll is hitting at it again. So cute

September 25, 2016 at 2:53AM

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It just looks so much better on FILM - the END !

September 19, 2016 at 9:15AM, Edited September 19, 9:15AM

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Barri Hitchin
Director/DoP
175

Sorry but the debate is over.

Digital won.

Now stop arguing and start making films.

September 22, 2016 at 3:45PM

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