Film is dead, and good riddance
Good riddance to a good thing. A wonderful, constrained, beautiful, treacherous and artistic frenemy, I’ll miss you but I’m glad you’re gone.
If that seems a bit schizophrenic, it is. Celluloid will always hold a place in my heart, probably yours too. It is special – the magic of those chemicals and silver halide, the whirling mechanical watch-like precision that moves with the regularity of a heartbeat. But even so, good riddance.
Everyone from a studio mogul to a couch critic will wax poetic about Film. Here’s why we should stop wringing our hands, ditch the rose-colored glasses, and get on with it.
First, we can get the look. With the near VFX level grading and secondaries used in most projects today, along with GPU powered looks and effects readily available on every platform, there is no film look that cannot be recreated in the digital world – better even, because we can cherry-pick just the features we want. For the doubters out there, let me remind you of two things: 1) if we can make CG worlds and tear them apart, I think we can manage a bit of noise, and 2) film artifacts are not rocket science; they are predictable and measurable, so they can be emulated accurately.
Take the audio example. The professional audio world has done a great job at dealing with computers during the creation process (though we both sucked at the delivery transition). They have created highly accurate models of analog gear, with or without the limitations of noise and hiss. They can do this because they’ve acknowledged the end of a pre-computer era. Have we?
And despite all that we hear in the nostalgic stories and mythology surrounding Film, it was certainly no saint. In fact, it was largely responsible for maintaining a kind of stranglehold on the art form, and it had its henchmen.
Post-Production greats like Deluxe, Technicolor and Fotokem loved Film. They were it’s biggest cohorts and defenders, and they still miss it deeply. Why? Because it made them so much money that they are still spending it today. A closed process with exotic chemicals and a highly inelastic demand curve meant they could charge whatever they wanted, and they did. Film kept the ivory tower high and it kept out the riffraff with their wild ideas. If you wanted to make a motion picture during Film’s big era, you had to bow down to the elite. The fact was, and is, that Film was the perfect way to keep ‘different’ out of Hollywood and maintain the status quo. How many runaway indy hits, made for little to nothing, by passionate, brilliant young filmmakers were there in the heyday of Film? Very few. Today, that lightning strikes with regularity. Hollywood has opened up to anyone with a good story and a very modest budget.
Technology hates Sunday drivers
The writing on the wall first appeared in 1989 when a new piece of software was launched on the Macintosh II. It was called AVID Media Composer and, while not the first non-linear editor (NLE), it quickly became the dominant solution. It was clumsy, but technology doesn’t mind clumsy and it rewards effort and risk. Over the next ten years or so Photoshop, After Effects and Shake joined the scene and newbies like Maya, Nuke and others bundled in. The biggest beneficiaries were Special Visual Effects. Their complex jobs often relied on accurate repetition and so became immeasurably easier with computers.
After that, Film began to look increasingly out of place. It was that dolt doing 45 on the freeway where the impact is felt miles back down the road. Everyone had to constantly switch lanes, from analog to digital and back again, all without incurring the buildup of grain or generational loss, and so on. People started looking for a rocket launcher to remove the old duffer, and in 2005 they found it.
Love RED Camera or hate them, they changed our world, and I have admiration for that. Don’t get me wrong, RED can be a greedy little company that play their users’ wallets like a Rachmaninov concerto – hard, without mercy and sometimes without a tune either. But they changed the final piece of the puzzle. All the time cameras shot on Film, the rest of the workflow was stuck behind it on the freeway.
Can Film get a remake?
I’ve long maintained that film could have a bright future as an archive medium because technology’s strength is also its achilles heel — it’s that fast-changing, never-settled nature. LTO tape is alright for archive, but nothing can beat Film. When it comes to recovering data from an old format, I would never bet against it. All you need is a light bulb and a lens. LTO tape may well be materially stable for 15-30 years, but try finding a thunderbolt cable in 15 years. Ask anyone who stored their film on a DA88. Now Sony have an Optical Disk Archive system – it’s brilliant.
Then again, even here, film has some major issues. A lot has changed in 10 years and the toxic chemicals and processes involved with the manufacture, processing, and disposal of Film are not to be underestimated. If Film became the dominant method of archive it would surely require mass production again, and that means firing up the chemistry labs and manufacturing plants that we just don’t tolerate anymore – and rightly so. Then there is the disposal of it. Celluloid burns like a scolded teenager and emits more toxins that Trump. All in all, as an environmental proposition, Film is a tough sell. But if it doesn’t become the dominant form of something then it will become extinct – loss of habitat does that.
So perhaps right now is the golden era. We have access to film and digital and we should enjoy it. Accept the fact that film will become more scarce, and that it’s not a bad thing. Hitch up to the technology train and let’s go places that no one has ever been. See you there.
Got a good reason to keep film on life support? Let us know in the comments!
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