The CineGuerrillas Episode 3: The End of Film

Welcome to Furious Cinema’s movie commentary with Sebastian and Peter – your resident CineGuerillas. This will be an ongoing series of conversations we have about movies we love. They will have a funny title and include a favorite quote from a movie at the end that you can guess in the comments. They are virtual “beer and nachos” sit-downs, so you will have to imagine the smell of alcohol, the crunching of teeth biting on chips and the closing credits of the movie still rolling. Also check out Episode 1 and 2.

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EPISODE THREE, OR HOW WE GOT RID OF CELLULOID AND HAD A PARTY INSTEAD OF CRYING LIKE BABIES

PETE: We both recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street and really enjoyed it. I had read that he decided to shoot most of it on film and some certain scenes on digital. Well, after watching it, I honestly couldn’t tell you which was which. I also just saw the video reel of the digital FX they used in the movie which I thought was astounding. I knew there was some work done on it but the scenes they showed weren’t the ones I expected. Every year the quality of digital is just getting better and making it harder for us as viewers to tell what’s real and what’s not. I’m actually excited more by that than the crazier SFX stuff you’d see in The Hobbit etc. Another movie I just wanted to mention briefly is The Avengers (my favorite super hero film) which had a ton of FX including a spectacular battle that takes place in New York City. When I saw it at the theater I thought they had shot the city on film and then put the visual FX sequences over that. I was really shocked to learn the New York cityscape we saw was pretty much ALL digitally rendered into the background. I simply couldn’t tell it wasn’t the real thing. We’ve come a long way since the early days.

The Wolf of Wall Street VFX Highlights from Brainstorm Digital on Vimeo.

SEB: I like that the debate is heating up now, and it’s way overdue. I didn’t quite notice much CG in the “Wolf”, but what most people don’t notice is that since the early 90s, regular movies are full of CG. The biggest shock I ever had was watching the special features on the Forrest Gump DVD. There is NOTHING real in that movie, and it’s not even an effects movie per se. There is a tendency nowadays to outsource almost everything to computer trickery that is remotely expensive to shoot out there in the real life. While I am not big on those movies like Avengers which you know Pete, you are right by saying there is a whole new kind of filmmaking where they are all about entertaining stories, not so much about “film”-making. Entire environments are created digitally. Just think of Sin City, or the upcoming Godzilla movie. Actors in these films see nothing but green screens for months.

So when it comes to CG and all the trickery I do believe there is a demystification and some sort of cheating. That’s why in my mind, if you can do something “real”, do it real, don’t just “build it in the computer” because it’s more convenient, that seems lame. But that has nothing to do with this debate at large.

PETE: I liked what James Cameron said to Keanu Reeves when asked about the live film reality vs the fake digital aspect. He said (paraphrased) “When have movies ever been real? You got crew guys standing next to a camera as you play make believe”. Unless you’re making a documentary, the sky is the limit in terms of telling your UNREAL stories. Whether it’s a Western set in 1881 or Star Wars with space ships, its ALL fantasy. It’s also about what you’re using the CGI for. Like if you’re doing a drama with lots of talking and not much action, no FX/CGI are usually needed. If you’re doing a sci-fi fantasy epic with tons of characters and lots of complex FX sequences its just not realistic to hire 1000s of people and have physical makeup etc to do it with the budgets they have. CG should be another tool in the filmmaker’s box but not the sole purpose of the movie. Although look at Avatar. I thought the fake but real looking world James Cameron created was really incredible there (another step up from the CGI worlds in Lucas’ Star Wars prequels) but I didn’t like the actual movie much. One of the worst movies I’ve seen that overused CGI was Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005). That was just a big computerized mess and a poor unnecessary remake to boot. That’s one example of what I don’t like about CGI but I do think as time goes on filmmakers will be able to utilize these things in much smarter ways.

SEB: I see what you mean. There is tons of CG however in regular movies, too. I think this is just a phase maybe, until the industry rebalances and doesn’t overuse CG anymore. The price for digital effects might also go up again, as the effects people are some of the most underpaid people in Hollywood actually.

PETE: One of the main issues that filmmakers have with celluloid is the difficulty of actually knowing what the film will look like once it’s developed. With digital you now know exactly what you’re going to get and there’s no need to worry. Think about how much it costs to shoot on film and then have bad lighting or other things ruin what you shot that day. Using digital is just smarter and more affordable in every way. The problem with this is the fact the cinematographers aren’t seen as the wizards they once were. They still help get the look of the movie but its a different scenario and more technology based as opposed to a painterly type medium. They probably don’t possess the same kind of one man power on set they once had.

