Film School Confidential: The Future Generation

In film school, professors, guest lecturers, senior faculty and visiting filmmakers all refer to you as the “future generation.” This is true about pretty much any profession one chooses to pursue in college. However, film being a technology-based profession, specifically one based on relatively new and ever-changing technology, this designation as the “future generation” is daunting as ever. How will we define the future of cinema? What will we bring to the table? How will we shape this enterprise, and how much will it change by the time we actually have any say in the matter? Most importantly of all, how will what we learn in film school now be applied in the future to an ever-changing industry? How will we adapt to these changes? These questions have been bugging me lately, brought on by a number of recent developments both in the film world and at my school in NYU that simply cannot go unaddressed any further. I am of course talking about the eternal argument, the one that simply couldn’t be avoided these past ten or so years: Film? or digital?

Roger Deakins, who many (myself included) consider to be the one of if not the greatest cinematographer working today recently shot his first film, Andrew Niccol’s Now, with the Arri Alexa digital camera. In a recent interview with Collider, he proclaimed that dreaded declaration that die-hard film loyalists hoped they would never, ever year:

I got a feeling that might be it for me in terms of shooting digital.  I was really impressed with the imagery that we were able to achieve on this and the flexibility it gave me.

If the great Deakins, long considered one of the last steadfast film loyalists, is making the big leap, what does that mean about the future of film? Deakins actually provided an answer to that question on his online discussion board:

I do believe that it will only take another year before we see the vast majority of productions being shot digitally.

Could it be? Could this really be the end of film? Deakins, of all people, converting to digital? Fact of the matter is, it’s not just Deakins – many directors who swore they would live and die by film have recently taken the plunge into the digital world, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Peter Jackson, all of whose upcoming films were shot digitally. Sure, there are still a few loyalists holding out – Paul Thomas Anderson, Wes Anderson, Christopher Nolan, The Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino and a few others have sworn that they will never shoot digitally. Tarantino is particularly outspoken about this. In an interview, he once said:

If everything turns into that digital stuff, I’ll just stop making movies.

But it seems like this change was inevitable and a long time coming. In the 90’s, most professional still photographers swore they would never shoot digitally, proclaimed that digital photography couldn’t capture the same level of detail as film, that the resolution would never be high enough and that the texture and behaviour produced by exposing light onto film was impossible to re-create digitally. But as digital still photography technology continued to develop, and more sensitive sensors, higher resolutions and closer imitation of film became staples of DSLR cameras, traditional film became a thing of the past. Today, most if not all fashion photographers and photojournalists shoot digitally. And with the appearance of new super high-resolution, highly sensitive high-end digital cameras on the market, including the RED Epic and the Arri Alexa, it seems like this inevitable revolution has finally hit the film world once and for all, and for good.

So how does this apply to film schools? It seems unclear at the moment. The education system is notoriously slow in terms of adapting to changing times, and schools are known for holding on to their old, tested and tried ways, and resisting major change and forays into the unknown. NYU is particularly proud of the legacy of its film program – the core production class, called “Sight and Sound,” is proudly advertised by the school as “the same as when Marty took it” (referring to Martin Scorsese, who attended NYU film school from 1962-1966). This class involves shooting a number of short films on old 16mm black-and-white reversal film stock, and editing on old, analog Steenbeck editing machines, using razors, editing tape, and the works in order to stitch together films. Our intermediate production class – called “Color Sync” since unlike “Sight and Sound,” films produced in this class are shot in color and with synced sound and typically taken in junior year – also uses 16mm film. However, the change in the film world has been felt here at NYU as well, and it seems like the inevitable change is finally upon us.

Roger Deakins
Recently, our school added an additional intermediate production class in which students shoot their films on high-definition digital cameras. We are now presented with a choice – to use film or to use digital – and although many people are steadfast and still choose the film option, the number of digital alternatives offered every year increases with each passing semester. In addition, recently, our introductory imaging class, in which we learn fundamentals of storytelling through still photography (I took this class last semester), started issuing digital cameras to the students. Only two years ago, this class still used old film SLR cameras. But most controversial of all was the recent decision to discontinue the Steenbeck editing machines and begin editing “Sight and Sound” projects digitally. As I mentioned earlier, this is the flagship course of NYU film school, and they will hold on to its legacy and history for as long as humanly possible. The move to digital editing has been a hot and controversial discussion topic amongst senior staff for a number of years now, but it seems like they finally realized that the change was inevitable, and starting from next year, we will no longer be using the Steenbeck machines. It seems inevitable that the course will eventually start using digital cameras as well.

So where do I stand on this issue? Personally, I think that there is definitely a certain quality and texture to film that digital cinematography still cannot quite capture. Fact of the matter is, most digitally shot films today still look muddy and ugly, to a degree where it just looks cheap and distracting. For every beautifully shot Social Network we get an ugly, cheap-looking Public Enemies. And not even The Social Network can quite compare to the beauty of the images of movies captured on film, such as True Grit, Black Swan, or Inception. However, as I mentioned before, the recent appearance of new, high-end digital cameras on the market, specifically the RED Epic and the Arri Alexa, change the game completely. The original RED MX model had been providing beautiful imagery for a number of years now, and with the new upgrades made to their newest model, images look better than ever, and almost exactly manage to mimic the look and feel of film while providing far more flexibility and options for cinematographers than film does. And the Arri Alexa provides such stunning imagery that it even managed to convince Roger Deakins of all people to cross over.

I also feel like many directors and cinematographers don’t quite understand the benefits of digital cinematography, and misuse it which leads to the creation of ugly imagery. When done right, digital can look great (one needs look no further than David Fincher’s recent filmography to see proof of that). But the recent rise of DSLRs that shoot high-definition video leads to abhorrent misuse of digital cinematography’s flexibility and ability to shoot in low-light conditions. These are not video cameras and under no circumstances should be used as such – it seems completely counter-intuitive and it completely perplexes me that anybody takes these cameras even remotely seriously. Combine that with the pointless gimmick that is 3D and you get two completely wrong uses of digital cinematography. But I am hopeful that these are just passing fads, and my fellow film students’ aversion to these technologies (especially to 3D) is reassuring.

Fact of the matter is, digital is here to stay, and it seems redundant and contradictory to remain committed just to film. So although naturally I relish in the opportunity to use film during my film studies here at NYU, in order to make it out in the real world, digital is the way to go.