George Lucas showed us what digital cameras were capable of with his Star Wars Prequel Trilogy, sparking a heated debate in the world of filmmaking. Digital film vs 35mm film: Which is better? Twenty years after its first true test by Lucas and ten years after becoming the choice world of filmmaking, digital filmmaking is still a non-starter for many of the most prominent filmmakers. Likewise, 35mm filmmaking is an absolute no for just as many directors and studios alike. How did we get here, and which format is truly superior?
To answer this question, it’s going to require some history lessons and some close comparisons. Because this debate has so much to do with aesthetics — a subjective thing — it’s worth remaining objective until the end, when enough information has been learned to make an informed decision. We’ll begin by comparing digital film with 35mm film then dive into the key differences between the two formats. We’ll also describe the history of both filmmaking technologies, weigh their pros and cons and make a solid recommendation.
Side by Side Comparison: Digital Film vs 35mm Film
|Digital Film||35mm Film|
|Creator(s)||Sony||William Kennedy Dickson and Thomas Edison|
|First Use||Julia and Julia (1987)||Short film experiments|
|Average Cost||$1,000-$10,000 a minute||$6,000-$10,000 an hour|
|Shooting Limits||Depends on storage, battery||11 minutes per roll|
Digital Film vs 35mm Film: Key Differences
Looking past the obvious fact that one technique is digital and the other is analog, there are a few key differences between digital film vs 35mm film. Thes have sparked and continue to fuel a spirited debate among filmmakers. It’s probably the most divisive question in the industry, and it’s been dividing filmmakers since George Lucas revolutionized it in the early 2000s.
Firstly, there’s the cost of digital vs 35mm to consider. One of the prevailing notions about digital filmmaking is that it’s cheaper than 35mm filmmaking. But is there any truth to this claim? You’re likely to get a different answer depending on who you ask. Film cameras can be cheaper than digital cameras, but film more expensive in the back end because of the sheer cost of film stock. However, 35mm filmmakers have a way of cutting costs and streamlining production to harmonize their cost.
So, if it’s possible to make digital filmmaking and 35mm filmmaking equitable in price during production, what about post? What about storage and preservation in the long haul? This is where things get even more complicated. When improperly stored, digital files can be corrupted while film stock can become corroded. So, both require special treatment. In the end, the costs for digital films are higher than celluloid prints. That’s because one is digital, which is constantly evolving, while the other is analog.
Digital cameras are available at a whole range of prices. You can find cheap digital video cameras for less than $50. You might not want to shoot a film on it, and your typical Hollywood blockbuster wouldn’t be caught dead using it either. The point is some digital cameras are cheap. However, major Hollywood productions use Arri Alexa cameras that cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Film cameras, on the other hand, are much cheaper. This isn’t a debate about price. We’ve already settled that. It’s about availability. There’s no denying that film cameras are much harder to acquire than digital ones. Film stocks are becoming harder to find, daunting to produce. Filmmakers such as Christopher Nolan had to wrangle up support for Kodak and the like to continue making it in the first place.
Thirdly, there’s the issue of quality. This is unquestionably one of the most controversial parts of this debate. Some filmmakers opt for one over the other for purely aesthetic reasons. Regardless of preference, digital and analog have distinct looks. When budget’s not an issue for a major Hollywood filmmaker, they might pick film over digital for its warmer, more artistic look. Likewise, a filmmaker might choose digital over film for its superiority in low light and more versatile movements. Some split the difference and simply put an artificial film grain filter over digital footage.
There’s also the question of quality over time. Celluloid film can literally be cleaned, while a corrupted file is as good as useless. What’s more, digital technology advances much faster pace than analog. 35mm has stayed the same since its inception. Meanwhile, something shot on digital ten years ago might look terrible today. This is a vital component of the digital film vs 35mm film debate.
5 Must-know Facts About Digital vs Film
- Digital filmmaking surpassed 35mm filmmaking in 2013. A year later, more than 80% of major feature film productions were using digital filmmaking techniques.
- While you’d think digital film would have the better dynamic range, film is actually more “HDR” than digital. For instance, film can capture brighter whites and darker blacks than any digital camera on the market.
- A 2007 study by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences discovered storing 4K digital film masters costs 1,100% more than 35mm film masters. What’s more, no current technology could be trusted to store a film for centuries — a trait that 35mm film can easily achieve.
- Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (2013) was the last Paramount production to be widely released to theaters on film. One week later, Paramount’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) became the first major motion picture to be sent to theaters exclusively on digital.
- Only about 30 major feature film productions were shot on film in 2021. These include Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza, Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, and M. Night Shyamalan’s Old.
