When this past year Kodak announced that they were halting production of film stock most people did not really register the significance of this decision. And why would they? Digital has been making in-roads into the market and film industry since the mid-nineties. Lines have been steadily drawn in defense of both formats with Christopher Nolan being perhaps the most vocal champion of shooting with film while James Cameron, Lucas, and others claim that the conversion is all but a done deal.
Its a cinematic debate in many ways. There is a real romantic idea attached to film stock, a limitless nostalgia that is fed by over a century of tradition and mechanical method. Film is alchemy, and filmmakers from that tradition are alchemists who are now being overthrown by computer engineers and sophisticated binary calculators that have dragged cinema back into the world of science.
Debates rage over the emotional quality of film stock, the subtle chemical reactions to light that force the filmmaker to engage in an experimental conversation with his/her tools. Digital is all numeric and cold data, those people lament. It has no soul. Digital heads meanwhile are saying, “Time to face reality, film is dead, digital is even or superior”.
One wonders however how much of this debate is really about this shift in filmmaking technology, and how much of it is about fear; fear of a society that is no longer bound by an industry of multi-billion dollar studio corporations.
How much of the reluctance to trade in film is about look and feel of the format, the workflows, and how much is it about keeping the knowledge and pedigree of filmmaking in the hands of a set number of old white men?
Vynil records went through a similar cataclysm twenty-five years ago upon the arrival of the CD/Mp3 revolution, and vynil has since made a comeback as a music-lover’s fetish that many bands and artists are still catering to. Maybe therein lies the answer to the complex debate over film stock and digital formats. Maybe it’s time to let things run their course and embrace digital without having to rule out the use of film stock entirely.
As it often is with these kinds of things, the people/market will really have the final say.