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they shoot with film, don't they?
some thoughts on the film .vs digital civil war
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)
6.6.12
film

Times are changing fast, with technology transforming all we see around us. Those of us alive long enough to remember cassette tapes, encyclopedias and phones that couldn't do everything for us, are often forced to adapt or be left behind. In the film and photography worlds, a civil war has emerged over the last decade or so, between those who prefer shooting film or digital, a civil war that would've been unthinkable in the past.

I remember film school like yesterday. There was an immediacy to shooting on film that made me realize how essential preparation was. When I had to pay out of my own, broke, out-of-state pockets to purchase 8mm film, and mail it to a lab in Boston where it would be developed, and, hopefully, returned, I learned quickly that I needed to know what I was doing when I filmed.

We used light meters but that didn't mean it wouldn't return under lit. I had 20/20 vision, but that didn't mean shots may not have returned out of focus. I remember sitting in dark editing rooms at the renowned Pittsburgh Filmmakers facility, splicing the tiny film with an Exacto knife and taping it back to the preferred next shot. Film editing, they called it. I have only seen my film school shorts once since I graduated in 1998. They are not good, but I can't imagine my future films without them. Shooting with film the way we did was the most difficult thing I can imagine. And that's exactly why it was essential.

Five months after graduation, I shot a 35mm short based on the first feature-length script I'd written, with a professional cast and crew in New York City. I am far prouder of that short, and used it for a time to pitch that feature in my early years in Los Angeles. By then, at the tender age of 21, the need to have a definite plan when stepping onto a set where we were shooting film had been ingrained.

I moved to L.A. the following summer and didn't pick up a camera for seven years. There were a lot of reasons for that, the most obvious was that film was still expensive and I was no longer under the umbrella of a university. By the time I shot another short, in 2006, digital cameras had grown in quality and affordability. By that time, mini-DV was still a popular and accepted format, HD hadn't really jumped off the way it was about to. That short, How Shawn Parker Fell in Love, was the beginning of a lot of things for me.

Concurrently, I had bought a used Canon EOS to sharpen my still film photography skills. A friend helped me to turn that into a sporadic gig shooting Los Angeles Clippers games court side for a small, black newspaper called the LA Scoop. There, underneath the baskets at the Staples Center, learning sports photography alone and on the spot, I was both admired and ridiculed by my peers from Getty Images, USA Today etc, because I was the lone photographer shooting film. Their methodology was predictably slick: their expensive digital cameras were outfitted with an array of long, powerful lenses. In most cases, they could email their work back to their editor before they'd left the arena.

My road was, of course, more difficult. In addition to having to switch out used film rolls during timeouts, I also had to pay out of pocket to get the film developed and could only pick it up several days later. Efficiency killed the film photo star. But my learning curve as a photographer grew exponentially.

Kobe Bryant .vs Shaun Livingston 2/24/06

Today, of course, HD photography is everywhere, your grandmother has such capabilities on her phone. I have embraced it's accessibility, at first, out of necessity, but now as an art form of its own. I am far from threatened by apps like Instagram, in fact, I adore it. (Feel free to follow me there as jasongilmore, by the way.)

I know old timers get upset that Instagram can cover your flaws with filters that it took old school photographers years to learn. But I also believe that the only way to improve at anything is to do it often and all those years when I couldn't afford anything, I wasn't doing it in any form at all.

The film .vs digital argument has also become a tremendous deal in Hollywood, where movie theaters are rapidly converting film projectors to digital, primarily as a cost-cutting measure, or so they think. For the uninitiated, the fundamental issue is that, while shooting digitally is cheaper in the production and distribution stages, but the ability to preserve digital work is, as yet, unproven, since the format is still evolving.

So, while it is cheaper to produce, that cheapness may be its undoing. Film is film and can always be restored. Digital work is fragile and if the original file is corrupted, it's over. Even now, of all my works discussed in this article, the only ones I feel confident will be here in 20 years are the short I did right after film school and the photography I did for the Clippers. Why? Because I still have the original film negatives. It's like the difference between vinyl and cassette tapes. But at the Hollywood level, the philosophical war is brutal: Directors like Christopher Nolan and film enthusiasts all over the globe on that Patrick Henry ("Give me film or give me death.") and directors like James Cameron and the Hollywood studios gleefully proclaiming film's demise.

As for me, at times it feels like choosing between my parents. If money and time were not objects, I'd be a film guy all day without looking back. Even with my still delayed feature film debut, All the Children Are Insane, I knew all along I wanted to shoot it on the stellar Arri Alexa HD camera. But as time has gone, I'm reconsidering shooting it on film, for reasons I've stated above. I appreciate the discipline that shooting on film has led me to. Though I've seen some digital cameras that come eerily close to the grainy quality of film, the fact that "film quality" is the standard may be the answer within itself. Still, I shot recent projects for my church drama ministry and a video pitch for my feature with my new Canon 60D. And I love it.

The coolest thing, for me, is that I'm alive at a time where both formats are available. It's sad that they have been pitted against each other because they have both made me the artist that I am and will be.


ABOUT JASON GILMORE

Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

more about jason gilmore

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