Pixels & Grain

By Owen Armstrong

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Though still at a relatively marginal rate of increase, the introduction of digital technology is now at least present at every level of filmmaking – from concept to exhibition. It comes as no surprise then that this latest implementation of digital projection has brought with it a division of romantic and modernist artistic ideals. In fact, the reality is nothing like the purist’s nightmare of total saturation. Of the several thousand screens in the UK, Arts Council funding has provided only a fraction with the means for digital projection and furthermore, only a fraction of the films being distributed on digital formats are shot entirely using digital technology.

Concerning the view of digital projection as a replacement rather than an alternative to film, there are a number of factors essential to understanding the co-dependence that each medium has on the other. In terms of production, scanning and digitally capturing film has been an instrumental part of the distribution process since the early 1990s. Once a film is captured, a ‘digital intermediate’ is created – the copy from which all release prints are made – and as yet, the majority of productions are distributed in print form as opposed to digital, including those that have been shot digitally. This is worth noting, not only as it is a cheaper alternative to the traditional ‘telecine’ transfer process, but also because it highlights the fact that predominantly, film prints have been made using digital files for nearly 20 years.

In the case of digital distribution, the process is also reliant on the ‘digital intermediate’ and in some instances digital copies are being produced from HD Tape rather than scanned film negatives. Able to respond to the increasing turnover of productions, the introduction of digital distribution and projection has drawn further attention to the areas of filmmaking that are, and have been dictated by the economics of both time and money, accentuating the function of cinema as a commodity. Though this is no different to the function of cinema since its inception, it is a somewhat contradictory notion to the romantic nostalgia for the aesthetic object of celluloid. Though many may stand to benefit from digital cinema as an alternative, the experience of it remains unquestionably different to the physical attributes associated with film.

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The issue of digital projection is therefore one that encompasses questions of economics and aesthetics on a number of levels. With regard to amateur and low budget filmmaking, digital technology has enabled the growth and popularity of public film forums like YouTube, Veoh TV and Stage 6, quickly bridging the gaps between production and exhibition. Similarly, digital projection also allows for compatibility with a wider range of formats, offering filmmakers an alternative to the cost of printing on film. Digital cinema has simply provided commercial and independent productions with a more cost-effective method of distribution.

While this may be true, film projection continues to be regarded as a more faithful representation of filmmaking as a craft - something which can emulate the physical world as poetically as it can be completely limited by it. Increasingly, digital technology offers solutions to the limitations of a medium that is bound by the physicality of the world it captures and ultimately, this is its undoing. Whereas images on film represent a reality based on physical instances – light refracting through a lens onto film – digital photography works in an unfamiliar, abstract way, using sensors to capture images in the form of data. This fundamental difference in the way each respective medium works goes some way to understanding what it is about the properties of film that cannot be replicated using digital technology. Particularly at the stage of exhibition, wherein the same basic mechanical process of light projecting an image that passes in front of it, film retains this sense of physical movement.

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As with the audiophile debate over analogue and digital sound recording, the common perception is that the action of vibration passing through a needle into a groove creates a warmer, more organic sound than the sharp, sterile quality of compact discs. Though digital recording has developed substantially, the issue exists in producing reproductions of vinyl recordings – a process that greatly reduces the number of variables present in an original recording. The susceptibility of vinyl recording to its surrounding environment is what creates the imperfections and idiosyncrasies individual to each record, much like the way in which a film print will age, gather dust and, when projected, expose the grain and scratching specific to each individual film.

Evidence of this appeal and attraction to something so tangible is present in the degree to which digital technology attempts to emulate these nuances. This is also indicative of the fact that, despite advancing at an alarming rate, digital is a medium still in its infancy. The eerie clarity of images projected digitally separates them from the familiar and comforting simplicity of the mechanics of film projection and this illustrates a perception of digital technology as something unknown and otherly, somehow lacking the craftsmanship visible in the artefact of celluloid. There is, of course, as much artistry and craft in the creation of digital photography as there is in film and for years the principle system for film production has utilised both disciplines – whether shot on film and edited digitally, or in tandem during production.

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While the smaller scale markets of content and distribution have adjusted drastically to the cost-effectiveness of digital technology, filmmakers are only just beginning to test its aptitude at the scale of high-end of production Made in 2002, Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark serves as a fine example of the potential of digital filmmaking. As elaborate and inventive in concept as it is in execution, Sokurov’s film seamlessly showcases the practical application of High-Definition digital filmmaking at its peak. Impossible to have accomplished using film, Russian Ark’s 96 minute single take is a true testament to the possibility of digital technology as an asset to the ways in which cinema can explore narrative.

Currently, the effects of digital technology on the cost of big budget productions are minimal as a percentage of the total cost incurred. It is only in the case of lower budget or independent filmmaking that production companies can gain from these financially beneficial alternatives (though the cost of tape-to-film transfer eats into these benefits). As well as providing an economically viable option for amateur and low-end filmmakers, films like Russian Ark are also symptomatic of the aesthetic appeal that digital cinema is beginning to generate as a medium separate from film.

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Despite the introduction of processes such as the ‘digital intermediate’, film archives are still increasing in volume with the addition of every production shot on film. As digital cinema continues to thrive and improvements in technology increasingly offer filmmakers practical and innovative possibilities, the existence of these vast archives re-affirms the industry’s dependence on the practice of filmmaking with film. Though archive material is continually being transferred into digital formats, the process remains a relatively costly and lengthy one, strengthening further the consideration of digital cinema not only as a discipline that can enhance the potential of filmmaking, but also a discipline worthy of its own regard.


Owen Armstrong is a projectionist and filmmaker. He lives in London.