Monday, March 8, 2010

Film vs. "Digital" - the myths of reliability

There are a lot of myths in the film industry, and some of them are harmful to newcomers trying to enter and learn the buisness. One is that getting a new camera (film or digital) will automatically make you a film director. Another is that going to film school and getting a degree means you are now by default a filmmaker. The answer to both: although a new camera and a film degree can be helpful, you become a filmmaker by making movies, and the stories you tell are vastly more important than the technology.

However, there still continues to be a debate over which tools are superior to use, and the myths that crop up as a result are becoming perhaps the largest point of confusion for people entering the film business.

On the one side, you have people who believe that image acquisition using "digital" (video, DSLRs, or special-purpose cameras like the Red One) is inherently superior because the image is captured and processed right there on the set, then backed up in safe, secure hard drives or tape backups.

On the other side, you have film lovers, who argue about film's superior latitude and resolution, and the virtue of having a real, physical copy of the image you can always go back to.

Here's a dirty little secret: neither is really all that safe. There are films less than ten years old that have to be restored because the prints have degraded so badly. Digital acquisition is even worse. In an interview with someone at a major studio who handles data archiving, they basically admit that they have to be constantly backing up old data onto new devices to avoid drive failures.

I'm working on a film called Doggie Boogie right now as a data wrangler. The film is shot using the much-hyped Red One, which has an entirely data-centric workflow. We have some of the most reliable external hard drives available on set to back up to. We back up to two drives, mirroring each other, and each drive is actually two disks set up in a mirrored RAID. We are safe as houses. Except last week one of the drives died. No warning, nothing. We still have the one drive as a backup, but it just goes to show: digital is only as reliable as the medium you store it on, and none of the mediums out there are safe enough to trust on their own.

Why not just use film, then? Because at different points in the process, film is even more unreliable. You can't see imperfections in the image until the film is developed (usually) the next day, but even more crucially, even small amounts of light leaks in the camera or the film canister can cause your image to get washed out or completely erased in a white blur. Then there's the mechanical issues with film cameras, like frame stuttering or scratches from minute particles of dirt. All of these issues can be minimized by hiring a crew that knows what they're doing, but again: Film is not a quick fix for reliability. It needs to be handled with lots of care.

So, to reiterate: there is no "safer" medium. Learn the strengths and weaknesses of each, and plan your shoot accordingly.

Update - Here's a video from the Library of Congress about the "home" side of this subject:

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