History of Digital Filmmaking
While George Lucas and his Star Wars Prequel Trilogy marked the biggest, most high-profile use of digital filmmaking technology to date, his films were not the first to use digital films. That distinction belongs to Julia and Julia (1987), an obscure Italian drama filmed with a Sony HDVS professional video camera. Dubbed “electronic cinematography,” the earliest attempt at a digital revolution was short-lived and highly criticized. It would take another decade for a filmmaker to try again. Windhorse (1996) became the first feature to be digitally filmed and post-produced.
George Lucas saw the potential of digital filmmaking. Although he didn’t use it for all of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), he did get to use exclusively high-definition digital cameras for all of Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) and Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005). In between productions, Lucas helped other filmmakers embrace the new digital filmmaking technology. Robert Rodriquez is one director that really latched onto the tech, with his film Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2001).
Over the next decade, camera brands such as Sony, JVC, Canon, and Panasonic worked hard to update and improve their HD cameras. As more and more filmmakers latched onto the idea, the cameras got better. By the early 2010s, professional 4K digital cameras had become more or less equal to their 35mm film counterparts. While aesthetic differences still exist between the two, the present day sees far more digital filmmaking than 35mm filmmaking. However, 35mm film still has its loyalists.
Rise and Fall of 35mm Film
35mm is one of several different film gauges used in filmmaking. 8mm, 16mm, 65mm, and 70mm film all have their respective origins. However, the 35mm first caught on in 1890 when inventors William Kennedy Dickson and Thomas Edison first created the motion picture camera. By 1910, 35mm had become the industry standard. The Vitascope made this standardization happen. It was the first 35mm projection device, effectively helping to elevate filmmaking from a simple novelty to a legitimate, profitable industry
The invention of sound films, or talkies, only made the legitimized 35mm filmmaking. Once filmmakers discovered they could record sound and image on the same film strip, it was off to the races. Movie theaters continued to pop up across the United States and abroad, and filmmaking as a profession elevated from a less-than-honorable trade to a legitimate form of expression for the greatest artists of a generation.
For the next 50 years, 35mm film was considered the film industry’s most essential technology. Filmmaking and 35mm film were synonymous with one another. If you were shooting a professional feature film, you were shooting it with 35mm film. 16mm and 70mm alike were still used, of course, but these film gauges were more specialized, and less accessible than good old 35mm. The widescreen revolution of the mid-to-late 1950s re-cemented 35mm as the industry standard for the remainder of the 20th century.
Digital Film vs 35mm Film: Who Uses What?
For a better idea of where loyalties stand in the debate between digital film vs 35mm film, it’s worth looking at a number of filmmakers who have gone on record in defense of one format over the other. The directors listed below — either on the digital side or the 35mm side — have come out strongly in favor of one over the other. They haven’t minced words, either. These filmmakers are passionate about their choice and cannot be convinced otherwise. Take a look at their preferences below.
|Digital Film||35mm Film|
|David Lynch||Christopher Nolan|
|Terrence Malick||Quentin Tarantino|
|Robert Rodriguez||Paul Thomas Anderson|
|Steven Soderbergh||Sofia Coppola|
|James Cameron||Greta Gerwig|
|Guillermo del Toro||Wes Anderson|
Pros and Cons of Digital Film vs 35mm Film
|More accessible||Ever-changing quality standards|
|Maintains quality in low light||Can look unsettling if frame rate is too high|
|Hypothetically limitless shoot time||Sometimes criticized for looking “too real”|
|Easier playback||Can be expensive to preserve with evolving technologies|
|Greater depth||Can be pricier to shoot|
|More aesthetically pleasing||Requires more expertise to master|
|Longer shelf life when maintained||Less and less studios are signing off on it|
|Was the filmmaking standard for longer||Cameras are bigger and less mobile|
Digital Film vs 35mm Film: Which One Is Better?
Digital film and 35mm film are two popular filmmaking formats. Both have their advantages, and drawbacks. Likewise, both have their respective champions in the world of filmmaking, each with a convincing argument. When all is said and done, it seems that the winner has to be crowned on the basis of popularity, nothing else. Digital filmmaking isn’t going anywhere, so if a winner must be named, it seems digital has to take the crown.
That’s not to say 35mm film is in any way, shape, or form inferior. One look at a film shot on 35mm, and you’ll notice the superior aesthetic quality over digital film. However, digital films are marginally cheaper and easier use. They allow for quicker production, and faster processing. 35mm might look so much better, but digital filmmaking is here to stay.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Serhii Yushkov/Shutterstock.com.