Film or Digital?
Breaking Down Hollywood's Choice of Shooting Medium
There is long-standing debate in the movie industry on the advantages of shooting on film versus digital, with each side claiming the superiority of one technology over the other. For example, one of digital’s benefits is its immediacy: footage can be reviewed immediately on set, while film is embraced for the natural and rich color it produces.
In the past ten years, digital has taken over the medium, with 92% of films shot with digital cameras in 2017.
Yet the shift has recently stabilized, and it could even reverse. As Richard Linklater, the director of Boyhood and the Before trilogy said:
Film history is full of these little bursts of, 'Oh there's a huge paradigm shift!' and then it kind of recedes back to what filmmaking is at its core—storytelling.
And behind that storytelling is a director and a creative team making aesthetic choices: What should the movie look like? What should it feel like? To me, that's the director's job.
We can now begin to understand these aesthetic preferences. There are still directors who shoot on film (sometimes exclusively). Others use both film and digital when it serves a purpose. Rather than bestow one technology as superior, I am more interested in filmmaker choices. When we examine the 10-year shift to digital, which have led directors to choose one technology over the other?
To answer this question, I began collecting information about cameras used by the directors between 2006 and 2017, narrowing my search to only directors with films among the 100 top-grossing movies in the US.
the reason filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are shooting on film, it has nothing to do with ‘better’ or ‘worse’. It just has to do with very personal taste. Everybody wants a different kind of canvas.
To better understand how directors’ tastes may have changed with the adoption of digital, let’s chart each filmmaker and their choice of camera over time.
Each of these circles represents a director, and its size represents the number of movies they make in the specific period.
A decade ago, the majority of directors still chose to shoot on film, but around 2012 more directors began to prefer digital.
Some of these directors are film loyalists who never switched to digital.
shot all of his movies on film, including his latest movie Dunkirk (2017).
On the other side, we also have early adopters who jumped to digital in 2006-2008 and have been using it ever since, such as .
He started to shoot on digital in 2002 with Spy Kids 2 and shot all of his later films in the same medium.
Similarly,is also a digital early adopter who is not afraid to try new technology. His latest movie, Guardian of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) was the first to shoot with a RED 8K digital camera.
But other directors don’t always follow a consistent path.
returned to film on his latest movie Trainwreck (2015) after previously using digital on This is 40 (2012).
Some directors such asuse both technologies. In Steve Jobs (2015), he used both digital and film formats to cover Apple’s product launch on different timelines.
Explore these various “paths” for yourself: tap/click the dashed lines between each period to filter directors who follow a specific path.
Selecting a circle will reveal the “path” that a director has taken overtime, as well as the movies that they have made (note: some movies were missing shooting format information. In such case, the director’s circle is positioned based on their other movies shot in the same period, and the movie title is greyed out).
You can also search a director’s name:
Does genre influence the choice of film or digital?
Directors don’t always stay with one medium; what influences whether they choose film or digital?
As a cinematographer who has worked with both film and digital camera, Rodrigo Prieto has his own reason to choose digital for Passengers:
When I'm shooting tests, how does this image feel to me? Is it accurate to the movie, the story we are trying to tell? In Passengers, we were in a spaceship 600 years in the future. And it's a luxury ship. So I felt that the image should be clean. And for me, [film] grain gives you a texture that didn't feel that good for Passengers.
While in Silence, he used both medium but had different use cases for each one:
...I felt that I'd push the film for certain scenes where I wanted the texture to be a little rougher. And then for the night scenes with candles, I used digital. So it was kind of using the best of both worlds, and it's very exciting to be able to do that.
For Prieto, the different textures produced by film and digital cameras are neither strength nor weakness, but instead a unique characteristic that has its own advantages depending on story setting. It follows that movies in different genres may use digital at different rates, depending on aesthetics and story. Let’s investigate if there’s truth to this hunch.
Compared to the average across all genres, sci-fi movies are more likely to be shot using digital cameras, either as the only medium or in tandem with film cameras.
Between 2015 and 2017, only 4% of sci-fi movies were shot purely in film, lower than the rate among all genres (11% of movies were still shot purely in film).
Horror is another genre with a high digital adoption rate. But unlike science fiction, the dominance of digital has occurred in more recent years. This might be related to camera performance in low-light conditions. As mentioned earlier, Prieto opted for digital when shooting low-light, candlelit scenes.
Drama movies seem to have a relatively lower digital adoption rate. Between 2015 and 2017, 17% of drama movies were still shot on film.
One cause could be film’s shallower depth of field, which in drama plays a crucial role to focus attention on individuals or a specific part of the scene. Denzel Washington and Theodore Melfi are among the ones to choose film for this specific reason.
Explore for yourself to see how digital and film are used across other genres.
Does budget affect the choice of film or digital?
Digital cameras offer dramatic budget cuts for movie making, so it might be compelling for movies with lower budgets. Conversely, this would limit the use of film to elite filmmakers with big budgets.
To understand the relationship between budget and format, let’s look at what’s used across different budget ranges.
While budget is one factor to consider when choosing a movie’s shooting format, it might not be the deciding factor. Beside big budget movies such as Star Wars: Force Awakens (2015) and Dunkirk (2017), lower budget movies such as Gifted (2017) and The Beguiled (2017) still manage to shoot on film in the last three years. You can explore the complete list below.
Digital camera adoption is not following a linear path. Despite the growing dominance of digital cameras in the last decade, we see some directors switching back to film in their latest movies. There will still be use cases for both technologies, depending on how the filmmakers envision the story that they want to tell.
In this sense, the debate of film vs digital shouldn’t be a war in which one technology would be obsolete and the other predominate. Both technologies can coexist to serve the visions of the filmmakers.
Notes and Method
This exploration only includes non-animated fiction movies in the top 100 movies at the US Box Office every year between 2006 and 2017, collected from The Numbers.
Genres, directors, camera, and negative format (from which shooting medium is later defined) were collected from IMDb, using their bulk data and processed using IMDbpy. Budget information was collected from The Numbers (as the primary source) and IMDb (when information is missing in The Numbers). You can find the compiled data here.
The director shooting medium chart comprises only directors who’ve made movies on the above-mentioned top list, however the “path” considered all movies they made regardless the box office performance.
Only movies with known shooting medium were counted in the calculation of the percentage breakdown.