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Digital vs. Film — Cinematographers Weigh In

Martin Scorsese on the set of Hugo.

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Mark Olsen has a fascinating piece on the differences between digital cinematography and working with conventional 35mm film, as discussed by some people who really know what they’re talking about; the 2012 Oscar nominees for cinematography.

As Olsen writes, “This year’s Oscar nominees for cinematography present a particularly varied cross-section of contemporary filmmaking at a time when the very infrastructure of how movies are made and seen is in transition. Consider: 35-millimeter film prints are being phased out in favor of digital projection. Consumer still cameras can be used to shoot high-definition digital video. Video on demand is becoming a popular viewing option. Even the venerable Eastman Kodak, which produces the film stock on which many movies are made, recently filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Scandinavian-modern The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was shot with digital cameras; the World War I-set War Horse was shot on film. Hugo was shot in digital 3-D to portray 1931 Paris, while The Artist was shot on color film, then transferred to black-and-white to evoke the end of the silent film era in Hollywood. The Tree of Life used footage shot both on film and digital and integrates nature photography into its storytelling. (That three-on-film, two-on-digital split is likely an approximation of Hollywood production overall, though changes are evolving rapidly.) As this moment of transition challenges distributors, exhibitors and even audiences, cinematographers are on the front lines of those responding to the changes. Many of them recognize just what a unique window this particular time presents.”

You can read the entire article here; a remarkable meeting of the minds. And as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, the DP on The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, notes, “In all fairness, we’re at the infancy stage of digital cinema.”

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About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of numerous books and more than 70 articles on film and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu.

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