Part 2a: Capture Medium – Film vs Digital

In part one of my instructional series, we discussed optical process – Spherical vs. Anamorphic. That blog was quite long, so I think I’ll start breaking parts into smaller sections.

In this part, we’ll discuss what is probably going to be the next important decision you’ll need to make, your capture medium – Film or Digital.

Wait, before you say, “here goes another film vs. digital comparison”, hear me out.

I “grew-up” in the digital age. I’ve have never shot on motion picture film and have only limited experience shooting still/photographic film. But for me this is simple, there is no discussion, Film is film and Digital is digital!

Let me illustrate. It’s like writing a letter. You can write one, by hand, with a “good ol’ pen/paper”. Or, you can write one with an iPencil/iPad. Both achieve the same goal. Yet each will a different experience both for the author and reader.

I think the same can be said about film and digital. Each is so unique in process and “feel”, that to pit one against the other is futile. That is, if, you are comparing them end-to-end. In other words, to truly appreciate the uniqueness of each process, you must look at them as both a capture and delivery medium. 

Going back to the illustration, if you were to scan and digitize the “hand-written” letter, you would lose some of it’s unique characteristics. Conversely, if you were to print the “digital” letter onto the same paper stock as the “hand-written” letter, you would potentially gain some attributes. At that point, one could imagine that the differences between the two could start to get blurred.

Thus is the situation today with film and digital. Advancements in digital sensor technology, Film/Grain Emulation Software, the use of DI (Digital Intermediate), and the shift to Digital Projection, have all served to mask the differences between film and digital so that for the average audience, they are invinsble.

For example, take at look at the images below and see if you can determine which is which?  (Post choices below in the comments section)

Image A (Courtesy of
Image B (Courtesy of
Screen Shot 2016-03-31 at 8.30.44 AM
Which is Film, Digital, Digital + Film Emulation?

Here’s a video showing how Film Emulation works.

Now, before the “film gods” come strike me down for blasphemy, each medium still has it’s own pros and cons.

Film has a sharp and in focus, yet soft…

Film has a beautiful highlight roll-off…

Film is more expensive and complicated process…

Digital can handle low-light better…

Digital can handle longer takes…

Digital is too sharp and clinical…

We can appreciate and take advantage these without turning it into a “death match”.  Some recent productions have done just that. Films like The Monuments Men & The Sunset Song both employed a combination of celluloid and digital capture.  

However, one area of difference that cannot be duplicated is the experience. No matter how much you try and succeed to make digital look like film, the actual process of capturing images on photochemical film will always remain unique.

It’s like the transmission of a car. Automatic transmissions have advanced to the point that they can often out perform manual transmissions. Yet, no matter how much they say automatic transmissions have advanced; there is simply no substitute to shifting your own gears using a shifter and clutch pedal! It’s all about the experience!

Take-away Points:

What are our take-away points?

When compared side-by-side, end-t0-end, each medium is still a unique experience both for filmmaker and audience.

Advances in digital imaging, manipulation, and presentation have “blurred” the lines between the visual differences of analogue and digital capture.

Choosing one over the other may simply come down to preference, familiarity, and desired experience for the filmmaker.

So in the following section of part 2 we’ll discuss,  “Part 2b: Capture Medium – Digital is better than Film in…”.  Wait, better in what?! Well stay tuned!

Post No.07

5 thoughts on “Part 2a: Capture Medium – Film vs Digital

  1. Thank you 🙂 I can hardly see the difference between film and digital but am afraid cinematographers coming are not gonna get the thrill of shifting gears themselves cause the production people want to go automatic, cause they say it’s cheap


  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts SANGHAMITHRAN.

    I am with you, creative options/choices is important not just for the “here and now” but also for the future.

    Imagine the loss, if everyone forgot how to paint with oils, just because you can “paint” on a computer.


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