WHY FILM

By Shikha and Paramvir Singh

“It is the grain I guess”, “...some kind of depth”, “there is something to the texture that is so beautiful”, such remarks have become commonplace in the visual world of today smitten by digital technology, but of course meant for that which is truly unique, Film. So what is it in the medium of film that is so compelling? The answer lies in its form and process, which on one hand emerges from the principles of science- physical and chemical, and on the other unfolds the magical birth of an image, when a ray of light meets the film plane.  Celluloid has stood its test of time and has amazed visualizers with its potential time and again. In truth, the journey of discovering possibilities of image making with film are far from over..

    “But digital videography is coming of age, it is cheaper” come the quick retorts, heralding a discussion that sounds inane to our ears.  Are we a group of film arrogants, romantics? Well there is enough reason to be so. The organic process of film  upholds an imagery that is as distinguished as the world it represents. Andrei Tarkovsky once said, “the artist exists because the world is not perfect”, which is as true for the very existence of art itself.  Then why is there such a need for that controlled accuracy, a sense of wedging sharpness in visual perceptions and acute colors in an imaginative space of films? Clearly a digital image ridden with such nuances is not totally impressive. Or immersive. To put it in one word, it’s synthetic. No wonder we often find many professionals spending hours on a digital image adding ‘the film grain’. Every artist chooses his or her canvas and tools to create an artistic output. The decisions are governed by knowledge, intuition and a desire for a certain result.  At an aesthetic and a technical level, it excites us to see how shooting on film brings endless choices in determining the finishing of an image, be it color, contrast ratio, latitude and depth.

    Knowledge of the artistic tools lends to their more aesthetic and articulate usage. Shooting on film requires a certain knowledge of the art and craft, while at the same time allowing freedom. When I was in film school, one of our visiting lecturers, Sabu James, used to tell us “When in doubt, close your eyes and shoot. Eastman will save you”. The same can't be said about digital.

    When shooting digital, one is always concerned of the latitude and resolution. “Will the skies hold”, “Will the shadows hold”, “Will it compress right for YouTube”, “Will the cameras jam in the heat”, “Will the chips fail”, “Will the hard drives crash”, “I hope none of the shots gets corrupted during transfers” and so on.

    I live a heavily digital lifestyle. I run a few websites, work with compositing softwares for still and motion both, a lot of CGI etc. I understand Digital Images much better than most people I know. However, when it comes to acquiring images, I know film is the best way to go. I am still amazed at the molecular level activity which happens inside each frame of motion picture film, in 1/48th of a second, how tiny molecules of silver bromide react with light, releasing and re-attaching negatively charged ions, depending on the amount of light hitting them. It’s an extremely sophisticated scientific process, which ensures that marginal increase in exposure does not necessarily lead to an equal increase of density. This is also what gives film the beautiful 'S' shaped H&D Curve, ensuring we have absolutely beautiful tones and soft gradations between them.

    Having tried most of the digital cameras available out there, I can only say that they are far from being worthy replacements. I have let go without grading, of at least two commercials shot on advanced digital cameras, touted as ‘film killers’, because the image had no latitude. It was virtually impossible to grade the image. There was no information beyond what the eyes saw.

    One of the most satisfying moments of shooting commercials on film is sitting on the grade. Every time I grade, I am wonderfully delighted at the amount of information and detail the negative has, and the endless creative possibilities that gives film makers.

    There is a whole strong digital marketing machine, much supported by wannabe film makers, people without deep understanding or knowledge of the medium. They preach that digital is faster, easier, cheaper. Nothing can be further from the truth.

    Digital has much lower tolerance to extremes of lighting situations, something we call latitude. Because of this, it takes much more time to light and ensure that the camera captures all that is required, beautifully. To be able to ensure that the camera captures enough detail, from highlights to shadows, and create a beautiful image, requires skill and time. And if the film makers are not concerned with capturing details and delivering breathtaking and appropriate images, then they should not be making films in the first place.

    About the cost. Whoever said digital is cheaper, obviously is partly ignorant. Let’s talk about commercials. A typical digital camera, like the Arri Alexa or Red ONE MX costs more to rent per day than your typical film camera. Add to it the cost of buying a performance hard drive for quick transfer of the rushes. Now add to that the cost of buying a second hard drive for backup (I have had the main drives crash on me 4 times. Yes FOUR TIMES, including expensive chopper shots, leading to near heart-attacks, never underestimate the power of backups). Each of these 1TB FW800 HDDs equal the cost of a can of film. Then add to it the time the edit suite is going to bill you for transferring rushes from the hard drives to their own storage, a process that is slower than real time. If you have shot Arri Alexa, the raw footage, though FCP compatible, is HD, and studios will bill you HD rates for offline, even though you need to deliver in SD. Down conversion is more time and money. Now whether you shoot digital or film, you still need to grade. The cost of grading is the same. In most cases Digital needs to be graded on systems like Lustre and Quantel, which are typically more expensive than the more nimble DaVinci Resolves.

    So the only cost difference is perhaps about 4-6 cans of negative (on a typical 30 second commercial shot in one day, this is the typical usage). That is about Rs 48-72,000/- ($1.200,00) for an image quality that is far superior to what any other medium can deliver. And that without blown highlights, low color latitude and low details. A typical actor/music director in a TV Commercial charges more money than this difference.

    Again for feature films, the mathematics are similar. The cost of negative is generally much-much less than the cost of a typical second lead actor. But the images delivered, in terms of aesthetics, quality and detail, and the time saved in lighting them, more than make up for this difference.

    And an image that is proven to last the tests of time. We can still see John Flaherty’s ‘Nanook of The North’, 1922. But my 5 year old hard drives don't mount any more. Old mini dv tapes are already playing with glitches and a friend wanted some place where he could grab Hi8 footage, and found none. My old FireWire 400 drive ports and cables are not compatible with FW 800, FW800 ports and cables are not compatible with Thunderbolt, we don't know if USB will be around 4 years from now. Can you calculate the cost of constantly shifting your films, your footage from digital medium to another newer digital medium, as and when the hardware manufacturers keep declaring formats obsolete in only a few years of launching them?

    Imagine if ‘Sholay’ (1975) were shot on Umatic? Would the producers be able to recover the film and make money today? Or the original ‘Mughal-E-Azam’ (1960)?

By Shikha and Paramvir Singh, Mumbai based film makers.
First published in IMAGES magazine by KODAK India.

01/06/2012