SEB: Exactly, this comes out nicely in the conversations in Side by Side. What bugs me is that those emotional about this change are getting the causalities wrong. It’s not that digital looks bad and film looks good, it’s about how you do it. The most important thing here is to realize that all jobs change over the course of time. The job of a policeman is not the same it was in 1820, everyone has to adapt. Technology changes how we achieve our artistic goals, and that applies (long overdue) also to cinematographers. They were always those on set that knew everything about lighting, lenses and all these things, and they still do. What comes up more now, is to realize that there’s less guesswork and magic involved, and more efficiency and freedom in achieving the artistic vision of the director. Everything is possible now.

PETE: The affordability of making films is really the biggest issue Hollywood has. This is why using digital cameras is simply the best way to go in modern times. Lower cost, complete control over operating them. Steven Soderbergh’s CHE is a great example of what you can do with digital. He would’ve had to lug huge film cameras into the mountains and jungles. By using the lightweight digital cameras he was freed up to do so much.

SEB: That’s also why it is taking off now. There are simply no good economic arguments for film, that’s also why it has pushed out film in the photography space years ago. It’s been called a democratization of filmmaking, as in everyone can afford to shoot a movie now, as even cameras in cell phones are approaching a level of quality that will put most regular cameras from a few years back to shame. Hollywood is a business, and a business looks out for cutting costs and maximizing profits. Only logical that we’re now finally seeing the death of celluloid. Now that the cultural resistance to digital is fading, cooler heads finally prevails and as we see better and better technology in the hands of the artists, everyone’s happy.

PETE: The one big problem that digital filmmaking has right now is the storage aspect. Unlike film which can be kept in a physical form (reels) that can be played through projectors, there is no one system for keeping the new technology safe. This is something that needs to be fixed. But I’m confident that they will come up with some answer to that.

SEB: Exactly. The huge problem is that digital does not have an ultimate answer to storage yet. However assuming that the physical storage technology was perfect is also not true. Celluloid fades, the material decays, colors disappear and so on. That is why restoration is such a costly aspect. Yes celluloid is both a storage and presentation medium, but a reel of film is not a thing that will store a film forever, far from it. Digital short to medium term storage however has huge efficiency gains. Storage is centralized, and distribution is helped. As internet bandwidth increases, it is also no problem to transfer huge amounts of data from A to B, and storage capacity is rapidly rising. The question is indeed about how sustainable it is, and if we pick formats that can be read decades from now.

PETE: Great points there. In a way, digital could potentially be better if they finally create a way to store these films that can adapt to future changes. This just makes me realize how great digital is in pretty much every single way. From the cost to the storing.

PETE: Yet another positive of digital filmmaking is the ability to edit it far easier than using celluloid on a Moviola. I’d say the AVID system is one of the greatest things ever made for filmmakers.

SEB: The truth is that editors have been working digitally for many years now all the while shooting and distribution have still been on film. The negative has been digitized and the whole editing process has been going on digitally for almost a decade now already. Now that the entire process is digital, there is less loss and more efficiency. An editor is basically playing around with the near final product, and there is no limitation of what you can do with bits and bytes.

PETE: You’ll notice that there’s two camps of filmmakers now. The ones that are weary and distrust the digital format and the ones (most of the people in Side by Side) that love film but realize that digital is just the better route to take for telling their stories to people across the globe.

SEB: You have to admit that while it’s a nicely made documentary, it takes a clear pro-digital stance. What emerges however is that most arguments for film are not based on facts but on emotion. Just because we are used to the noise of film, and the kind of color it has, and the speckles and the rattling of the projector, doesn’t mean that this is better. Far from it. Filmmakers pro celluloid are making an emotional argument, and the others just haven’t brought themselves to change their habits. Like Christopher Nolan for example. It’s great what he achieves on film, but already 80% of the rest of the process is heavily digital, so that is very hypocritical. If you look at the types of cutting edge digital film equipment available now, there really is simply no reason for film anymore. If you want a certain look, then pick the right lense, lighting and post-editing tools.

PETE: I think you hit it perfectly that the arguments on the pro film side are more about emotion rather than practicality and realism. I also have to call the pro- film people out on their stance being more of a “old school is always better” thing. I love film, don’t get me wrong but I’m also for progression in art and technology. For every positive about film there’s about 10 more for digital at this point. Even hardcore film supporter Wally Pfister (Nolan’s DP) starts saying near the end of Side By Side that he thinks digital is improving. Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

SEB: Now in this transition phase people shooting digital often make it look like film, you know things out of focus, a grainy look, not because that’s better, but that’s what people are used to. It’s like nobody even questions why we’re used to it. It’s a compromise for dealing with a resistance to change. People assume grain is good because that’s how film looks. Now a clear sharp picture looks artificial to them, like “video”, but the baseline assumption is nonfactual already, so the debate is nonsensical.

