Digital versus Film…

“Here are my rules: what can be done with one substance must never be done with another. No two materials are alike. No two sites on earth are alike. No two buildings have the same purpose. The purpose, the site, the material determine the shape.”

— Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead

On Bookface the other day, a friend picked my brain about digital vs. film, and I was actually a bit surprised at some of what I came up with off the cuff. Herewith, my thoughts, somewhat expanded from what I replied to him:

Digital can look like film, or damn near, if care is taken. But film is the way to go, esthetically, if one has the budget. I love how accessible digital makes “film”making for low budget, though. Today’s Jess Francos and Jean Rollins will be even less hostage to producers than before, and that’s a pretty good thing.

But esthetically? Film. I think Christopher Nolan is right, at least for now.

Digital might make some things possible that we haven’t even imagined yet. Take synthesized music as a comparison. It was possible to create in the ’60s, to some extent, but didn’t really become its own thing till the early ’80s. And then you got soundtracks that couldn’t have been done any other way, good and bad, like Fletch, Beverly Hills Cop, Chariots of Fire, Terminator, and Ladyhawke. The synthesizers are made to sound unlike anything else.[1. Counter-example: the synthesized score for The Princess Bride, which in any other movie would piss me off tremendously because it sounds like a cheap Casio keyboard. But somehow, for that one movie, it works.]

The thing about film, that makes it Film, is it has a sense of unreality about it. Movement at 24 fps has a majesty it just doesn’t in real life. It’s that unreality, that dream-like state, that makes a film feel like a film. (Lots of other things go into that feeling, probably, but still I think that film projected at 24 frames per second is a big part of it.)

Maybe there’s a way to shoot digital that can bring that same dreamlike quality, that same majesty of movement. Robert Rodriguez has done the most successful experiments (Sin City, Once Upon a Time In Mexico), but they’re not new, they’re emulating film and a comic book. I’m thinking/hoping that there’s a simple way to do digital that is both great, and can’t be done with film or any other method. But I have no idea what that might be. Yet.

To this, Rory responded:

But what’s this about the dream-like quality of film? I’ve heard it before and I don’t get it: I look at both digital and film and they seem to play the same for me. Is it something going on at a subconscious level, that you can feel the gaps? Maybe it’s in fact more human: after all, we don’t see the world in one continuous stream — our brains can’t keep up. We do actually piece together the world and our minds fill in the gaps, as we move our eyes around (I mean, you get a near-continuous stream if you look straight forward and don’t move I guess — that’s not too taxing).

The dream-like quality is perhaps subconscious, but definite and real. It’s pretty simple to see, too. Just watch something shot on video (30 fps), and then something shot on film (24 fps). Video looks gaudy and cheap, film always looks better. (There are likely other reasons for this, including color reproduction.) I mean, watch old Doctor Who or other BBC dramas from the ’70s or ’80s. Interiors shot on video, exteriors on film, and it’s noticeable, just for one example.

As for why, I don’t know, but it probably has something to do with persistence of vision and how the mind processes images. Fewer frames in the same amount of time gives a little bit more time for each image to linger in the mind.

For example, here’s a trailer to a piece of family-friendly schlock produced by Roger Corman, shot at 30 fps (on digital video):

And here’s a trailer to a piece of family-friendly schlock produced by Roger Corman, shot at 24 fps (except the slomo, obviously):

Filter out the similar stories, similar production values (or lack thereof), and just look at the quality of the image. All else being equal (which I tried to achieve in my choice of subjects), the first looks like home video, and the second looks like film.

It further occurs to me that the way film blurs motion versus the way video doesn’t (or does, but in a very different way, not sure) also has something to do with it.

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