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Edward Butt

Will digital ever be as good as film

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As I understand it, most big-budget feature movies record on film as opposed to digital; the common claim being that film provides a much more cinematic image, etc.

 

Does anyone think that we'll come to a point when digital cameras are able to produce an image, indistinguishable from film - and that cinematographers will choose digital over film due to artistic choices instead of being led by financial considerations?

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Some already do pick digital for artistic reasons as opposed to budgetary ones, but I think that the constant sriving to make digital look like film is a fool's errand. Digital may or may not get better, film may or may not get better, but the whole notion of "better" or "worse" is kind of hard to quantify. So I like to think of things in terms of appropriateness. Approached that way I can at least start to form my own reasoning and justifications to use one or the other based upon a specific requirement and not some broad arch. But, this of course also means that I don't think you'll ever get the two to be indistinguishable. The operate on very different principles, though both towards the same goal.

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I think that's a very good response. Artists need different choices having things the same is a bit pointless. Both film and digital are great tools for creating moving images, they're different in so many ways, it's tiresome to keep comparing them.

 

Pav

Edited by Pav Deep

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I think certain digital systems are already highly competitive with film, certainly to the point that the convenience of digital and the ability to reassign funds elsewhere would be persuasive to me, given all the choice in the world. Alexa in particular looks very nice.

 

P

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They are like two ships passing in the night - I think we've reached the point where we've got cameras now with a similar dynamic range as film (Alexa, Sony F65, and Dragon sensor for the Epic), similar resolution, and that's about as close as we are ever going to get... at this point digital cameras will take their own path and keep improving things like dynamic range, resolution, sensitivity, surpassing film in those areas, drifting farther now from a classic 35mm film look.

 

There may be some oddball cameras over the next few years that attempt to build in a "retro" film look, such as the Digital Bolex, but they will be outside of the norm. Film is film, digital will only get to be similar to a certain level without copying it exactly, and then it will grow beyond what film can do. However, software tools to emulate a film look for a digital image will keep improving.

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I agree with David although I think the two are going to diverge even further than that.

I don't think that video will ever look like film because the focus on video will be on things like resolution and dynamic range where video will end up far exceeding what is practical on film quite quickly. Other less quantifiable factors will be largely ignored.

Video will also make things like slow-motion a much more trivial matter if we havn't already reached that point.

Slow motion footage will be easily available to anyone.

 

Freya

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Just look at trends in still photography -- is any camera maker really trying to match the look of 35mm still film anymore or are they just improving the performance of their sensors in terms or resolution, dynamic range, and sensitivity / noise? Once you capture enough information, emulating film is mostly a post issue.

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Just look at trends in still photography -- is any camera maker really trying to match the look of 35mm still film anymore or are they just improving the performance of their sensors in terms or resolution, dynamic range, and sensitivity / noise? Once you capture enough information, emulating film is mostly a post issue.

 

I don't know about that. I don't see much in the way of still photography that looks that much like 35mm still film and the situation is more difficult with movie film. I've never seen any video successfully emulate film (It usually looks awful when people try) mostly people don't seem to be trying to do so but just working with the medium as it is.

 

Freya

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I agree with Freya on this one. Even in stills film where it is theoretically easier to get the massive amounts of data to emulate a film look later on, it seems to me at least that there is a vast divide between film origination and digital origination. I personally peg this down to the physics behind both-- which are for all intents and purposes worlds apart.

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When an Japanese engineer talks about improvements of his camera, he says it has 'improved clarity' compared to the previous model. Very rarely have I had fiction customer DOPs ask for more 'clarity', usually they talk about 'mood, tone it down, etc'.

In the hands of a capable DOP, film is becoming what a fine oil painting has become, a unique art of expression. I now handle more artists films than commercial fiction films and they all 'create' something rather than 'capture'.

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I think you have to be a bit objective about this rather than just vaguely pine for a "film look". You have to break it down into the individual constituents of the film image -- the resolution, the dynamic range, the color reproduction, edge sharpness, grain structure, etc. I know it's complex and there are aspects that are pretty hard to reproduce, like the fact that film stores detail on random grains that are in different places frame to frame, but I've seen plenty of film emulations to digital images that are fairly convincing even if not 100% -- look at "Nebraska" for example, shot on the Alexa, converted to b&w, and b&w film grain added -- it had a very classic b&w negative look. It wasn't an exact match, but the feeling to the image was very film-like.

