Does Shooting Digital Impact 'Depth' & 'Look' Of The Film? Roger Deakins Answers...

By Arun Fulara. Posted on December 14, 2015

The debate about the merits of film over digital is never ending and there are many patrons of film like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg, who have spoken strongly in support of shooting on film.

"You can watch the grain, which I like to think of as the visible, erratic molecules of a new creative language," says Spielberg while talking fondly about the grainy picture quality that film brings to the viewer. Adding to it, he also goes on to say, "Today, its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes."

However, the advance of technology is inexorable, digital filmmaking is gaining dominance and whether anyone approves of it or not, the digital age is here to stay. Digital offers advantages like a faster workflow, cost effective technology and easier reproducibility, thus making things easier for filmmakers. The question often asked is, whether there is any loss of quality while shooting digitally? This guy asked Deakins this question on his forum with reference to his work in The Shawshank Redemption, No Country For Old Men where he shot on film and the more recent ones like Prisoners and Skyfall which have been shot digitally.

Roger Deakins is a cinematographer we love and revere. We follow his forum regularly and have written about some of Deakins' interactions on the forum before. Whether it is his advice on how cinematographers should prepare for a shoot or when & why they should use the over-the-shoulder shot, any piece of advice coming from the master is worth a read.

First read the question & then read how Deakins answered it:

Q: Mr. Deakins, I was watching the Shawshank Redemption for the 50th time yesterday. Besides the fact that the story is wonderful, and makes me want to see more of it, your cinematography is spectacular. I really like the way you play with shadows. I noticed that you shot the movie on Superspeeds. Did you shoot on the original series or with 2nd or 3rd generation Superspeeds? Your cinematography in Skyfall and the Prisoners is amazing too, except for one problem, depth in pictures.

Obviously, both of the movies have beautiful pictures and lighting, but it seems like digital makes the pictures appear flat. It is sort of like looking at a series of amazing pictures through a veil. Are you planning on shooting anything on film again? It is subjective, but when I watch No Country for Old Men, Assassination of Jesse James, Shawshank Redemption, pictures have so much depth, dimensionality, rich colors, a living quality to skin tones and warmth. I would love to see you shooting on film again I guess, as a fan of your work. Your later films still have a great cinematography, but digital makes those look sort of lifeless and dull. Anyways, hopefully my posting does not create misunderstandings. Thank you for such a great forum site and your mastery in cinematography - absolutely inspirational.

Roger Deakins: 

For 'Shawshank' I was using a set which combined the Zeiss Distagon lenses (T1.4) and the Zeiss Planar lenses (T2.0).

Interestingly, 'Shawshank' was the only film you mentioned that did not go through a DI process. That film was hardly seen in a theater, so I am presuming you have watched it 50 times on a DVD. Whether a film is shot on film or digitally it nowadays is most probably finished digitally. People say that a film black is better than a digital black but they can only be referring to digital projection versus film projection. That is true. A film projected black can be deeper. Luckily digital projection is rapidly getting better as there are precious few film projection screens left.

I must say that I fail to see a difference between the 'depth' of the images that I have been producing more recently and ones from the past. I just don't see it. I wouldn't deny that there are differences between the two processes but I doubt they are such to cause the 'lack of depth' to which you refer. That must be a product of what I am doing with the technology and not of the technology itself. I have in the past shot extensive side by side tests in a variety of conditions. After grading each to match as perfectly as I could, and without the slates to refer to, I could be confused as to which was which.

I would ask a question to you. Would you say there was a lack of depth to every digitally captured 'film' you have seen? Would you say that of the imagery of 'Oblivion', of 'Gravity', of 'All is Lost', of 'The Life of Pi', or of 'The Hunt'? It would also be interesting to compare the 'quality' of the image in 'Shawshank' with the 'quality' of image in 'Prisoners'. 'Shawshank' was shot on lenses that now look soft and uneven across the frame in comparison to today's Master Primes of S4s.

The slower speed of the stock forced me to shoot much of the film's interiors at a wide aperture, which only maximized the deficiencies of the lenses, whilst the film stock of the day had less resolution/more grain. Much of 'Prisoners' was also shot at a wide aperture but the quality of the Master Primes is far superior to the quality of the Distagons. 'Prisoners' was shot using Arri RAW and mastered at 4K resolution, whilst the bulk of prints of 'Shawshank' that would have been viewed on a large screen (by those few people who saw the film on a big screen) would have been made from an IP/IN with the consequent loss of resolution resultant from any photochemical duping process. Those prints were never close to the quality of a print from the original negative and, in quality and resolution, they would be a mile away from a DCP made from the original RAW image captured by a top line digital camera.

I only mention these comparisons as there are many compensating factors to the newer technology regardless of what one's subjective viewpoint is. There are others that I have talked about elsewhere. I too love the film process and the 'look' of film, but, the bottom line, the genie is out of the bottle and we will all have to make the best of it.


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