A Beginner's Contemplation of Digital

January 3, 2008

For better or worse, digital technology is changing the way independent filmmakers make movies. With few exceptions digital editing has become status quo and while there is some hesitancy toward digital color correction, it wonít be a long fight.

Currently, the most contentious issue with this technology is whether to shoot a movie digitally or on film. Like any new technology, digital cameras promise solutions to the old problems, while creating an entire catalog of new ones. What are the benefits of shooting digital, what are its shortcomings, what are the unexpected complications?

The first solution digital cameras offer deals directly with the media. With a digital camera there is no film. This means no loading mistakes: i.e. flashing the entire days work, no jammed cameras, and no light leaks.

Digital is not without its problematic counterparts. Cameras recording straight to a hard drive are susceptible to coding errors, file corruption, and a solid enough drop or bump has been known to ruin stored images. These problems are being ironed out, but just as expert hands load film correctly 99% of the time, these issues will become infrequent, not extinct.

The main advantage is that film and processing are expensive and with a digital camera film and processing do not have to be factored into the budget. This argument is ideal for those without a budget to support these costs. Identifying a budget that cannot support film is a little tricky. Filmmakers can find 16mm film on eBay for peanuts. Some of the film is expired, but that hasnít stopped frugal filmmakers from making the purchase.

This is where filmmakers bring up the image-quality argument. The trouble is, there is no objective answer. It all depends on two things: personal preference and distribution. The major creative minds of the project should discuss (1) what they think looks best and (2) what better suits their distribution needs. What does the cinematographer say? This may be the most important opinion on the topic.

Digital works very nicely for non-theatrical release, including a smooth post-production. Then again, some digital cameras hold up just fine for the big screen. Apocalypto, A Prairie Home Companion, and Zodiac were shot digitally on high-end cameras and they finished on film.

On the other hand, 28 Days Later was shot using Canonís XL-2, a digital prosumer camera, and a 35mm lens conversion kit, and it finished on film as well.

Make the decision early to shoot film or digital. It doesnít have to be the first decision, but the sooner the better. Itíll be easier to plan around. Whoever is writing the budget will offer their most sincere praise. And anyone experienced in the movie industry will agree that a thorough pre-production plan is a lifesaver.

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