This year marks twenty years since the release of George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, the first blockbuster, the first mainstream film to be fully shot and released on digital film in cinemas. Since then, the world of cinema has been changed inexorably by new media.

James Howard | Ed. Peter Traynor | 14 June 2022

Film Director Sean Baker, Tangerine (2015) © Courtesy of the artist.

To contextualise this change, it was way back in 2015 that Tangerine, shot entirely on an iPhone, was released. And back in 2002, though Lucas’s film was not the first film to use digital technology, because of the ever-changing new media landscape of the time, it proved to be a watershed moment, a dividing line in the history of film, as seismic for the film industry as the advent of sound.

So, twenty years later, how exactly has digital technology changed the face of cinema? What do filmmakers really think of new media – and will film, in its original 35 mm, photochemical form, survive?

Digital cinema’s beginnings can be traced back to the early nineties, when most of the film industry’s VFX, sound and art departments were in the process of transferring to the medium. But, for filmmakers, it was a shaky start. Not least, because of the way the first films on digital actually looked and how they were received. Indeed, initially, in the early days of Sony’s consumer digicam and then the Sony PD-150, digital captured light poorly and had a quite greasy, grainy look – giving some films a VHS-like amateur quality that was critically savaged. In fact, when reviewing Chuck and Buck for Film Comment magazine in 2000, Gavin Smith summarised the general feeling at the time when he wrote, “Shot on DV, transferred to film, cost next to nothing, looked like shit: if that was the point, I missed it” – It seems he had. Because even in the early days of the medium, it was apparent to certain filmmakers that shooting on digital would democratise – and it was whispered, perhaps revolutionise – the filmmaking process as a whole.

Film Director Michael Winterbottom, 24 Hour Party People (2002) © Courtesy of the artist.

Of course, filmmaking is an arduous, convoluted, multi-faceted process that usually relies on large crews and meticulous coordination – and, most significantly, traditionally, it had always been very expensive and nowhere near as accessible, as egalitarian, as, say, writing or painting is. Digital changed this. Suddenly anyone with a camera could, in theory, describe themselves credibly as a filmmaker. Like a writer being able to pick a pen or a laptop, with the arrival of the first consumer handheld digital cameras in the mid-nineties, the whole concept of filmmaking, the mystique of the process in one fell swoop, had been deconstructed in a kind of punk blitz – similar to the advent of post-punk independent music labels in the late seventies and early eighties when ideas were suddenly conceptualised without the need for establishment permission. Filmmakers like Michael Winterbottom championed new media and digital early on with films such as 24 Hour Party People, one of four digital films to appear in competition at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival.

Winterbottom especially has eulogised the way that digital allowed him to improvise and accentuate his already naturalistic aesthetic; essentially, to amp up the realism of his films. In an interview for Sight and Sound magazine, he talked of how he could suddenly take actors into “real situations” without crowds or bystanders even knowing that he was making a film – it was a game-changer. He could effectively work without a full crew, without mics; even, at times,  just him, the director, a handheld camera (the Sony PD-150 at the time) and the – often non-professional in Winterbottom’s case – actors. To a director like Winterbottom, this presented a new kind of freedom that had been hitherto unimaginable.

It was also faster to make a film with digital. A lot faster. For legendary American director David Lynch, this was a particular attraction. Lynch had experimented with new media on his website as early as 2002, but it was in 2006, when he made the nightmarish, hallucinatory vision of Hollywood that is Inland Empire, that he fully harnessed the possibilities that digital offered. Suddenly, he could work without the time-consuming constraints of celluloid. In Sight and Sound magazine, Lynch talked glowingly of the new possibilities of the medium, of how “You could have a 40-minute take instead of a nine-minute take”. And speaking about working with his actors on the film, he said, “before they got tired, or we’d have to reload and lose the feel, you could get the thing. It was beautiful”. Years later, Lynch feels that the possibilities of digital have not even come close to being fully explored.

Film Director Steve McQuinn, 12 Years Slave (2013) © Courtesy of the artist.

Of course, there are still purists – most famously, perhaps, Quentin Tarantino, who passionately believes in the “magic of film” and that digital will never be able to capture the “depth” of images like physical film stock does. But he is not against the use of new media like digital cinematography in itself – he just doesn’t like the idea of digital trying to look like film – or, of course, totally replace it. Perhaps, director Steve McQueen, though not a sceptic per se,  best summed up the purists’ feelings when he said in 2014, “There’s something romantic about film. Some sort of magic—it’s almost like it breathes. Film feels much more…I don’t know. Maybe ‘human’?”.

But despite Tarantino’s and McQueen’s misgivings about new media such as digital film, digital cinematography is now established as the industry standard; in fact, from 2009 onwards, digital film screening via digital projectors has become the norm. Nonetheless, unlike Tarantino, to directors like Michael Mann, another early champion of digital – he shot AliCollateral and Miami Vice on the format – digital was never to be feared. Like Michael Winterbottom, very early on, Mann was in awe of the ability of digital to “transfer reality”, to capture something, which, as he says, is like “being parachuted into a real event”. And though he respects the purists’ views that photochemical 35 mm should be preserved, crucially, he doesn’t think that digital and film are mutually exclusive. Rather, Mann thinks that they should be able to co-exist – in fact, as he himself says, “ There’s no ideological difference to it”.

Like vinyl vs streaming, the debate will rage on, but it is undeniable that digital is now entrenched in an industry famously resistant to change and risk-taking. In addition, digital film is now also so advanced that the difference between it and photochemical film can only really be detected by the aficionado. And though traditionalists bemoan new media and the slow death of 35 mm film, it is undeniable that filmmaking has never been more accessible; never has it been easier for a young person to pick up a camera – or, yes, even a phone – and just make a motion picture. Surely, that’s a reason to be cheerful.

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