Shooting on Digital or Film a Defining Choice for Oscar-Contending Cinematographers

Rodrigo Prieto The Irishman BTS
Courtesy of Netflix

More than 20 years after the first digitally shot film was nominated for an Oscar, the decision of whether to shoot film or digital is still surprisingly fraught in some situations — and is having a major impact on the developing awards season picture.

The Camerimage Intl. Festival of the Art of Cinematography in Poland, often a good early indication of Oscar potential, announced its nominations Oct. 21, and among the contenders for the Golden Frog are Lawrence Sher for “Joker,” Rodrigo Prieto for “The Irishman,” Pawel Edelman for “An Officer and a Spy,” Dick Pope for “Motherless Brooklyn,” Caleb Deschanel (who was Oscar-nommed earlier this year) for “Never Look Away,” and Phedon Papamichael for “Ford v. Ferrari.” Sher is the only name on this list not previously Oscar-nominated.

Also in the conversation are Roger Deakins (“1917”), Robert Richardson (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”) and Mihai Malaimare (“Jojo Rabbit”). Many cinematographers admire the work in “Just Mercy,” shot by Brett Pawlak, and not to be counted out are John Toll, a two-time Oscar winner who shot “Harriet,” and Dion Beebe, who shot 4K 120 frames-per-second 3D for Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.” Lee calls it the future of cinema, noting that the clarity of the image allows the audience to sense more fully the character’s thoughts and feelings.

Meanwhile, Hoyte van Hoytema shot 35mm film on “Ad Astra,” and Rachel Morrison followed up her historic nomination for “Mudbound” with “Seberg,” also shot on emulsion.

On “Joker,” Sher and frequent collaborator Todd Phillips were planning to shoot film right up to the 11th hour.

“Each format has pros and cons,” Sher says. “You want to make the decision aesthetically, in terms of what it can bring to the film, but I always resisted switching if there were caveats — like, ‘You can shoot this, but when you shoot exteriors, you have to make certain accommodations.’ The Alexa was a game-changer for me, but I think Todd is still challenged by the transition. He’s starting to see the benefits, but we really struggled on ‘Joker.’”

Morrison says that format is still not a purely story-based decision.

“With rare exception such as ’Seberg,’ budget still seems to dictate the film versus digital debate,” she says. “But most DPs feel fortunate that we still have film as an option in our toolbox. It often takes a supportive producer, director and other sacrifices to make film a reality on projects with smaller budgets.

“‘Seberg’ is inspired by ’70s paranoia films such as ‘The Conversation’ and ‘Klute,’ and celluloid just felt right and, I dare say, necessary,” says Morrison. “There’s a certain intimacy created when you shoot on film. Everyone brings their A-game because you only get so many takes. I truly believe that celluloid provides a tactile and irregular quality that mirrors real life and makes the audience feel inherently more engaged at a subjective and subconscious level. That said, digital does have certain advantages.”

Malaimare blended two formats in the same film, a technique that is becoming more common, and which is made practical by digital cameras. For “Jojo Rabbit,” he used Hawk anamorphic lenses and spherical T1 lenses from Vantage film, manipulating the stop on the sphericals to make transitions more seamless.

“Using lenses to reduce the digital feeling in the image and lend flavor is definitely a good way to go,” he says. “Digital gives us many options, but I still enjoy having some restrictions. Sometimes I paint myself into a corner just so I can find an interesting way out.”

For “Ford v. Ferrari,” Papamichael shot with Arri Alexa LF cameras and older-glass anamorphic lenses adapted by Panavision to cover the larger sensor.

Rather than using the latest car-action techniques, he and director James Mangold were inspired by classic large-format racing films from the 1960s including “Le Mans” and “Grand Prix.” The goal was to bring the audience into the cockpit.

“The technology we used felt appropriate to the story and the period,” Papamichael says. “I love the format because I can get close with wider lenses without it feeling wider. The falloff and depth is right, and I can isolate an actor in close-up without taking him out of the environment.

“No matter how the tools change, our basic creative assignment as cinematographers hasn’t really changed in a century,” says Papamichael, a previous Oscar nominee for “Nebraska.” “I know the tools well enough to achieve the results I need, but the non-technical aspects are what make you a good filmmaker — you still have to know where to put the camera, how to move the camera, how to light, how to tell a story.