To me, whether you splice film frames together or click buttons, that is not the point. “The art form is the manipulation of images to tell the story” as Robert Rodriguez rightly points out.

PETE: Thats what we got with GRINDHOUSE which I thought was a fun throwback but also not the kind of thing I wanted to see keep being made. Sure we as B-movie geeks all love the days when movies were scratched up and discolored, but how long does that gimmick last? I’m also not a fan of all the New Wave Faux Grindhouse films that came out afterwards either. Making bad looking films on purpose isn’t what should be happening. Filmmakers should be trying new things and be inspired by those old movies but not simply copy them.

This is a perfect chance to talk about one of our favorite filmmakers Quentin Tarantino, a known analog fanatic. He has said many times that he hates digital and considers it the end of cinema/like watching “TV in public”. I know that he thinks of shooting film as a truly magical experience, not just merely recording images. I really respect his point of view and appreciate his love of that format. Yet at the same time it’s no secret that technology has always been a part of movies and if you just dismiss/hate anything new, you’ll be losing potential creativity you haven’t tapped into yet. If all those early pioneers of cinema were alive today, wouldn’t they be taking advantage of the amazing tools available to them? Think about those massive clunky cameras that weighed hundreds of pounds and couldn’t be moved. Now think about the Red cameras that can go anywhere and be handheld and give us a spectacular image at 4K. I think they’d be going nuts with these things.

SEB:
Exactly, Quentin is among those that make a very emotional argument about film, but even he relies on lots of digital technology in many of his latest movies. There is modern technology in Kill Bill, in Basterds, in Death Proof, in Django Unchained. In many steps of the creative process, ultimately people will love whatever he does, because they care about his artistic vision first, not the technology he employs to realize it with. And we’ll all watch it in some kind of digital form anyway in the end.

PETE: We aren’t making movies ourselves but we do go see them and pay our hard earned money to do so. At this point I feel it’s simply not realistic or smart for us (or filmmakers) to protest against this upgrade in technology.

SEB: Especially because most people don’t know and don’t care what a movie is made on, stored on or transported on. The average Joe or Jane has no fuckin’ clue what’s going on in the industry and why should they care? You want to be entertained, you want to experience a great story, great visuals, great music and have a great time. Who cares if someone used Xmm cameras or Whatever-FPS HD to film it? That’s a nerd discussion most people don’t bother with. What they do care about is that suddenly movie screens show remarkable quality without scratches or speckles, offer incredibly sharp pictures and suddenly there is no shortage of films distributed because there’s no longer a reliance on a finite number of prints being in circulation.

Quality of film is terrible in a theater. Consider the bad focus, muted color, shaking and dirt. How a movie looks different in every screening room, basically from reel to reel. How can the celluloid-fanatics accept this loss of control over their vision? For some reason they do, even though they would turn against digital with a similar argument.

PETE: The old school film lovers will cite that they love the look of celluloid. It feels more real and certain colors hold up better etc etc. I can see their points but I’d rather see a nice clean image that’s in focus versus a dusty print that looks blurry on the screen. We aren’t living in the grindhouse days anymore. Things have to progress and people (including artists) can’t spend their lives lamenting change.

SEB: Hollywood has always been rather hypocritical about technology. It’s among the first industries to pick up on new inventions, or itself nvents them, but it’s also an industry extremely hostile to new technology. Listen to what George Lucas had to listen to when they moved ahead with HD at Skywalker Ranch. Consider the billions of lobbying money that go into convincing governments the world over to making copyright laws stricter and stricter, because the internet is something so extremely evil in studio bosses eyes, while at the same time the entire industry is relying on it to market and sell movies, and know what the audiences like. It’s absurd, it’s like there are two Hollywoods out there. The same goes for digital. They both love it and hate it.

PETE: At the time Lucas’ Star Wars prequels came out I was really not into it at all. I didn’t care for how obviously fake it all was. Looking back now I can see that even though those movies are heavily CGI’d and not like the original grounded live action trilogy, they ARE a testament to Lucas being ahead of the curve and his open mind towards what you could do by mixing art and the latest technology. Here we are now in 2014 and indeed the digital filmmaking/CGI is really becoming even more sublime and harder to notice.

We could talk about this topic forever but I think we were able to cover some good points with this chat about film vs digital. Seb, I just want to say thanks for talking with me and I’ll see you next time for another installment of CINEGUERRILLAS.

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Peter

Editor-In-Chief of The Grindhouse Cinema Database/Furious Cinema contributor. Pete is a rabid movie geek who enjoys everything from wild n' crazy exploitation/cult flix to big budget mainstream classics. His other interests include: graphic design, cartooning and music.

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