Thursday, 23 August 2012

Film vs Digital

Apart from a few die-hards like Christopher Nolan there seems to be a general acceptance in the industry of the inevitable takeover of digital cinematography and digital projection from traditional 35mm film now that the end results are so difficult to tell apart. 

Reading Justin Chang's 'Film Craft: Editing' I was interested to hear some opposing views from editors on the last big technological change in film making - the mid 90's switch from editing physical film on a Moviola or Steenbeck to digital editing.  Most of the editors interviewed saw it as a massively positive change - allowing films to be cut much quicker and more options to be tried out.  Michael Khan (Close Encounters, Raiders of the Lost Ark etc.) was reluctant to make the switch and believes he has lost something now he edits using Avid.

'I do think something's been lost with digital editing, I really do - the cogitation, the level of thought about how you should cut something.  You have to study the material more on film, because you don't want to make that cut unless you're sure.  I thought a lot more when I was using a Moviola.  On the Avid you just press Apple-Z and you try it again, as often as you like.  And I'm not sure that's good for an editor, because he's not given the opportunity to really formulate, in his own thoughts, how he'd like to present it to the director.  Instead, he does a lot of versions, and the director makes up his mind.' (Michael Khan, Film Craft: Editing)

I remember a similar feeling when I first started taking still photos on a digital camera.  I used to take a lot more time lining up a shot, trying out different angles, editing the options in my head before pressing the shutter.  As every picture cost money and (development) time it forced you to think more about what you were doing and consider the detail of every shot.

It's true that editing physical film makes you think harder about every cut and that you can now try out hundreds of different versions of a scene but often find yourself going round in circles and ending up where you started, but without digital editing there wouldn't be the same level of experimentation that is now possible.

Terence Malick's 'The Tree of Life' breaks all the editing rules.  Despite it's anarchistic disregard for continuity, continual crossing of the line and extreme use of the jump cut it somehow manages to find a new editorial alchemy by making different kinds of connections between shots.  Mark Yoshikawa, one of five editors used on the film, explains here how this could only be achieved by constant experimentation and restructuring, connections often being arrived at by accident - a process it would be almost impossible to achieve if you were cutting on film as the cuts would be so hard to visualize.

The mashed up projector sequence I cut last year in Berberian Sound Studio would have proved difficult too as there were so many quick cuts and multiple layers.  That was achieved in a similar fashion through total experimentation, trial and error. 

By the time I started working in cutting rooms everyone was using Avid but I feel lucky that when I started out in the industry it was before the days of 2K playback and the VFX facilities I worked for still put their work back onto film to screen to the director on a daily basis.  My first job was cutting together rolls of shots to show Ridley Scott on Gladiator back in 1999.

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