The negative consequences of digital filmmaking

by Nathan Weinreich / Beacon Correspondent • September 16, 2015

Film or digital? The age-old question has plagued the minds of cinephiles since “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones” introduced digital filmmaking to mainstream media in 2002. Both have their merits: digital allows the director to instantly play back their takes, and film maintains a certain “je ne sais quoi” that auteurs like Quentin Tarantino claim is essential to the creative process. 

The debate continues to this day, yet in arguing the particulars of celluloid versus digital moviemaking, an important aspect of cinema has been overlooked by the populace—the negative impact that the mainstream transition from film to digital has had on the overall quality of modern cinema.

Digital filmmaking is significantly cheaper than shooting on celluloid, especially considering studios’ resistance toward working with what many consider to be an outdated medium. A single 1000-foot roll of 35mm film is roughly $865—and that’s not including the extra film needed for bad takes, or the cost of transferring to digital, for editing. Considering these expenses, along with the extended production length inherent in celluloid productions, the price of shooting is considerably larger than the price of shooting digitally. 

Shooting a movie on celluloid requires time and care. When using celluloid, watching a day’s shot requires waiting for the film to be processed and prepared for projection. That period of time gives directors a chance to reflect on their day’s work and consider every minute detail before they even see the product. 

Digital erases this entire process and lets the filmmaker watch their playback instantly. As a result, directors are not forced to put as much thought into their movies. Similarly, while celluloid requires five minute breaks after every 11 minutes to reload the film canister, digital allows for constant shooting. This can be difficult on actors—when celluloid was the norm, many relied on breaks to prepare for more shooting. As production drags on and actors get more and more tired, the quality of their performances may drop. 

While the effects of digital moviemaking may seem minor individually, they come together to form a great impact on Hollywood. With the rise of digital, the nuance and care with which shots were crafted was replaced with the carefree knowledge that very little importance rested on an actor’s performance in a single take. This indifference made some directors sloppy. In a sense, digital can be at least partially blamed for Hollywood’s recent decline in standards.

Because modern cinema has become so streamlined, movies with bigger budgets are allocating more money for hefty expenditures like computer-generated imagery and marketing, which has in turn resulted in less of the budget going toward plot and cinematography. Sequels, reboots, and adaptations now dominate the box office. Robert Rodriguez’s “Spy Kids” was released in March of 2001, a little over a year before “Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones.” “Spy Kids” was shot on film, while its 2002 follow-up “Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams” was shot digitally, leading to third and fourth digitally-shot movies as well. 

While there undoubtedly were unoriginal flicks before the 2000s, digital cinema has brought forth a reason to invest in these seemingly doomed, formulaic ventures: It’s cheap. Nostalgia and hype drive people to see these movies, and the significantly reduced cost guarantees a hearty return on a producer’s investments.

Hollywood has become increasingly careless with the rise of digital filmmaking. Masterful directors like David Fincher, who care enough about their films to put time and effort into their work, utilize the technology beautifully. But in inexperienced or careless hands, it frequently brings about unoriginal, unprofessional, rushed movies. The ever-growing transition away from celluloid plagues theaters with sloppy attempts at sequels, reboots, and adaptations, lacking the quality that celluloid tends to bring with it.