Monday, October 12, 2015

4K VERSUS FILM?

Okay, Twitter is just not the forum to really consider the issues.  So I'm compelled to write this (longer than 140 characters) blog post.  I’d love to hear from anyone with interesting counter arguments.

I don't think the real issue is 4K versus Film, or digital versus film, but that is one issue.  So some thoughts on that subject first.

Cost

For us lowly indie wannabe filmmakers, digital is cheaper in several ways.

1)    film stock and developing

The most obvious thing -- if we tend to ignore the capital cost of memory cards -- is that it costs a significant amount of money to process an hour’s worth of film and nothing for digital.

2)    time costs

The time cost is equally significant, but a two-edged sword.  First, the fact that digital is easy to shoot (no storage problem, like refrigerators for film) and more obvious, easy to view immediately. These factors make it easier to start and easier to understand how things are going.
    The other “edge” of this sword, which I don’t totally subscribe to, has to do with the idea that shooting on film makes everyone more careful, more ready to do their best because you aren’t going to do a large number of takes. (Except that this rule doesn’t apply to truly big-budget, big name folks anyway, e.g. David Fincher.)  I think the time value of seeing footage as you work is a significant plus for film.  “Video assist” is common for this reason, I realize.  I think the issue of everyone doing their best is a challenge for the director, not for the medium used to record the performance. Then there is the occasional processing lab mistake which is one of the nightmares of shooting on film.

3)    capital

Clearly, it is possible to acquire or rent acceptably decent cameras & lenses far cheaper than the equivalent 35mm or 16mm packages.  The film Tangerine is the fashionable example, of course, and -- for the subject / story / environment -- iPhone was a reasonable choice.  And good for marketing.
    Presumably, cost of gear is one reason that something like half of the features shown at Sundance in recent years (I think the data was from 2013) were shot on some form of DSLR.
    I also find it ironic that many of folks who argue most passionately about the superiority of film do not own (or in some cases, have never even rented) a film camera, though they own at least one great digital camera.

4)    for the big boys: distribution

Finally, for a film that sees wide distribution, the cost of film prints is / was a very significant expense item.  It was certainly one of the incentives for major studios to go digital and even help theaters go digital.  It’s a problem I would like to have.  A good DCP probably costs less than 1 - 3 film prints these days.

4K is too much, unnecessary

One argument against 4K is that the human eye can’t really see it.  Another is that since most video is either seen on televisions or via the Internet, that 4K is vast overkill, to the point of silliness.

On the first point, I am not an authority but I believe that viewing any image that is derived from the highest quality master has the potential to add quality to the image.  My prints made from my 4x5 negatives look better in many ways compared to my prints made from my 35mm negatives.

And, as far as web video goes, I believe we will eventually figure out the public policy / corporate greed equation to permit very high bandwidth to the home, at which point 4K television (not broadcast) becomes feasible. Again, we are at the very beginning of these developments and we should not mistake today’s limitations as fundamental problems.  I can remember accessing the Internet via dial-up from home and it seemed great at the time.  But twenty years later, Internet connectivity is more than an order of magnitude better.  Technically it could be vastly better, but the real problem is not technical, but political, social, economic.

Art, Look, Nature of the Medium

Most of the folks arguing in favor of film are doing so because of their belief and perception that film is fundamentally different and more to their liking in important ways.

There is no question that a projected 35mm film print and a projected 2K theater experience are different.  However, I think a basic fact (or perhaps a sad truth) is that many folks simply don’t see the difference.  Perhaps side-by-side many would see something.  But watching a digital projection today and trying to compare it to the 35mm film projection I saw last year is beyond most of us. Digital is clearly good enough for the mainstream, even in its present form.

Film is an amazing substance. Billions of one micron bits of silver halides, distributed in a nearly transparent emulsion of gelatin form an image that is unique in the history of technology.  The word “pixel” simply has no meaning in discussions of film.

I think the future will resemble the past here. Let’s look at the history of photography.

The Daguerreotype was a miraculous image; the first practical photographic process.  Each daguerreotype is a unique, precious object.  That uniqueness was an artistic asset and a commercial liability.  The daguerreotype appeared in 1839 and was obsolete by 1860.

The tintype was a very cheap, widely popular form of photography in the 1850s.  Many Civil War images were made on this unique process; each image was made on a sheet of thin iron.  It died out in about twenty years, although it enjoyed some afterlife as a novelty.

The platinum print was an exquisite paper print medium. It became commercially available in 1880 and become so popular that even Eastman Kodak brought out a version of this printing paper. Many art photographers, e.g. Edward Weston, produced some of their finest work on this paper. But the cost of platinum rose dramatically (compared to silver) and by the 1930s, commercial platinum papers began to disappear.

So, when was the last daguerreotype or platinum print actually made?  The answer is: last week.

Each of these technologies disappeared from the mass market but eventually were exploited for their unique artistic qualities by artists painstakingly duplicating these technologies.  This is what I think will happen to film.

Quentin Tarantino can pay 100 theaters to show his film from film prints. But digital cinema has already become the mainstream in theaters in developed countries.  I believe that the idea of an “arthouse” cinema will grow to include the idea of projecting from film prints (as well as digital for business reasons).  Film will not die in any total sense, but could become the basis for a limited form of film art, fulfilling the vision Spielberg and Lucas mentioned of film theatrical experiences more like our current stage theatrical experiences; limited runs, expensive tickets, unique art forms.

Of course, the major problem with this vision is that the manufacture of film stock -- unlike a printing paper -- is difficult to duplicate without the commitment of a major industrial process controlled facility.

The future of digital, of course, cannot be judged on the basis of the technology we see today.  Digital cinema is a very new development. As the electronic and computing aspects of digital cinema advance, the possibility of emulation the look of film -- really I mean -- becomes likely.  I’m reminded of the development of a printing process (in the 1970s) called “stonetone” in which the grain of a lithographic film was forced in such a way that it could be used instead of the classical halftone dots, resulting in a printed black and white image that had no visible halftone pattern at all.  In that respect, it strongly resembled an actual gelatin-silver print.

Epilogue

For me, one of the clear benefits of higher resolution today is very simple: A 2K image fits perfectly into the lowest rung of the DCP ladder.  I’m not aware of any digital cinema camera that shoots 2K but not 4K at this point. And we all know that it is occasionally necessary to enlarge a frame to emphasize something that hindsight calls for; a mission that 4K enables nicely.



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