Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Ongoing Film vs. DV (especially HD) Debate

I sorta thought the whole film vs. video debate was winding down. It seemed like there was universal agreement that film looks best but that it was cost prohibitive (and unnecessary) for a lot of filmmakers and digital video (specifically HD) provided a strong enough and cost-efficient alternative. So, let's all go make our films and shut up.

I guess I passively accepted this mindset, happy to put all the nervousness about DV behind me (along with all of the smug elitism about film). However, a couple of recent occurrences have re-ignited the discussion for me and dislodged a nagging thought that I want to share.

The first occurrence is the emergence of the RED HD camcorder (not much bigger than one) with it's shocking 4k resolution image and its semi-apocryphal promise of stunning visual beauty for the price of a stick of gum (I will discuss this camera in detail in a coming blog). The folks salivating over it would have you believe that it practically relegates all other filmmaking details - like writing, acting, set design, etc. - to minor issues.

The second occurrence is my having shot my last short, "Transaction", on Super 8mm (with many questioning why I didn't shoot video and "create" the 8mm look) and also informing people that I will be shooting my next feature, "Rust" (in Oct. 08) on Super 35mm. I'm always surprised to find that people raise their eyebrows when I tell them this and look at me like I'm some kind of idiot.

So, as a little experiment, I went around telling people that I was unsure whether to shoot film or HD - which is completely untrue, of course, because I am 100% certain I am shooting on film - because it allowed me to hear the various arguments for or against the two choices.

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I won't go into detail about the responses other than to say that I was a bit surprised that there were still so many hard-core film purists out there. I can't say pleasantly surprised because they tend to be passionate in the way fundamentalist Christians are about their religion and it makes me fear for the spiritual, if not physical, safety of hundreds of thousands of HD "mediamakers" (purists refuse to acknowledge DV filmmakers as filmmakers or even cinema-makers).

I was also surprised, however, by how far the DV pendulum has swung. Once the ugly step-child of filmmaking, DV filmmaking has been given a new attidude through all the amazing HD tools here and on the horizon. It now has a kind of elitist energy of its own, like the class geek who suddenly beats up the school bully and now gets all the girls. When I tell these HD folk about my film, they suddenly stiffen, eyeballing me like I'm some kind of foolish throw-back for even contemplating shooting on film.

In the end, however, I was mostly saddened (and cynically unsurprised) by how few people even asked me any details at all about the film I was making before launching into their rant about their medium of choice. Few cared to know what I specifically wanted to create and what kind of energy it needed to have. This sad fact clarified for me the nagging thought I wanted to share. And, it is simply this: THERE IS NO FILM VS. VIDEO DEBATE.

Saying there is a film vs. video debate is like saying there is an oil vs. watercolor debate. Or a bronze vs. marble debate. Or even a 16mm film vs. 8mm film debate. Ludicrous. Film and Video (even HD) are two separate mediums...or formats or whatever you want to call them. They are two different looks, two different textures - and, as such, elicit two very different (sometimes only subtly different) responses in an audience. For me, this point is the beginning and end of any discussion about which medium to use. And it raises a larger issue about the way filmmakers too often (don't) think about their films.

There are so many details involved in the making of a film, that it is totally understandable that filmmakers can, sometimes want to, skip over a couple of things and just let the chips fall where they may. Maybe they won't fuss over finding the right location, or insist on the right prop or obsess over color palette, or get anal about composition, or demand a certain kind of performance from an actor - whatever. All of this stuff gets admittedly exhausting. But it's important to remember that filmmaking is the sum of all these details. A film is like an orchestral piece, made up of many players/elements - where each violin needs to be finely tuned and each percussive beat needs to hit at the right point with the right velocity and passion.

Everything that a filmmaker chooses to put on screen - the tiniest detail on the most extreme corner of the frame - sends a message to the audience. Now, few good filmmakers manipulate every inch of the frame in a specific way otherwise the film becomes too intellectual and/or too schematic. But it is important for filmmakers to hold a general awareness of the fact that every detail in every inch of the frame affects an audience emotionally and to make key decisions in accordance with that awareness. It's not necessary for a filmmaker to know precisely how what's on screen affects the audience. They are simply aware that every detail has an affect and, ideally, they know how it affects them personally. This way, each detail in the frame and every frame of the movie speaks from a place that personally affects the filmmaker - allowing audiences to share that personal reaction or experience another of their own.

Choosing the medium with which you shoot your film is therefore an important decision. And not because one is "better" than the other, or a more cost effective imitation, or some other reason. The decision should be made based on which medium is most appropriate for the visceral energy you are striving to create with your film. Even when looking at it from an economic perspective (which is important because film can be quite expensive) you can hold to this standard. If, for the right reasons, your film MUST be shot on 35mm film, then it must be shot on 35mm film. If you can't afford it, then make another film first. If it needs to be shot in any other format or medium (16mm or HD or even consumer DV) then shoot it in that medium no matter how much money you have. If it truly doesn't matter what medium you use (and with many films, the content does allow that much flexibility), then you can make a preference-based or economic-based decision - but you are NEVER sacrificing the aesthetic/visceral needs of the film.

The debate is over because it is pointless if not considered from an aesthetic perspective. And if considered from an aesthetic perspective, there is no debate, only choice. Film is (or can be) rich and deeply textured. So can HD, in its own way, and it is an amazing new filmmaking tool. Neither will, in themselves, create an amazing film. That is for you to do. And that only happens by thinking about your films passionately and in totality - with attention to as much detail as your spirit can endure.


  1. The debate echoes the old CD vs. vinyl debate decades ago. For a time, many people (like my father, a classical musician) argued that the analog sound of records was“warmer” than digital iciness of CD’s. But as the technology got better, CD’s and digital recording took over, and now anyone who has recently listened to an old LP will agree that digital recordings offer a clearer and more accurate reproduction of sound.

    I understand the feeling that digital cameras and HD will replace film in the same way that CD’s replaced records. At a certain point the sharpness, tonal range, color accuracy, and other objective factors will be (and perhaps already are) matched and excelled.

    But as Jacques pointed out, we are not scientists; we are artists. In the same way musicians use centuries-old classical instruments, old distorting microphones and other less “advanced” equipment to create the soundscapes they want (Listen to the stranger tracks from “Radiohead” as an example), filmmakers may use a a super-8 camera simply because of the peculiar qualities of the "instrument." In the same way, Thom Yorke uses a 70’s synthesizer and Rap Artists use 80’s drum machines.

    It’s all about creativity baby.

  2. I wish you had asked ME for advice on what format to shoot, because I would have told you it's an aesthetic choice dependent on the nature of the project. (Which is exactly what you just said, except shorter.)

  3. Thanks, Robert. Although your sagacious brevity leaves little room for discussion, it's more than welcome and, of course, right on the nose.

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