It’s the end of an era – or very nearly so. The major manufacturers of motion picture cameras have all discontinued production of film-based cameras to focus exclusively on digital cameras. Nostalgic cinephiles will no doubt shed a tear at the loss, but will general audiences even notice?
Creative Cow magazine reports that manufacturers Panavision, ARRI and Aaton have all pulled the plug on film cameras within the last year. The writing has no doubt been on the wall for some time now. According to the article, ARRI claims that “The demand for film cameras on a global basis has all but disappeared.” The founder of Aaton says that, “Almost nobody is buying new film cameras… We wouldn’t survive in the film industry if we were not designing a digital camera.”
Does this mean that no movies will be shot on film anymore? Not quite. There are plenty of existing cameras available out there in the world market, and film stock is still being produced by companies like Kodak and Fuji (though undoubtedly in much lesser quantities than years past). Directors who prefer the film look (Steven Spielberg has been a big proponent) will still be able to shoot movies on film if they want. For a while, anyway. With no new cameras being made, maintenance and upkeep of existing cameras will become a specialized trade, even more so than it already is. The ARRI representative believes that movie production will be 85% digital within two or three years, and that film usage will continue to dwindle after that point.
It hardly seems like very long ago that critics and commentators were decrying the emergence of digital cinema, both in terms of movie production and theatrical projection. In a famous 1999 essay, Roger Ebert wrote, “I have seen the future of the cinema, and it is not digital.” His feelings were widely shared. (I’ll admit that I was anti-digital for a while.) At the time, digital photography still had a smeary, cheap, “soap opera” look to it, and digital projection was low resolution and artifact-ridden. In the meantime, of course, digital cameras have made great strides toward mimicking the traditional film look, and digital projection has largely supplanted film prints in theaters.
Most audiences today, especially younger audiences, have taken the transition in stride, if they’ve even noticed at all. Yet to those who care about such things, digital photography still doesn’t quite look like film. It’s not better or worse, necessarily, but different. It has different textures and a different aesthetic. I suppose that over time, both artists and audiences will become so accustomed to digital that film will look downright quaint.
What concerns me is that so many of today’s movies are limited to 2k resolution. Either they’re shot with 2k digital cameras, or shot on film and then post-produced with 2k Digital Intermediates. 4k or higher photography and DIs are still very rare. Whereas pure film productions can be scanned at higher resolutions to resolve more detail from the photographic emulsion, these digital productions are forever locked to their original resolution. Eventually, as technology advances and we watch our movies on higher-resolution screens (both in theaters and home), today’s digital movies will look very dated and primitive. In that regard, film is still timeless in a way that digital may never be.