15 December 2011

The Future's Bright? The Future's Digital.

"Days of Heaven"
So far this week I have seen four films at the cinema and all four were digitally projected.  Subsequently mentioning this on Facebook, I was informed by a former cinema colleague that my local cinema is now 100% digital. This news, although inevitable, has floored me.
I will try to keep the nostalgic sensibilities to a minimum, although it will be tricky for an analogue junkie like me. Throughout the history of picture-making, quality has always been sacrificed for convenience, and this will always be the way of the world. “Hollywood” is an industry and that means business; pure and simple.  Still, it makes me sad that heat splices will soon go the way of the dodo.
I knew the end of film was in sight, but little did I realise how soon it would come. A recent issue of Sight and Sound included the following in the editor’s note:
January 2012 will apparently mark the point at which there will be more digital screens in the world industry than analogue…What’s more, mainstream usage of 35mm will have vanished from the USA by the end of 2013, with Western Europe set to be all digital in the mainstream one year later.
One of the most beautiful films ever made
The benefits of shooting digital are obviously numerous, both to the studios who are financing the production and to the cinematographers themselves. Roger Deakins, one of the best known Directors of Photography in the industry, talks about this in a recent interview:
It gives me a lot more options. It’s got more latitude, it’s got better colour rendition. It’s faster. I can immediately see what I’m recording. I can time that image on set with a color-calibrated monitor. That…goes through the whole post-production chain, so it’s not a case of being in a lab and having to sit and then time a shot on a shot-by-shot because this has already got a control on it that’s set the timing for the shot.
In terms of practicalities, digital trumps film. If it allows the artist to do a better job, then it could be argued that it is better for the production and the industry as a whole. I am all for this. I do not work in the movie industry and so to insist on a passionate opinion would be silly. 
But my feelings are based on just that; feelings. It’s the romance of cinema that I have always loved. The box of film stills sneakily cut for me by projectionist friends from the latest releases touches the same nerve as the scene from Cinema Paradiso when Salvatore sees the reel of all the censored kisses. The tangible feel of the touch of a print will always rule my heart, but sadly the clinical and convenient numbers of digital must always rule the head.
"Cinema Paradiso" (1988)
The one bright side I hope for is this means the smaller budgeted films will make it to screens outside of the main cities. Producing reels is an expensive and time-consuming business, and so a film like Wuthering Heights (2011) could never hope to be featured in a multiplex in the heart of suburbia where it would be unlikely to recoup that cost. If the future is digital and is therefore more cost effective, perhaps this will push those smaller films out to the masses (and stop people feeling that they have to download to get their Andrea Arnold fix). I hope, but without too much faith.
What I am most fearful of is the effect the changeover to digital will have on what we see on screen. Experts agree that it is Avatar (2009) that that pushed the industry into such a fast digital transformation. Yes, Avatar; that film about blue smurfs that stole storylines from several existing films and spliced them together with all the subtlety of a Hollywood hack. The film that heralded the start of the awful trend where you have to put another screen between you and the action, and essentially put the brakes on smaller, independent films that would not have translated well to 3D. 
No, this isn't a naff '90s poster. This is the future.
 Yes, the future is James Cameron. And it terrifies me.