At the dawn of cinema, DPs and directors only had the choice of shooting their movies on film. Now, there are so many options available from a large format to a tiny 8mm negative. Since the early 2010s, digital cameras have dominated the cinematography game, but some DPs and directors still believe film is the way to go.

So how do you figure out if your next film should be captured in a digital or with film? It’s a question we can’t answer for you, but we can give you some pros and cons to help with your big decision.

Thanks to an exclusive interview with renowned DP Robert Yeoman, In Depth Cine and CookeOpitcsTV break down the benefits and setbacks of shooting digital and film. Check out their full video here: 

Film cameras 

To know the pros and cons of film, we need to understand what film is first.

Film is a medium that is made from a photochemical gelatin emulsion. When light hits the emulsion for 1/50th of a second, the light rays are absorbed, and the image is imprinted onto the emulsion. The film has to be developed through a series of chemical baths without exposing it to any additional light. This process permanently fixes the image onto the piece of film.

Usually, negative film is used to capture images—meaning the image is imprinted as an inverted image onto the film—but there are color reversal films such as the Kodak Ektachrome which captures light as a positive and produces a perfect image. 

A great benefit to working with film is that it captures a particular look. Although there is a lot of talk about being able to color grade a digital shot to look like it was shot on film, the truth is that film feels unique and has a depth that digital fails to capture. The look of film is irreplaceable.

Another benefit to film is its value. Yeoman says that when he works with film, the crew and actors seem to be more focused on the project. Once they hear the sound of the camera rolling, everyone is on their A-game. 

On the flip side, you are reloading the camera every four and a half minutes. If you’re constantly reloading your 400-foot 35mm magazine, and calculate the processing cost, that is about $450 for four and a half minutes of footage.

In short: it’s expensive and leaves room for little to no error. This is no problem for more experienced filmmakers who know exactly what they want, but if you are wanting to experiment and try a few different takes, you might be digging deep into your wallet.

Although the video tap systems in modern film cameras have greatly increased, the quality of their output isn’t fantastic. You are not able to see issues like the frame being out of focus or if a small strain of hair is on the lens until the film is processed. If there are issues with the shot, then you have to reshoot the scene. 

Pros_and_cons'Love & Mercy'Credit: Lionsgate

Digital cameras 

Digital cinema cameras use the same method that film uses to capture images, but the difference is that digitally replace the emulsion with a sensor that captures the light in pixels. The information is then stored in a digital file in formats such as ProRes or RAW. 

Since everything is already stored on the camera, filmmakers have access to the footage right away. There is a huge perk in having the playback ability to show what was captured and if anything needs to be reshot, then and there.

Another great perk is that the camera can roll for a longer period before the card needs to be changed. This is a huge advantage if you are shooting a documentary or want to be experimental and play around. The last great perk to shooting with a digital camera is how accessible it is. Not only is it a great option for low-budget filmmaking, but it is easy to travel with and does exceptionally well in places that a cinematographer cannot light themselves. 

Unlike film, digital cinema cameras cannot capture the depth that a film camera achieves. The look is very different and is hard to replicate during the color grading process. Another downfall to digital is that the crew and actors take advantage of being able to take multiple shots. Yeoman states that when he has shot with a digital camera and the director yells cut, the crew and cast would lose their concentration and go on their phones. They weren’t on their best game when they knew that nothing was at stake. 

Screen_shot_2021-07-02_at_12Pros & Cons to Film and DigitalCredit: In Depth Cinema

In the end, the decision to shoot on digital or film cameras is gut-feeling. There is something very special about film cameras that makes them a great option, but the accessibility to digital cameras can outweigh the quality of film.

For practical and easy use, go with the digital camera. If the project allows for a bigger budget and has a focused goal, go for the film camera. 

At the end of the day, the project will tell you what you should go with, as well as your filmmaking instinct. Tell the story the best way it can be told within the means of the production. 

Let us know if you have any more pros and cons to add to our list of digital vs. film cameras in the comments below!

Source: In Depth Cinema