Many helmers favor celluloid to achieve specific look

While the switch to digital production in the movie industry has been much ballyhooed — and indeed, both Panavision and Arri have stopped manufacturing film cameras — it could easily still be decades, if at all, before film is a medium of the past.

Indeed, the industry’s digital changeover has been dramatic in areas like episodic television, but bigger-budget studio films have been slow to follow the trend. Johnathon Amayo, VP of production and post-production for Moviola Digital, believes the percentage of movies shot on film currently ranges between 50% and 70%, since many established helmers still insist on using film to get a certain look for their project. Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Zack Snyder, among others, have persisted with film for various projects for aesthetic reasons. Snyder and d.p. Larry Fong pushed to shoot “300″ on film to get the painterly, grainy look they felt would mirror the feeling of the comicbook that inspired the movie.

Panavision alone has more than 600 film cameras it rents out to filmmakers throughout the world. And both Panavision and Arri, which also rents out cameras, can build them for a client who asks.

“We’re at the mercy of what filmmakers want and need,” says Glenn Kennel, president and CEO of Arri. “Right now, we would only make a film camera on special order, but there are a lot of moviemakers who really love film, especially on the feature side, so we keep our eye on that.”

And though Arri has enjoyed considerable success with its digital Alexa, there’s little doubt that staying ahead in the high-stakes, ultra-competitive digital game requires substantial human innovation and cash flow, making it a tough business at best.

Another factor to consider is that the much-vaunted cost savings associated with switching from film to digital can be illusory.

Amayo, who advises filmmakers on their production and post-production choices, notes that large studio productions might not save a tremendous amount by shooting digitally because of all the other costs involved with making a bigger movie. Still, projects shot on film are often scanned and quickly moved into the digital realm in order to give the filmmaker and studio more options in post-production.

For indie filmmakers, however, Amayo believes the savings and opportunities that come from digital can be enormous.

“You’re going to see film moving into more of a niche market where it’s used by filmmakers who have the budget to afford to use it,” says Amayo. “But for the micro-budget filmmaker, digital means being able to make a very professional looking film at a cost that makes it possible to afford all the other things that your movie needs.”

Camera companies also have to monitor what’s happening with those who sell the film stock used in their cameras.

Last month Eastman Kodak, the granddaddy of film stock manufacturers, announced a bankruptcy restructuring plan, including plans to merge its existing three businesses into two — a commercial and a consumer division — with its film group divided between the two. Meanwhile, Kodak has continued to research and develop new types of film stock, such as several versions of its new Vision3 line of film.

“We continue to innovate and to work with filmmakers to try to meet their needs,” says Ingrid Goodyear, worldwide general manager of Kodak’s entertainment imaging. “We’re continuing the work we’ve always done and, in speaking with some producers, I can tell you that the digital workflow isn’t always the least expensive option or the one that always works with a filmmaker’s creative vision.”

The issues surrounding Kodak’s patented digital-imaging technology are even stickier. On Jan. 13, the company filed suit against Fujifilm in New York, alleging that some Fujifilm cameras infringe on Kodak’s patent. Kodak has already filed suit against HTC and Apple over similar issues.

Film stock manufacturers AGFA and Fujifilm declined to be interviewed for this story.

“The real question is how this will all take shape in the long run,” Arri’s Kennell says. “And the truth is that no matter how much excitement there is around a new technology, you really never know, because no one can completely anticipate all the forces at work.”

One sure thing is the longterm viability of the movie camera itself.

“Film camera technology is a mature technology,” says a Panavision exec. “It’s been at a high level for a long time and, properly maintained, a film camera can easily last decades, so there isn’t the need to continually do radical updates to these cameras as there is with digital cameras, because things in that area change a lot every six months.”

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