Christopher Nolan, The Death of Film, and the Rise of Digital

Christopher Nolan on the set of Batman

Two articles have caught my eye recently. The first is in LA Weekly, and outlines some of the harrowing truths about Hollywood moving away from shooting on film and using digital production and archiving methods. With Eastman Kodak recently filing for bankruptcy, the timing of this article couldn’t be better.

Not only is this shift hitting local theaters and job markets hard (the theater projectionist is going the way of the dodo, with what amounts to trained monkeys able to operate the new digital projectors), it is fundamentally changing the way we watch movies. The article highlights both some of the positives and negatives of theaters using digital projection, but it really is a mixed bag at best.

And archiving movies gets even scarier.

Digital is lousy for long-term storage.

The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, Horak’s every sentence requires an exclamation mark. “In the last 10 years of digitality, we’ve gone through 20 formats!” he says. “Every 18 months we’re getting a new format!”

Even worse, it’s extremely easy to lose data. “If I spend,” Horak says, “as we did on one restoration, $750,000 to preserve one film digitally, and then it goes into a computer somewhere and it disappears, that money’s gone.”

While this may seem a bit like a long shot, it really isn’t. Examples from Pixar, one of the pioneers in digital cinema and digital archiving, include horror stories from both Toy Story and Toy Story 2.

Five years after the first Toy Story came out, producers wanted to release it on DVD. When they went back to the original animation files, they realized that 20 percent of the data had been corrupted and was now unusable. Granted, digital was new at the time. Surely advances have made digital storage much less problematic?

Not really.

Fast-forward to Toy Story 2, which was almost erased from history. Pixar stored the Toy Story 2 files on a Linux machine. One afternoon, someone accidentally hit the delete key sequence on the drive. The movie started disappearing. First Woody’s hat went. Then his boots. Then his body. Then entire scenes.

Imagine the horror: 20 people’s work for two years, erased in 20 seconds. Animators were able to reconstitute the missing elements purely by chance: Pixar’s visual arts director had just had a baby, and she’d brought a copy of the movie — the only remaining copy — with her to work on at home.

Film, on the other hand, just needs a cool, dry place to store . . . and is estimated to last nearly 1000 years if stored correctly. As a storage mechanism, film can’t be beat, and truly disproves some of the “digital is cheaper” mantra of Hollywood.

Because of all these factors, the notion that digital is cheaper is a myth. And that, too, is a worry. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences recently released a study, “The Digital Dilemma.” It discovered that it’s actually 11 times more expensive to preserve a 4K digital master than film.

Which brings us to Christopher Nolan, and his recent interview in the DGA Quarterly. While the whole interview is well worth reading, Nolan’s take on film is quite unique . . . but as arguably one of the most successful filmmakers of this generation, well worth taking a little time to listen to.

Q: You and your cameraman, Wally Pfister, are—along with Steven Spielberg—among the last holdouts who shoot on film in an industry that’s moved to digital. What’s your attraction to the older medium?

A: For the last 10 years, I’ve felt increasing pressure to stop shooting film and start shooting video, but I’ve never understood why. It’s cheaper to work on film, it’s far better looking, it’s the technology that’s been known and understood for a hundred years, and it’s extremely reliable. I think, truthfully, it boils down to the economic interest of manufacturers and [a production] industry that makes more money through change rather than through maintaining the status quo. We save a lot of money shooting on film and projecting film and not doing digital intermediates. In fact, I’ve never done a digital intermediate. Photochemically, you can time film with a good timer in three or four passes, which takes about 12 to 14 hours as opposed to seven or eight weeks in a DI suite. That’s the way everyone was doing it 10 years ago, and I’ve just carried on making films in the way that works best and waiting until there’s a good reason to change. But I haven’t seen that reason yet.

Q: Have you ever thought about communicating your feelings to the industry and other directors?

A: I’ve kept my mouth shut about this for a long time and it’s fine that everyone has a choice, but for me the choice is in real danger of disappearing. So right before Christmas I brought some filmmakers together and showed them the prologue forThe Dark Knight Rises that we shot on IMAX film, then cut from the original negative and printed. I wanted to give them a chance to see the potential, because I think IMAX is the best film format that was ever invented. It’s the gold standard and what any other technology has to match up to, but none have, in my opinion. The message I wanted to put out there was that no one is taking anyone’s digital cameras away. But if we want film to continue as an option, and someone is working on a big studio movie with the resources and the power to insist [on] film, they should say so. I felt as if I didn’t say anything, and then we started to lose that option, it would be a shame. When I look at a digitally acquired and projected image, it looks inferior against an original negative anamorphic print or an IMAX one.

So, what is the upshot of all of this? My opinion (for what that is worth) is that both digital and film have a place and time to be appropriate. I just hope that film still gets the option into the future, before we lose it forever.


LA Weekly: Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling

DGA Interview: Christopher Nolan, The Traditionalist


About Loren

Loren Small is a podcaster and filmmaker. His work on film and television productions has won more than 25 Telly Awards and has been seen in over 70 million households.