This brief history of digital cinema will show you how digital cinema can still be used in a new and creative way.
Cinema was revolutionized in 2002 when George Lucas released his new Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, which was about to become the first digitally shot blockbuster to hit cinemas. The results of that film were achieved with British cinematographer David Tattersall, who would become the pioneer of digital cinematography in the years to come.
You might watch that film now and sneer at how rough the visual effects look, but they were a marvel to behold when they debuted and everyone could feel the thunder in the ground that would shake the entire industry. Powerhouse directors like Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann, Michael Bay, and Robert Zemeckis knew this change was coming and had to float or adapt.
The British Film Institute uncovered a meeting with these powerhouse filmmakers that took place in a screening room at Skywalker Ranch 20 years ago in April 2002.
During this meeting, filmmakers showed off what achievements they had accomplished with digital effects, with Coppola screening some footage he’d shot for Megalopolis and Mann showing some digital sequences he’d incorporated into Ali.
Then, there were those like Oliver Stone who challenged digital effects, reportedly challenging Lucas by stating, “Film is what we do. It’s what we use. You’ll be known as the man who killed cinema.”
Whether Stone is right or wrong seems like a convoluted argument to tackle in 2022, but the landscape of cinema is rapidly changing as more filmmakers learn to incorporate technology into cinema. The embrace of digital cinematography is challenging the media of cinema, offering a translation of reality, which is what cinema is all about.
The Dawn of Digital Cinema
Digital effects and cinematography were not unheard of by 2002, but the technology wasn’t efficient enough to be adopted by the mainstream. To close the digital production loop that veered people away from digital cinema, an overhaul of the distribution systems that allowed films to be screened on digital projectors needed to be created without the costly need to transfer the final cut of the film to 35mm.
A solution to solving this workflow issue was discovered over dinner in Los Angeles in 1996, according to Tattersall.
During that dinner, Lucas and his producer Rick McCallum persuaded Sony to develop a movie-camera-style high-definition device that was capable of shooting at 24 frames per second with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Lucas wanted to shoot The Phantom Menace digitally, but the initial tests with the new camera were disappointing.
“As a cheeky experiment, however, a couple of quick shots deeply buried in the movie were shot with a Sony HDC-750 Hi Def camera, recorded back onto film, and cut into a master negative,” Tattersall told BFI. One of those scenes is at nightfall when Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) takes a sample of Anakin Skywalker’s (Jake Matthew Lloyd) blood.
When Attack of the Clones was released in 2002, it was among many other digital films to be released that year using the same camera, Sony’s CineAlta F900.
“Shooting on digital video was not a mainstream practice in China at the time,” Jiă Zhangke told BFI. Jiă's Unknown Pleasures was one of the few films shot digitally to release in 2002. “It was considered ‘amateur’ and mostly used for home videos. But I was not a mainstream filmmaker: my films were banned back then.”
The Perks of Digital Cinema
Digital cameras have their distinctive visual language and characteristics that lend themselves to a “celluloid aesthetic.”
Jiă’s regular cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai, discovered many advantages to the new format.
“It didn’t rely on elaborate lighting, it was easy to operate the camera with a small crew, the shoot became more flexible, and it was easier to hide the camera,” Yu said. “We used a small camera so that we could shoot in any public space without having to fork out rental charges [for locations].”
The digital camera could now be placed in locations that a typical film camera couldn’t and embraced smaller crews. Finally, filmmakers who wanted to capture reality could discreetly go to busy cafes or bars without drawing too much attention to themselves. Much like the filmmakers of the French New Wave, filmmakers embraced guerrilla filmmaking.
The Dogme 95 Manifesto
The manifesto was an anti-polish, back-to-basics filmmaking credo that encouraged experimentation with digital cinema to push the boundaries of the medium. The two filmmakers showcased their manifest with The Idiots, causing an awe-stricken and confused audience at Cannes ‘98 to talk about the handheld, digicam textures, and the films’ provocative nature.
The Idiots showed filmmakers around the world that they didn’t need a film camera to make a movie. Instead, they could use their home-video cameras and make something low-grade and gorgeous. In America, Dogme became a staple in the indie cinema scene.
But, it should be stated, that while the Dogme manifesto still exists today, the style of films does not. The cold, fuzzy, and coarse footage is gone and often rejected by modern audiences—I mean, just look at the Letterboxd comments for 28 Days Later. But the visual style was part of the visual language. It was never a mistake despite its distractingly odd appearance.
“Shooting on film can be beautiful when it’s quite dark because the grain has a life,” said Susanne Bier, who made Open Hearts under the terms of Dogma 95. “The grains you got on old-school digital weren’t beautiful. I liked working on digital but I didn’t like what it looked like when the lighting wasn’t good enough. When you shot out of a window, it blurred out the white in a way that wasn’t attractive.”
As digital cameras started to evolve, filmmakers were finding new ways to use the tools to heighten the visual language of their films. David Lynch’s Inland Empire was shot on the small PD-150, which embraced the nightmare-fueled story and allowed Lynch to do 40-minute takes instead of a nine-minute take.
Michael Mann and his cinematographer Dion Beebe found digital to be more attractive because of its “truth-telling style.” An L.A. night in Collateral could be captured, with the yellow sodium vapor stream lamps reflecting from the bottom of clouds to create a soft “natural” light that illuminated the footage.
“You couldn’t possibly capture that with film and that became its own aesthetic,” Mann said. “And it’s an aesthetic derived from technology. It’s not taking the technology and trying to imitate an older form. If I have a negative judgment [of other filmmakers], it’s of people trying to make video look like film. The whole virtue of it is to arrive at a new form.”
It’s Not the End of an Era
Once a digitally shot film was finally acknowledged by the Academy when Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Button were both nominated for Best Picture and Best Cinematography in 2009, digital cinematography took over the 35mm as the industry standard.
It’s a rarity to see a 35mm film on a 35 projector today. While purists like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Tacita Dean would and still do fight for the medium of film, there is no denying that digital is widely successful for its accessibility and budget-friendly nature for many productions.
Digital cameras today are widely attractive. While they do not have a lively grain to them like film, they can capture gorgeous images. Sometimes, these images can be nicely composed, but filmmakers must remember that the camera and the editing software are just tools.
We still have the responsibility to say something with the tools given to us. Whether we shoot digitally on our cellphones or have the budget to shoot in IMAX, there must be a purpose behind each of our creative choices on set. Always choose the camera that fits your project.
New technology is being integrated into cinema every day at a rapid speed. It’s an exciting and slightly terrifying time to be creative in the industry, but you shouldn’t be afraid to experiment and find something that could revolutionize the filmmaking landscape.
Let us know your favorite use of digital cinematography in the comments!