Director JJ Abrams and Daisy Ridley on the set of 'Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens'

The comeback of the celluloid film

‘Star Wars’ was meant to be the digital Death Star for celluloid film-making, but 35mm is making a big comeback, most notably in the latest instalment, ‘The Force Awakens’.

August 2013. Cinematographer Dan Mindel blabs the worst-kept secret in Hollywood. He will shoot ‘Star Wars Episode VII’ on old-school celluloid for director JJ Abrams. Somewhere in Marin County, California, Darth George nevertheless fires up his lightsaber - or, more likely, tetchily twiddles his beard while ruing his decision to sell Lucasfilm and the Star Wars rights to The Walt Disney Company.In 1999, it was going to be so different. George Lucas resumed the Star Wars saga with ‘The Phantom Menace’, shot on film but exhibited digitally in ‘preferred’ cinemas. For Episodes II and III, Lucas moved to all-digital production and exhibition. The director was - arguably still is - Hollywood’s proselytiser-in-chief for bytes over celluloid, and soon he had powerful allies such as James Cameron (‘Avatar’) and Peter Jackson (‘The Hobbit’).

Many would say digital has won. According to Filmmaker Magazine, only 39 films released in 2014 were shot on 35mm film. That statistic came at a time when the cost advantages of digital production meant more features were being made than ever before. Meanwhile, Kodak only reversed plans to end the manufacture of 35mm feature stock when Hollywood studios anxiously placed ongoing guaranteed orders as recently as February 2015. Fujifilm exited 35mm in 2013.

The studios’ orders kowtowed to aesthetic demands from some of their most financially successful talent, including Abrams, Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese. Kodak’s about-face has seeded an uptick in celluloid production. That renaissance is reaching a mini-peak right now.

Not only is there ‘The Force Awakens’. For the latest Bond, ‘Spectre’, director Sam Mendes switched to 35mm after using digital cameras on ‘Skyfall’. Spielberg’s Cold War thriller ‘Bridge of Spies’ is one of 2015’s best features and a visual poem to the power of using film for a period piece. And Tarantino is mounting the biggest pushback of all.

His latest, ‘The Hateful Eight’, has been shot in a 70mm anamorphic process (a 65mm negative, with the remaining 5mm for multi-channel sound). It is the first use of the Ultra Panavision super-widescreen format for decades. Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson needed not only to do some more arm-twisting at Kodak, but also unearth lenses unused since 1966’s Charlton Heston epic ‘Khartoum’.

Hollywood hates dirty linen. Not Tarantino. At a ComicCon panel for his film, he derided digital as “HBO in public”, then added, “I thought if I shoot it in 70[mm], then they’ll have to screen it in 70[mm].” Celluloid lives, and Zed’s still dead, baby.

Far, far away

However, the trend goes beyond taste and dogma. Sometimes, it is about how well images capture the past.

‘The Imitation Game’ was a movie about a pioneer of the digital age, Alan Turing. Yet it was shot on celluloid because, according to director of photography Oscar Faura, “We wanted to keep the texture of the negative that has been used for years to shoot most World War II movies. In my opinion, the audience does a visual association when they watch that kind of movie. It is something that unconsciously makes them relate a historic period to a certain kind of image.”

Similarly, while JJ Abrams acknowledges dumping the digital look of the more recently made Star Wars movies, he argues that his team is recapturing that of Episodes IV-VI as the stories that immediately precede ‘The Force Awakens’ in the canon. That neither Abrams nor Mindel have ever shot a film digitally is purely coincidental.

Joking aside, there are technical, engineering and box office reasons why film still gets the nod. Hollywood is only remotely about ‘art’. Digital is disruptive but also still evolving.

While digital projectors are now standard in cinemas, exhibitors quietly admit that film-telecine conversions often screen better than those that have gone through an all-digital flow (only Pixar gets a 100 per cent pass). This matters because of the increasing share of box office taken by large-screen formats, such as IMAX and premium-priced 3D - around 20 per cent and growing for a major release.

“These formats are unforgiving,” one US exhibitor says. “The image is projected at a huge size and for 3D you lose half the light through the glasses, so you want the best source. For an Avatar, where production costs don’t matter, digital wins. More often, it’s film.”

That’s not surprising given the science. Digital production and exhibition have a mainstream resolution ceiling today of 4k (4096x2160px). However, 35mm film’s equivalent is nearer 10k. Note that the increase in equivalent pixel count across these formats is roughly exponential.

As it runs through a telecine machine such as the British-developed Cintel, film offers much more information. The machines then have advanced capabilities for colour correction and removing dust and scratches. Digital algorithms can give film an edge.

What’s my motivation?

The debate is hot. It is easy to cite only those directors and cinematographers who view film and digital as a Manichean either/or. Most see the choice as one of horses for courses.

For example, received wisdom is that if you are making a feature set in rural landscapes, digital might not be an ideal choice. It’s not that digital does verdant greens and earthy browns badly; film simply captures them more faithfully.

