Search form

Film vs Digital or: Why we need to innovate

Marc ponders the question why we need to innovate, and must not keep the status quo.

My previous post about our ARRI and RED camera test has seen a lot of reactions (thank you all for enganging in the discussion - that's exactly why I'm doing this). Obviously, my line about  death of film does not please everyone. And I didn't expect it any other way. I just finished an article for HD Magazine ( in which I explain this more in depth.

Originally, I was planning to talk about shooting (and using) HDRIs today, but I think I will postpone that for a week and instead talk about a subject that's very dear to my heart: innovation. And yes, that subject is directly related to the discussion about film vs digital.

Every invention that has ever been created had to face one final battle. The battle between conservative and progressive people. I think there are lots of possible reasons and scenarios in which it might make sense to be conservative. But creativity and technology is definitely not one of them. And filmmaking is both creative AND based on technology. Not a single technological advancement in history has been achieved by being conservative. And technology is simply the basis for everything we do in film production. Every single aspect of film making - whether it's physical makeup or CG effects - is driven or affected by technology and innovation. Hell, even on-set script/continuity (which is - in simple terms - a person writing down information on set and confer with the director to prevent continuity errors between takes or shots) is affected by that. They used to take polaroids, now it's digital photos (no, it didn't get much cheaper. The expensive budget item of polaroid film has been replaced with expensive ink jet cartridges. But I digress...)

I'm wondering, in general, what is so good about being conservative, i.e. conserving the status quo, if the status quo is no good, or could be better?

And that one is a tough question to answer, because it usually comes down to only two things: Special interests (who has a disadvantage from this innovation? Whose job is lost, replaced by something or somebody else?) and less tangible reasons like innovation angst (a lot of people are simply afraid to try something new, even if it has the potential to be better, because they're unfamiliar with it, and would have to make an actual effort to learn something new).

But why do we NEED to innovate?

Because our existence as film makers is based on innovation and invention.

If photography hadn't been invented in the mid 1800s, none of us would be doing their film job right now. (That invention, by the way, was protested by traditional artists. I quote from a group of French Artists in 1862: "Photography is a soulless, mechanical process, never resulting in works which could ever be compared with those works which are the fruits of intelligence and the study of art”.)

Photography lead to the invention of film in the late 1800s. If sound hadn't been invented and added to film in the early 1900s, half of the current film jobs would not exist. And, of course, there are always drawbacks to each of these innovations. I'm sure there were a few Wurlitzer organ players picketing Warner Brothers in 1927 when they released "The Jazz Singer" as the first talkie. But I'm happy to see that didn't stop progress. And, funny enough, it was Harry Warner himself giving us the famous quote "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?". I'm glad people didn't listen to him, either.

I could fill pages with examples like these. But it looks like the rain is stopping outside, so I need to finish this up. Let's jump ahead to more recent times. Jurassic park was supposed to be done by using stop-motion (or actually go-motion) animated effects. I tip my hat to the folks at ILM, and to Steven Spielberg and Universal Studios, for taking the risk and moving on to entirely computer generated characters (dinosaurs, that is).

I also tip my hat to Steve Jobs and his fellow investors. No, not for Apple computers. But for believing in PIXAR. A company (spawned from ILM) that literally produced no tangible results for years, and then … "Toy Story". Wow.

And, most recently, I bow deeply before Jim Cameron and 20th Century Fox, for risking "Avatar". Not just a re-hash of stereoscopy, but an entirely new way of making movies. His workflow, in which he captured actor's performances first, and then, in a second step, did the blocking and camera moves, fundamentally changes the way in which a film is being produced and mingles the old-fashioned paradigm of "pre-production, shoot and spot" into a new form.

But there's another urgent reason to innovate: Consumers get bored easily. They want something new, something fresh. And the ability to do something fresh is severely limited if you keep doing things the same way you've always done them. Cinema just got another big boost through stereoscopy. But in the not too distant future, that may become standard, and nothing special anymore.  What are we going to do then? I don't know. We'll see, maybe a convergence between film and games?

Whatever it will be, it's going to be driven by people that take risks, people who innovate, invent, and think at least one step beyond the current standards. Whoever you are, I salute you.