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Is it really cheaper to shoot in digital?

Digital filmmaking has pros and cons

Feeling pressure from studios and financiers, or just plain anxious about making a festival deadline, filmmakers sometimes shoot digitally rather than on film simply because they’ve heard that digital is cheaper and faster.

But is it?

Yes…and no.

While it’s true that film stock costs more than digital tape or solid-state devices, that isn’t the only cost consideration: Crucial tech factors and prep time can add to digital’s pricetag. And the tab associated with film continues to be whittled down. So the choice isn’t an obvious one these days, and advocates for both camps say it may come down not to which medium costs more but to where those costs accrue.

“Prices are low for digital media,” says cinematographer Bob Primes (“Sleeper Cell”). “They’re a fraction of what film costs.”

That can be a factor when you’re shooting “miles and miles of footage,” says Andy Romanoff, exec VP at Panavision, which rents its own film cameras as well as its Genesis digital camera, which was developed with Sony.

“But the cost question is getting tougher,” adds Romanoff. “So many factors impact the cost of shooting. You have to know an awful lot about the technology you’re working with.”

As one example of how film continues to close the cost gap, Romanoff cites the re-emergence of so-called 2-perf shooting, which cuts 35mm stock costs in half by dividing a single frame of film into two usable parts.

“This has changed the game; you can no longer casually say that one way is cheaper than another,” Romanoff says.

Another consideration is the time spent setting up shots and ensuring their quality. For d.p. James Chressanthis (“Ghost Whisperer”), digital has some notable disadvantages.

“It’s very cumbersome, with more cables, and you’re not always sure what you’re getting,” he says. “You have to check a digital camera to make sure you’re registering the highlights. In film, you don’t even think twice.”

D.p. Rodney Taylor (“That Evening Sun”) says film is faster. “There’s nothing to power up,” he says. “You just do the lighting, set up the camera, look through it and shoot. The advantage is that I can be on the set the entire day and don’t have to sit in a black tent monitoring the image.

“I can more effectively tell a story if I’m close to the director and the actors.”

Other cinematographers see it differently. For some, the ability to view the image on a high-def monitor is a huge improvement. “Digital offers the opportunity to see what your tonalities will be,” Primes says. “Film doesn’t. That’s a very valuable tool.”

Yet that advantage comes with a price. On-set color monitoring often requires a person to do just that, and digital production has spawned the rise of digital imaging technicians as a profession. “It’s a new cost,” Romanoff says. “If you’re going out of town, you may have to pay that person’s expenses for weeks.”

D.p. John Leonetti (“I Know Who Killed Me”), who has shot with three digital cameras — the Genesis, Sony’s F23 and the Red One — is an advocate for film: “It has more dynamic range, and it’s still an economical option for making movies and even TV shows,” he says.

On the other hand, Mark Chiolis, a marketing exec at Grass Valley, maker of the digital Viper camera favored by helmers Michael Mann and David Fincher, says “there are ways to save money with digital, and a potential for better quality, depending on what you’re shooting.”

As the ongoing debate continues to reveal the complexities factoring into the choice between film and digital, producers might turn to d.p.’s rather than bean counters to make the right decision.

“Three or four years ago you would have a meeting and the producers would say, ‘We’re going to do a feature and we’re shooting digitally,’ Taylor says. “Now, even on low-budget features, the producers will often ask me what I think about shooting on film or digital.”

In the end, a lot depends on the filmmaker’s goals.

“You can flip a coin between film and digital,” says d.p. and vfx supervisor David Stump (“Flightplan”). Digital is especially useful, he believes, for cash-strapped indie producers who need to get an early version of a film into a festival in hopes of picking up financing to finish it.

“With digital, you can do more with less during the shooting portion, but ultimately the costs are going to be fairly similar,” Stump says, because the unpolished footage will require more post-production handling. “Digital allows you to transfer costs from an early stage to a later one.”

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