Film was declared dead on Nov. 2, 2011. On that day, the late, great Roger Ebert penned a blog post-cum-eulogy titled, "The Sudden Death of Film."
"The victory of video was quick and merciless," he wrote. "I insisted, like many other critics, that I always knew when I was not being shown a true celluloid print. The day came when I didn't."
The "print" that Ebert was referring to would be a foreign concept to many of today's filmmakers. He was talking about emulsion-coated, silver halide-and-color dye embedded, dripping-wet-from-the-developer strips of image-laden celluloid. That film. Real film. Film film.
Around the time of Ebert's epitaph, signs of film's demise were everywhere, and you didn't have to be a movie critic to notice. Kodak was in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Film processing labs were shuttering seemingly by the hour. And theater chains were transitioning to digital exhibition formats at a madcap pace. Just like that, the repository of a century's dreams and nightmares — Marilyn, moon landings, Hitchcock, The Hindenburg — became a thing that once was, and could no longer be.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the coroner's table. Film produced a pulse. In the Spring of 2014, two years after Ebert's eulogy, the heads of six major studios were approached by a group of iconic, A-list directors. Like the cavalry in a John Ford Western, the directors rode in and strong-armed a deal whereby the major studios would buy enough film each year to ensure Kodak's survival. "The studios listened," says Linda Brown, head of USC's cinematography department, "because the directors were named Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg." In the following years, including this year in particular, these and other top directors kept winning Academy Awards for movies shot on celluloid.
Among today's movie productions, ninety-nine percent of them are now one-hundred percent digital. So why would a posse of Oscar-winning directors go to the mat for a dying medium with a reputation for being costly, cumbersome, and commercially non-viable? As I explored this question, I discovered not just film diehards, but digital pioneers who continue to use celluloid as the source of their inspiration. What is it about film that evokes so much devotion that it's now being summoned back to life?
Film vs. digital: A primer
As a TV baby, when I got too close to the screen I did not go blind as my mother warned, but instead saw a field of tri-color dots that were fixed, finite, and unflinching. When I did the same as a cinema-smitten young man at a screening of David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia in glorious Super Panavision technicolor, I did not see dots. I saw God. Actually, what I saw was grain — the floating, shifting, light-sensitive particles embedded in film's emulsion coating.
Film is, quite literally, matter infused with time. In the blink of a camera's eye, light-limned images are etched onto film's gelatin-based substrate. As John Alton suggests in the title of his seminal book on cinematography, Painting With Light, film is a canvas, not a pass-through medium. Each film type and format lends its own textural nuance.
Digital imagery, by contrast, is a facsimile. When an HD camera blinks, light strikes a photo sensor that turns images into information. Light values are assigned ones and zeroes — binary digits, or "bits" — that are stored as numerical code. Techno-historian George Dyson is not wrong when he says that "a Pixar movie is just a very large number, sitting idle on a disc."
When that number wasn't so large, film had nothing to worry about. Enter today's ultra-high-definition technology: Gone are the blocky pixels and electronic "noise" that were video's tawdry MTV-era signatures. In their place is an exponentially refinable picture quality that is blowing by the limits of human perception itself.
By now, most filmmakers (myself included) have passed through the grief stages of film's demise and embraced digital video's undeniable advantages. As a virtually cost-free capture medium, it allows for endless takes with multiple cameras. Footage (a carryover term that's funnily still in use) can be logged and edited right on the set simultaneous to filming. And the dreaded words "there's a hair in the gate" will never again vex a director's ears, for the simple reason that with no film strip to be locked into place behind a camera lens, there is no gate where a shot-ruining human hair can get stuck.
All this implies that continuing to work in the filmed medium is an act of either retro-fetishism or neo-luddite masochism. Yet neither of those things is the case. Digital may have the metrics, but film has the immeasurables.
A moving image, literally
If you're not sure what grain looks like, think of a time when you stared at the negative space in a projected image and wondered why the surface seemed to be moving: old home movies, 7th-grade educational films, March of Time newsreels. That's grain.
Unlike digital video's fixed grid of photosensitive picture elements ("pixels"), film's randomly-distributed, light reactive crystals stamp ever-changing pointillist patterns onto each successive frame. This textural effect, devotees say, is something audiences can feel, even if they don't necessarily notice.
Actually, grain was long regarded as a flaw, and the Kodak Corporation spent nearly 100 years trying to get rid of it by developing ever-finer film stocks. Now it's their secret sauce. "When there was no digital, everyone was trying to make grain fade into the background," Steve Bellamy, president of Kodak's motion picture and entertainment division, told me. "Now that we live in a medicinal, anesthetic, digital world, grain is beautiful, and we need it back."
Steve Bellamy, president of Kodak's motion picture and entertainment division, was living a perfectly nice life as a cable TV impresario when director friends urged him to drop everything and save an imperiled medium. "I didn't take the job to wage war on digital," he says. "I drive a Tesla, I own every gadget you can think of. The issue for me isn't 'this versus that.' It's about choice. When acrylic paint came along, no one said, 'Sorry, you can't use oil anymore.' That's not how art works."
Under Bellamy's stewardship, the Kodak Goliath has embraced its inner, artsier David, and the results have been impressive. Movies shot on film in the last year alone — The Irishman, Little Women, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Marriage Story — topped the award-season shortlists, despite the fact that less than one percent of today's movie productions originate on celluloid. "I want the building blocks of my art to be photochemical," Bellamy states emphatically. "My bank statements and medical records are digital. I want my art to be something different."
Craftsmanship Quarterly is published by The Craftsmanship Initiative, which highlights artisans and innovators who are working to create a world built to last. Subscriptions and updates via email are free to anyone who signs up for the magazine's newsletters.