 

Or think of it this way, what are the digital characteristics that have to be hidden or minimized to seem more like film?

 

Anyway, you had better hope that film emulation of digital is possible because someday...

 

These days, thanks to the clean look of digital projection, I have a hard time sometimes figuring out if something in the theater was shot on the Alexa or shot on 35mm. Sometimes I've assumed Alexa because the image is so fine-grained only to find out it was shot on film. Sometimes I've assumed film only to discover it was shot on the Alexa...

 

But I think we're reaching a point where this is as close as it ever will be. Digital will keep advancing in resolution beyond 4K and perhaps even dynamic range (film negative has about 14-stops according to Kodak, and so does the Alexa... I can see a day when digital cameras have 16 or 20 stops of DR) and that leaves vaguer things like color reproduction, and right now, some color differences are better captured with film but others with digital, it's like a different set of hues and shades that come forward or recede back. As for grain, digital just doesn't have it, it just has noise, which is different, but grain is not the hardest thing in the world to add to digital images.

 

We're reaching the point where the reasons to shoot film become more tied to just getting that classic retro look and filmmakers will start to expect cameras to easily go beyond 3200 ISO or be able to shoot faster than 120 fps or be stripped down to just the sensor block and lens, or shoot a 30 minute take, etc. -- any number of things that are harder to do with film cameras. We will reach a point where standard cinematic technique becomes tied to things that digital cameras can do easily but film cameras have a harder time with.

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Of course, there are many who claim that our love of the 'filmic look' is purely based on the fact that we're used to it, and in a few years time, a digital image will seem more organic to us.

 

I personally hope that this isn't true.

 

On a side note, would a digital camera designed to work like a sort of inverted DLP projector produce a good image?

By this I mean that an RGB colour wheel would separate each frame into the three colours (like the 3-colour Technicolor process). Just a thought.

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On a side note, would a digital camera designed to work like a sort of inverted DLP projector produce a good image?

By this I mean that an RGB colour wheel would separate each frame into the three colours (like the 3-colour Technicolor process). Just a thought.

If you mean 3 Chip CCD cameras rather than single CMOS sensors, they already exist and have done since before CMOS became the norm. They are arguably better than CMOS in many ways.

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Yes, a 3 CCD camera works in a similar manner to a 3-strip Technicolor camera, both use prism blocks and RGB filters to separate the light onto separate sensors or pieces of film, both monochromatic information. Of course, a Technicolor camera only split the light in two directions instead of three and the red record had to be created by dyeing the blue record red and passing the light through that piece of film onto the other, hence why the red record was fuzzier and grainier with Technicolor cameras.

 

A 3 CCD prism block digital camera with sensors that are 35mm in size, rather then 2/3", would be rather bulky though.

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A 3 CCD prism block digital camera with sensors that are 35mm in size, rather then 2/3", would be rather bulky though.

 

Sure, but couldn't that be avoided by using a colour wheel as opposed to a beam splitter?

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Spinning color wheels only work for non-moving objects, still shots, you can't have sequential color or else you get fringing around motion. Each frame has to capture R, G, and B all at the same moment in time, hence the prism block to split the light three ways through three filters.

 

Otherwise you are reinventing all of those early color processes like Kinemacolor, etc. and all of their problems.

 

But the real question is whether color reproduction would be superior or more film-like with 3 sensor cameras, and you have to ask yourself if that was true back when we were shooting movies on the Sony F900, F23, Viper, etc., all of which used three sensors for color. Or if you used an RGB striped sensor like the Genesis and F35 uses instead of a Bayer pattern. Certainly you get more resolution or equal resolution per color with these techniques, but it becomes moot as the overall resolution of a Bayer sensor increases, and I'm not sure if using three sensors would appease people who want digital to look more like film. After all, each color layer in color film stock isn't equal in resolution either, the layers with larger grains or the ones at the bottom of the stack tend to be less sharp.

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I think viper looked a lot better than anything red has ever produced, in terms of colour rendering. I say this based on Benjamin Button, which, in its less stylised moments, looked like a normal movie, with everything that implies about acceptability compared to the historically established standard.

