In the wake of Christopher Nolan’s wartime epic Dunkirk, which was released in July, the long simmering debate about the respective merits of film and digital is again coming to the boil.
In interviews, Nolan has wasted no opportunity to proclaim the superiority of film over digital. He lets everyone know that Dunkirk was shot on film, much of it using IMAX cameras. Cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema, strongly tipped for awards nominations for his work on the movie, likewise champions the benefits of old-fashioned film.
In the mad scramble to convert cinemas for digital projection, van Hoytema argues that the industry has been contributing to the “fast decline of a sublime technology a hundred years in the making.”
When we go to see a movie at our local cinema, he points out, it is likely to be projected with a 2K resolution
“To put things in perspective: nowadays standard TVs are sold with twice that resolution,” van Hoytema notes. By contrast, a Dunkirk analogue IMAX film print is projected with close to 18K resolution. In other words, the gulf in quality is huge.
“You will hear people saying that the layman doesn’t know the difference. Truth of the matter is that without pinpointing exactly why, they (spectators) actually do see the difference. And if not now, they will in a few years, as the keen eye of the cinemagoer evolves rapidly. Remember when we thought DVDs looked incredible?”the cinematographer asks. He talks of recently watching David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter in a restored 70mm film print and realising that it was “far superior than the best thing that the digital industry is offering up today.”
The implication is clear. Throwing out the cans of celluloid, closing the film labs and jettisoning the projectors has been nothing less than an act of cultural vandalism. Audiences have been hoodwinked into accepting films projected digitally that don’t have anything like the richness or resolution of old 35mm or 70mm prints.
Of course, the debate isn’t that simple at all. To those who remember films catching fire in the projector or watching scratchy old prints of supposedly new movies, digital projection has been a boon. It offers consistently, clarity, a clean image. It is cheaper and easier to shoot on digital too.