by Gene Turnbow

James Cameron’s Avatar broke new ground in 2009 by being not only shot all digitally, but exclusively released that way as well.

Movies like The Avengers, all five of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings pictures and almost every other FX film shot in the past five years have something important in common:  they weren’t shot on film.  There have been one or two notable exceptions.  The Dark Knight Rises was shot on 35mm motion picture cameras, yet even there, most of the visual effects were still done digitally.  Film – real actual celluloid with photosensitive emulsion on it – is becoming more and more scarce in the process of making motion pictures, and is in real danger of disappearing entirely.

Though about half of all movies were being shot on HD video by about 2005, the biggest change The change really began in 2009 with James Cameron’s Avatar , which was could only be distributed for digital projection in theaters due to the 3D.  That precipitated a massive wave of theater upgrades. If you wanted screen Avatar (and what major theater chain didn’t?) you installed digital projectors.

The entire industry went through a transformation, mostly driven by costs.  It’s amazingly expensive to ship metal cans full of movie film in a process called “bicycling” that sends each print from one venue to the next, costing upwards of $1,500 per print as it moves from theater to theater.  By contrast, a digital “print” costs only about $150 to do the same thing. The digital revolution in movies, therefore, began not with the cameras, but with the projection systems.  It was of such benefit to the studios to distribute digitally that they, in many cases, subsidized the conversion of theaters to that format.

Creeping Technology

Even effects films, until about the mid 2000’s, were shot on film.  Star Wars is a remarkable example of this, perhaps the most remarkable.  What we see today is an over-saturation of one well done film, but in the day, it was a breathtaking film technology tour de force, that cost only about $12M to make when all the dust had settled.  Lucas’ effects team had figured out how to print elements together four at a time and build up hundreds of layers to create some of the more complex shots, and they did it all with optical printers, based on nothing more than clever optics and mechanical film movement mechanisms.  Nearly every single thing they did, nobody had ever done before. They created a new genre of motion pictures, overnight.

This new way of making movies started a chain reaction.  Effects had to be bigger and better every time, and it had to get cheaper somehow.  1979 saw the release of Ridley Scott’s Alien, but by 1982, a mere five years after the release of Star Wars, computers began to be used for movies like Disney’s Tron.   The first film shot in all digital was Robert “Spy Kids” Rodriquez’  Once Upon a Time in Mexico, in 2003.

The big push for shooting in digital didn’t happen until James Cameron went with a completely digital production methodology for 2009’s Avatar.  The movie set astonishing new records at the box office and a new standard for spectacle cinema.  All sorts of productions began shooting on HD video.  Now shooting on film was only done for the sake of aesthetics, and most studios frankly don’t give a damn about that so long as they make money – and sorrowfully, a generation of theater goers who have never known a time without electronic visual media aren’t able to tell the difference.

No Turning Back

Shooting in video is getting easier by the season; Panasonic has announced at CES this year that they’re making a new head mounted 4K camera.  That’s works out to about 12 megapixel video shot at 24 frames per second.  Most movie theaters project at only half this resolution.  What’s amazing isn’t the fact that it’s a head-mounted camera, by the way, because it’s frankly a stupid idea.  Most of the electronics is in an umbilical device carried in one’s pocket.  The point is that a camera high enough resolution to shoot motion pictures on is now small enough to be worn on your head, and that the technology is getting small enough that they can start playing with the form factor.

Shooting a movie isn’t just about the camera.  You have the people, and all the trucks, and the actors, the props, the lighting, and the advertising budget (which these days can dwarf the actual production costs).  The camera and the film itself are still the smallest part of any production budget.  Old-style film technology is also well trodden ground. The traditional chemo-mechanical process has been used essentially unchanged for well over a hundred years, and you can do things in it that you can’t do with digital.  It’s richer, it has texture, and a sort of biology to it that electronic cameras, regardless of how good they are, simply can’t reproduce.  When you hear that camera running, you know that’s the sound of money running through it.  As a film maker it inspires you to do things in as cost effective manner as possible – and it has an expressiveness that video, so far, hasn’t been able to match.

There are so-called “activist directors” who remember the power and expressiveness of real motion picture negative, and don’t want to see the  film taken out of filmmaking.  The Dark Knight Rises was shot on film, not video.  So was Marvel Studio’s The Incredible Hulk, and J. J. Abrams has said that Star Wars: Episode VII will be shot on celluloid.

Even there, the effects have to be done digitally.  There’s simply no other way to produce the imagery anymore. For effects films this still makes a lot of sense, as the marrying of various components of complex scenes are best done on a computer.  After all, it’s still going to be projected digitally no matter what, and the kind of compositing being done today is simply impossible using purely optical means – and with so much of the rest of the production pipeline being digital anyway, film cameras are being seen more and more rarely.

Film may never completely go away, but it’s getting dangerously near the brink. With distribution of films going purely digital as early as 2015, only art houses will be screening prints of movies on actual film – and these are fast disappearing too.  Projection systems that use film are harder to maintain, and even a bit dangerous sometimes.  Projection booths can reach 120 degrees on a bad day, with the projectionist sweating off as much as five pounds a day inside in the most extreme cases.  And, with the disappearance of available prints on film, how long will it be before art houses start simply closing their doors?

The industry is in continuous, rapid evolution – faster now than at any point in its history.  It is possible now to work at a studio with industry veterans who have never held a piece of real motion picture film in their hands in their entire careers. Film is rapidly becoming something everybody talks about, but that nobody actually uses.  Will it disappear completely?

As much as I hate to contemplate the idea, it honestly and quite seriously could.

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Gene Turnbow

Gene Turnbow

President of Krypton Media Group, Inc., radio personality and station manager of Part writer, part animator, part musician, part illustrator, part programmer, part entrepreneur – all geek.