Film thrives in digital age

Pros say 35mm puts the best footage forward

Don’t retire that film camera quite yet. As film struggles to remain relevant in today’s increasingly digital environment, its strongest ally –ironically — may be digital post-production.

Even with the advent of high-quality digital cameras, many believe that film is still the best medium for capturing footage destined for digital manipulation.

Digital intermediate suites, where footage is tweaked and color-corrected with tools that do for movies what Photoshop does for stills, have proliferated in recent years. A majority of today’s movies are undergoing DI rather than traditional photochemical processing as they make their journey to the bigscreen, whether shot on film or “on digital.”

“When I’m in that DI suite, I think about Ansel Adams, who did the same thing to manipulate his great black-and-white photographs,” says d.p. Roger Deakins, who pioneered the DI concept with “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and has used it on such films as “No Country for Old Men” and “Doubt.”

But despite the advantages of digital manipulation — including the relative ease of adjusting the image, especially when visual effects are used — DI has important limitations. One is that it simply can’t pass along all the information contained on a 35mm film frame. Many DI projects are still carried out at the current d-cinema standard — the relatively low 2K resolution –but even those done in the more detailed 4K format may not do full justice to the image on a camera negative. “A 35mm film negative can contain a resolved image equivalent to up to 8K,” says d.p. John Bailey (“Groundhog Day,” “He’s Just Not That Into You”). “That’s far superior to the best digital capture available today.” Even with blur from imperfect lenses and mounts, a film negative has far more information than today’s DI can handle.

So why not just shoot digital on a project that will pass through the digital suite? “I don’t think any digital camera is even close to being able to capture what film captures,” adds colorist and DI wizard Stefan Sonnenfeld, whose credits include such studio tentpoles as “Star Trek” and “Transformers 2.”

D.p. James Chressanthis (“Ghost Whisperer”) believes film is way to start the process because “it lets you extract so much more from the image. … It’s superior whether you’re doing a (lower-resolution) ‘poor-man’s’ DI on a low-budget film or a full studio scan, because there’s just so much more information.”

Ingrid Goodyear, general manager of Kodak’s image capture business, points to film’s extra dynamic range as a selling point.

“Film has a big advantage over digital in its ability to capture wide extremes, particularly the highlight extremes, which tend to be a downfall for a lot of digital cameras.” She says that the company’s new Vision3 line yields even more image information than did its earlier stocks.

Even Deakins concurs that film’s dynamic range makes it the best capture medium for digital intermediate work, especially if the DI is at 4K resolution.

“But,” he adds, the technology doesn’t really matter unless “the resulting images help the storytelling and allow the audience to be immersed in the film.”

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