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Film's digital demise

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NOVEMBER 07, 2016

We call them films, but more often than not, that’s a misnomer. “Films,” in the traditional sense of the word, are projected on the medium of film. But that type of projection has become as archaic as VHS tapes and record players. According to a May 2016 report by Information Handling Services’ Cinema Intelligence, 98.2 percent of theaters across the world have converted to digital. The cheaper, simpler form of projection is nearing its complete takeover. The past of film is becoming just that: the past.

Berkeley itself has a thriving cinema scene. Our variety of theaters offer tiny independents, foreign films and documentaries — making for second homes to the rabid fans. UC Berkeley’s film program focuses on the historical and theoretical and is filled with lovers who grew up on the wonders of Cinerama and Cinemascope.

Its students are active, seeking access to such an exclusive industry. Casey Currey-Wilson, president of Berkeley’s chapter of the professional cinematic fraternity Delta Kappa Alpha, believes that the digitalization of filmmaking has democratized the art.

“A great artist will be able to create great work no matter the constraints of the medium.”

“A great artist will be able to create great work no matter the constraints of the medium, ” said Currey-Wilson. “I think that digital is a more accessible medium for those artists to emerge and maintain their enthusiasm for filmmaking within an often cutthroat industry.”

Students are one of the key beneficiaries of the transition. When an increased access to equipment and an increased quality of digital resolution has led to more activity and methods of engagement among students, such as student film festivals, it’s hard not to appreciate what digital can do. “I think if a few more student filmmakers are able to succeed as a result and bring more great ideas to the industry and the world, it’s an overall gain for humanity no matter what medium (the films) were shot on,” Currey-Wilson said.

The economic benefits aren’t limited to students. Many professionals trying to make it in the industry are reaping rewards from the possibilities that digital opens up. For Tobias Deml, a UC Berkeley graduate and professional cinematographer, shooting on film was never really a choice he could make, but it seems as though he’s more than OK with digital.

“I’ve seen a bunch of digital work — pretty much everything on YouTube — that would be economically impossible if it were shot on film,” said Deml.

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

The democratization of film is inarguable, especially at the independent level. Digital has resulted in types of movies that couldn’t even exist a decade ago — Sean S. Baker directed “Tangerine,” a movie shot entirely on an iPhone and one of the most critically acclaimed works of 2015. Digital helps a wider array of filmmakers reach the forefront.

Fans of the film medium, however, hold onto the experience of film projection as superior. Even Currey-Wilson couldn’t deny the difference. “I saw (Quentin Tarantino’s) ‘The Hateful Eight’ in the 70mm roadshow format, and the image quality was superior to anything I’ve seen that was shot digitally,” he said.

Eileen Jones, UC Berkeley visiting assistant professor in the film and rhetoric departments, firmly believes that film offers the superior quality. An instructor of the color theory course, Jones points to a time in cinema’s history when the medium of film worked wonders. “There’s nothing to compare to Technicolor film of the 1930s to 1950s if you’re looking for sensationally beautiful color filmmaking,” she said. Jones looks to filmmaking partners Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger who, in seminal films like “The Red Shoes” and “Black Narcissus,” “achieved lush, gorgeous yet subtle effects with color that nobody even tries to do now.”  

On the other end, Jones laments what digital has done to the art of cinema. “The worst tendencies of digital filmmaking, once the unpleasant sharpness and flatness of the image started improving, are all about a lack of ambition or imagination,” she said. “All that derivative CGI work in sci-fi/fantasy and action films, stuff we’ve already seen done a hundred times, it’s unforgivable!”

The worst tendencies of digital filmmaking, once the unpleasant sharpness and flatness of the image started improving, are all about a lack of ambition or imagination.”

A sad truth is that even when movies are shot on film, the vast majority of the world will still only see it in digital. “Most ‘film’ films are only acquired on film stock, then go through a Telecine scan process and are distributed via digital projection,” Deml explained. So even when a filmmaker like Christopher Nolan shoots a film like “Interstellar” mainly on IMAX 70mm film, a format that offers about 12K resolution, a majority of the general public sees it in digital IMAX (dual 4K projection) or standard theaters (2K or 4K resolution).

That public certainly isn’t helping film stick around. Deml suggests that the general public prioritizes a story’s entertainment appeal instead of “drooling over flickering grain textures.”

Jones sees the negative effects of the digital takeover as extending beyond the movie screen. “There’s such indifference to screen size except in the case of the biggest blockbusters,” she said. “People will watch movies on TV in the wrong format or on their grimy computer screens or their cellphones — whatever.”

Michael Wan/File

The process then becomes threefold, encompassing the shooting of movies, the projection of them and the increased consumption of them on devices outside of the theater. As the conversation continues, nothing can actually stop the digital conversion from happening. More people are able to share stories, so there are phenomenal benefits.

But film can still survive. “There’s always the minority of dedicated filmgoers who love the form and will try to save it,” Jones said. “What’s being fought for is the possibility of keeping film as an aesthetic choice made by a handful of ambitious directors.”

Even if only on a small scale, Berkeley might be able to have some say. While most cities have converted entirely, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive often projects on film and California Theatre offered a 35mm version of “Interstellar” two years.


“With its long history as a major center of alternative filmmaking and film-going, the Bay Area is a good place to take a stand,” Jones said. Our community thrives on the ideals of free-speech, so, at the very least, we can offer the following question: Why not promote choice?

Kyle Kizu covers film. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.

NOVEMBER 07, 2016