Why HD will rule the movie world

A continuation of a previous providing more detail as to why I think HD video will sweep the world of film.

In my previous blog post, I listed among the advantages of the HD format that it reduces the complexity associated with a traditional film shoot. Just_Ax_Me, a frequent participant in the Talkbacks and a designer of the optics used by companies like Panavision, disagreed, asking what complexities at the shoot are obviated just because the image plane is a digital sensor instead of film? He noted that lighting and sounds stage issues are roughly equivalent, and feels that film is better suited in artistic endeavors.

Digital is great for snap shots but I wouldn't use it for shooting magazine covers.

The fact is, though, that a lot of those magazine covers DO use digital cameras, because the resolution of even medium-range professional digital cameras is more than enough for the relatively small scale of a magazine cover. Furthermore, if 35mm film with a good lens is worth about 20 Mpixels or so, then the Canon EOS-1Ds Mark II, at 16.7 megapixels, comes in pretty darn close (and note that I only did a cursory tour of the Canon site; others may well surpass that level).

On my last film shoot in Ireland, our still photographer used traditional film. That, however, wasn't something he was religious about (though I bet I'd have to pry the rolls of 35mm film from his cold, dead hands before I convinced him to try digital). He also was a big fan of vinyl records, and he WAS religious about that. I had many blurry debates with him over the merits and demerits of the analog audio format. My argument basically came down to the fact that digital music was a more versatile  format, even if you ended up with a jagged waveform that, supposedly, degraded the sound quality. I can stick digital music on a digital music player, or store it on my computer. Vinyl records are for ninjas and DJs with large backpacks, and don't even think about making them portable (though a turntable on the dashboard of a car might be extremely cool in a kitsch sort of way).

I would make the same argument for digital video, and HD, on a movie set. Though there is something to be said for seeing the "rush" on a projector at the end of the day, HD video doesn't disable the ability to do that. It does, however, add the ability to see EXACTLY what is being recorded onto the storage media during a shoot. We have a Sony HD monitor on set that weighs as much as a Sherman tank. It is important to tune it properly to ensure it accurately reflects proper hue, brightness and contrast. Irrespective of that requirement, it does show what is going on tape in ways that is impossible with a traditional film shoot.

This lowers the barrier to entry for new cinematographers. Film cinematography is more complicated than digital cinematography, as you have to understand pretty well what will be recorded on a medium the contents of which you won't see until the day's shoot is over (if then, as lower budget productions can't afford to develop things on a daily basis). Granted, professional film cinematographers can do amazing things with celluloid, but the fact is that the bar to entry is lower in a digital video shoot. Score one for HD.

Digital formats create new storage options. The Panavision camera with which I'm working stores its video on an HD-CAM tape at a bitrate of 135 Mbs (at 1080p), but that's not the only way to store the video. It's possible to save to an attached hard drive. Transferring media to a secure location, or backing it up, is made easier with a digital format as well. Digital video files can be transmitted over a network, or copied quickly to another hard drive. Advantage: digital video.

The power of digital editing is fairly obvious to major studios. Though many movies are still shot with traditional film, most editing is done digitally, which means most film goes through a telecine conversion process. Conversion is never cost-free, and if the goal is to create a product that will display well on the growing number of HD TV screens, one has to question why HD isn't used from start to finish. Again, HD would seem the better choice. 

I don't deny that traditional film - for now - may have some technical advantages. As noted, however, digital cameras already come pretty close to the clarity of film. In fact, one of the problems with digital video versus traditional film is that it captures too much detail (though filters help somewhat), requiring that makeup artists on the set emphasize features less than they might on another shoot . I hear nothing but praise for the Panavision Genesis camera from people who are professional film people. That, combined with the format benefits of digital photography, tilt the scales even more towards digital video, whatever the merits of traditional film. Score four for the digital format.

The primary advantage of traditional film, in my opinion, has little to do with its technical merits so much as the fact that most film crews know the traditional film process backwards and forwards, but are less experienced with digital video. That carries a cost, and means that for awhile, there will be a number of economics advantages to shooting with traditional film. Things change, however, and as I noted, I saw an awful lot of HD cameras being loaded into trucks at Panavision.

Traditional film has some technical advantages. HD, however, has format advantages film simply cannot match even as it shrinks the technical divide with traditional film through progress in digital photography and video. That's why I feel the writing is on the wall and that studying the traditional film process is like taxi drivers in training learning to drive horse-drawn buggies.

Strong statement, most assuredly, but That's The Way I Feel.