 

I find that almost all digital cameras - though I can't really talk about Alexa - need a look imposing on them with grading, a look that film often has built in. That may well just be habituation.

 

P

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When 200+ million dollar movies choose the Alexa over 35mm I guess that tells us something. They are choosing the Alexa for its quality, not to save money.

 

I still love the look of film. The Alexa certainly provides a beautiful image for a super low cost. I was particularly impressed with what I got out of the Alexa in low light situations. Kids in a cave at night with just a camp fire to light their faces...perfect and not a hint of video noise, truly amazing. The embers that passed through the flame streaked as if the camera was rolling film through at 24fps.

 

Now I have a GoPro Hero 3 for my quad copter and that is impressing me as well!

 

R,

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I think viper looked a lot better than anything red has ever produced, in terms of colour rendering. I say this based on Benjamin Button, which, in its less stylised moments, looked like a normal movie, with everything that implies about acceptability compared to the historically established standard.

 

I find that almost all digital cameras - though I can't really talk about Alexa - need a look imposing on them with grading, a look that film often has built in. That may well just be habituation.

 

P

 

It always blows my mind when people talk about Benjamin Button in this context because I thought the movie looked really, really awful, and I was trying to enjoy it but was constantly taken out of the story by being aware of how scary awful it all looked. The fake film bits were especially bad and annoying but the movie generally looked bad. As I remember it also suffered from some really patchy acting.

 

I thought Zodiac looked okay however, and think that movie might be a better example.

 

Freya

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I think you have to be a bit objective about this rather than just vaguely pine for a "film look". You have to break it down into the individual constituents of the film image -- the resolution, the dynamic range, the color reproduction, edge sharpness, grain structure, etc. I know it's complex and there are aspects that are pretty hard to reproduce, like the fact that film stores detail on random grains that are in different places frame to frame, but I've seen plenty of film emulations to digital images that are fairly convincing even if not 100% -- look at "Nebraska" for example, shot on the Alexa, converted to b&w, and b&w film grain added -- it had a very classic b&w negative look. It wasn't an exact match, but the feeling to the image was very film-like.

 

 

 

I think you have hit the nail on the head with the problem in these discussions. How do we know we have identified all the qualities of film? If we have missed something because we weren't able to quantify it in a scientific way at the time, or there were faults in the scientific analysis or thinking, then it isn't going to work. Theres is also the possibility that there may be qualities that are basically just impossible to reproduce.

 

It addition to this there is the fact that we will of course start with the obvious and easy to reproduce qualities first, such as frame rate or resolution. We probably already have cameras that can exceed the resolution of a film print but it isn't going to stop there, so resolution will continue to rise out of step with other qualities such as colour reproduction or highlight roll off. This means that these qualities are never likely to be in the same proportion to each other as they are in film.

 

This has actually always been a bit of a problem in film too. The people making film stocks were very often looking at the scientific criteria behind things, just like people are doing with digital cameras. In reality though, some stocks just looked better than others. Sometimes this would be things that they weren't even considering in the production of the stocks. You would have these strange situations where some stocks would have beautiful grain patterns and others would have really ugly and nasty grain. You would also get stocks that were just magical stocks. For instance Plus-X was a magical stock on which it was relatively easy to get something incredible out of. Double-X was a stock for which you had to be much more aware of what worked and didn't work with the stock and you had to work with the stock a lot more to get nice results. It was often the case that amazing stocks would get discontinued and lackluster stocks that were on paper better would be offered as a replacement. EXR & Vision 50D springs to mind in this context.

 

The truth is that there has always been an aspect to this stuff that was always more art than it was science.

 

Freya

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Anyway, you had better hope that film emulation of digital is possible because someday...

 

 

Not sure quite what you mean here?

I'm guessing you mean digital emulation of film but I suspect that it isn't possible and film will just go away.

In a lot of ways it already has.

 

These days, thanks to the clean look of digital projection, I have a hard time sometimes figuring out if something in the theater was shot on the Alexa or shot on 35mm. Sometimes I've assumed Alexa because the image is so fine-grained only to find out it was shot on film. Sometimes I've assumed film only to discover it was shot on the Alexa...

 

 

 

Again, this is spot on. Digital projection means that the films shot on film are basically digital too.