When director Thomas Vinterberg and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen collaborated on an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s pastoral drama ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’ earlier this year, they therefore stuck with 35mm, the same medium that director John Schlesinger and cinematographer Nicolas Roeg used for the 1967 adaptation. Vinterberg’s was a film that explicitly did not want to stir memories of a much beloved predecessor.

Yet there was more to it than greens, browns and the swinging 60s.

“We knew it needed to look soft and we didn’t want to have a lot of post-production work. We wanted to have that softness and the grain [offered by film],” Christensen said at the film’s release.

“So this thing where you shoot digital and then add a lot of layers of grain - it felt wrong when our aim was to be truthful. We didn’t want to manipulate the images. We thought: we want it to look like film. Then if we shoot on digital, we have to do a lot of work adding a lot of layers of grain to make it look like we shot on film. Why don’t we just shoot on film?”

In their preceding collaboration, the brilliant Danish drama ‘The Hunt’ (‘Jagten’), Vinterberg and Christensen worked happily, and digitally.

Bang! Smash! Crash! Oops! Bug!

After colour, there is the question of action.

The lightest digital camera from Arri, the German company that along with Red and Panavision is one of the leading trio supplying film production, is the Alexa Mini, weighing in at just 2.3kg and with resolution up to 3414x2198 in a raw open gate format. Then there is the Alexa MT M. It comes in two parts, separating the camera head from the main body so that it also suits production in tight corners or on the move. That camera head weighs less than 3kg, but still contains a 6560x3102px digital sensor.

The manoeuvrability implied by these design is one of the big attractions of digital technology for action sequences. We are not quite there yet, but Hong Kong action directors - the best in the world - want to mount feature-resolution hardware on both combatants in a balletic fight. Rather than assault a static point-of-view, the featured performer would be captured by a camera that moved in harmony with his or her punches, feints and dives. All in 3D.

The problem is such ambitions are not yet always matched by reality.

A friend works on the Hong Kong action scene. I can’t name him as - obeying the omerta of the filmmakers’ union - he’s discussing a colleague’s work and also a movie still in release.
“The Man From U.N.C.L.E. is now my example of what digital can do and what digital can’t do,” he explains. “It’s all digital, I think, but it’s period, the 1960s. And the look is brilliant. Everything feels right. You don’t need to do film to do the past. That’s the good.

“But there’s the bad. In two big action scenes, they use digital cameras to get close to the action. One’s the big car chase at the end - they’ve got a camera attached to the ATV the hero’s driving - and the other’s the speedboat chase in the middle. It’s that one where there’s a problem.

“The sequence is at night. The characters are dressed in black. Digital lets them go in very close when one falls off the back of the boat - but suddenly the image smears, you have these smeary artefacts. The digital hasn’t captured things with enough fidelity. Everything else is right - framing, angle, choreography, timing, editing - but the smear destroys it. The audience won’t care whether it’s digital or film. The eye knows it’s seen something it shouldn’t have.”

Action directors care more about visual breaks in the suspension of disbelief than anyone else. They must deliver ludicrous physics-defying sequences. They must lure you into the moment, even as your brain wants to say, “Seriously?” Despite the e-flexibility on offer, a good number choose to stick with film or keep a celluloid camera around as coverage in case digital hardware does not meet par.

Lost skills

Ironically, ‘U.N.C.L.E.’ was shot by Sir Ridley Scott’s frequent cinematographer, John Mathieson, an avowed fan of celluloid. He felt forced into going digital by, at the time, the looming closure of Technicolor’s UK film processing site.

“It’s a great shame that there’s a generation of kids who have never had a chance to try 16mm. Now everyone graduates to shoot digital. Even if they want to shoot film they are not given the confidence to expose film,” he recently told British Cinematographer.

“We’re talking about the key craft skill of using one’s eye to judge exposure, to really look at the light rather than looking over your shoulder at a monitor with a waveform and vector scope before pressing a record button.”

To get the generally remarkable digital results seen in ‘U.N.C.L.E.’, Mathieson also turned to celluloid camera lenses, such as Technovision spherical glass.

Choose, but choose wisely

The action director’s dilemma illustrates why filmmakers applaud the lobbying that preserved film-stock manufacture.

They may not feel as passionate as their colleagues about using exclusively one format or the other. But they do want a choice. They want what best fits their objectives.

A good example of that currently in release is ‘Steve Jobs’, British director Danny Boyle’s biopic about Apple’s founder.

The drama unfolds over three key events in different years: 1984, 1988 and 1998. Boyle and cinematographer Alwin Kuechler shot each with a different technology: grainy 16mm for 1984, 35mm for 1988 and digital for 1998. It proves a clever yet unobtrusive way of marking time and a very smart way of matching technologies to serve movie-making.

It has also become an example of mix-and-match that other directors and cameramen are finding useful to cite.

Celluloid vs digital. The answer probably remains, ‘Both’.

Or… May the choice be with you.

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