I personally find I can still tell the difference and there has only been the odd occasion when I have mistaken some really bad film transfer for video. However the move to digital projection means that film has already lost a lot of its qualities. Most people have forgotten what film projection looked liked by now and the video projection we have in cinemas is a look we are already used to anyway so it isn't that outlandish.

 

I have to say tho that I have stopped going to the cinema as I can watch video in my own home without the hastle or expense of watching a video projection in public. There is nothing special or magical about going to the cinema anymore. This is one of the reasons for 3D, to try and pump a bit more magic back into cinema but I have to say I'm not into it.

 

One possibility is that in the future film will be seen a bit like technicolor is now.

It might also only be used in art related work.

 

I think we will also reach a point that people will stop caring about what the movies look like really, if we havn't already reached that point. What Phil describes as "Good enough". A bit like the whole thing with .mp3's, they were practical and were basically good enough for most people.

 

Freya

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Oh, the dread words "good enough."

 

Current electronic cameras are good enough to replace film. To be extra, super clear, "good enough" in that context doesn't imply inferiority, it simply means that they're not the same. Which they're not.

 

I no longer think it's very reasonable to complain about electronic cinematography being not as good, that's all. If you can't make decent pictures with current digital cameras, the problem ain't the camera.

 

P

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I no longer think it's very reasonable to complain about electronic cinematography being not as good, that's all. If you can't make decent pictures with current digital cameras, the problem ain't the camera.

 

P

 

The Alexa is the only camera presently being manufactured that comes anywhere close to looking like film in colour. There is still quite a gap but it looks sort of okay.

 

As for people not being able to make decent pictures with digital cameras it would seem that list would include: Claudio Miranda, (not just for Benjamin Button but for Life of Pi which also looked awful, Oblivion looked a bit better but nothing to write home about), Simon Duggan (for the great gatsby), Andrew Lesnie A.S.C. for the hobbit, Dariusz Wolski for Prometheus (although his work on the counselor is the best looking Red Epic footage I have ever seen)

 

None of these movies look as good as even lower budget productions shot on film.

I don't believe that the problem is with the operators. I think the problem is with the cameras because it is always digital cameras that are producing these bad results. I've not yet seen skyfall all the way through but the excerpts I've seen also looked unimpressive compared to any bond movie shot on film. I don't even understand why anyone would get excited by the look of that movie because the stuff I've seen just looks quite boring so far. It's Roger Deakins tho so I want to believe that it's not going to look like the trailers and excerpts.

 

I believe that for the most part these people would be able to get great looking footage with a film camera. In quite a few cases they already have.

 

Much of the work I see shot on digital cameras is lacklustre and often samey looking.

 

I'm now really skeptical when people tell me that stuff shot digitally looks great because it so rarely does. It has died off now but I remember a few years back people getting really over excited about ungraded Red One footage and saying how amazing it was and I couldn't believe they were seeing the same thing that I was seeing. I have had to come to the conclusion that they weren't. Just like you aren't seeing the same thing I am seeing when I see a beautifully shot film like Anna Karenina. I'm sure you believe that there are movies shot on video that basically look just as good. For all I know you don't like the way that Black Swan looks for instance but I think it looks way better than any of the movies I have listed above, by a considerable amount.

 

The problem is that people like yourself are really not seeing what I am seeing and once film has gone away you will be saying there is no difference because you didn't see what I did in the first place. For you it will make no difference. I will miss it greatly tho.

 

Freya

Edited by Freya Black
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In theory, couldn't one achieve a classic film look by converting a a raw digital image to 35mm negative roll? That way you can shoot without the hassle of film (and the expense of wastage), while being able to take advantage of the subtle nuances which make film so stunning. After all, isn't a CMOS sensor just taking in pure images from the lens, whereas film passes its qualities on to the image?

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You certainly cont convert something to something else without bias-- so you can' really get a "pure" image.

Also you have to remember that film and digital respond to light in very different ways. One does so logarithmically, the other does so in a linear fashion up until a point on both ends where it has exceeded the ability to be recorded.

Plus you have to think of film as a series of different images which your mind combines into a flow, the other records the same image over and over again-- think of a pure white surface. Recorded on film for 1 second you get 24 discreetly differentiated images, recorded on digital you'd get the same image 24 times. This is a very simple way of looking at it, and there are things like noise to think about in the digital system, but it's a pretty quick mental image of the two.

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