Pixels & Grain: Tools of the Trade

Pixels & Grain: Tools of the Trade

I have a degree in Video Production from Webster University in St. Louis, MO. Not Film Production. The two were completely separate degrees, each with a different emphasis.

I chose video for two reasons: I knew we were headed toward a digital age… and film was expensive. Stock fees, lab fees, print fees, etc. I would have loved to learn “film,” but I was a poor college student already racking up student loans.

In college I adopted an “us versus them” mentality. I was proud to be Team Digital. Digital would one day be superior to film, and I would be one of its earliest student supporters, screaming from the rooftops that digital was where the world was heading. And I wasn’t entirely wrong. I think J.J. Abrams best summed up why in a forum on Quora.com:

[In giving advice to teens wanting to be filmmakers…] The beauty today, however, is that with cameras like the Canon 5D Mark II and software like Final Cut Pro, the tools have been democratized. Anyone can get their hands on equipment that is somewhere in that range of quality, which is unbelievable. So, today the advice is -> go make your movie.

Digital is democracy, allowing for a greater number of people to express themselves. The world is witnessing new visions, ideas, and stories because of digital. And some DPs and filmmakers go on for hours about the pristine quality and malleability of a digital image.

So when I, prideful champion of digital, recently read that Arri, Panavision, and Aaton had quietly ceased production of their film cameras [read the full article at collider], I should have felt victorious. Instead, I felt like someone had socked me in the gut; a kind of “what have I done” sting of guilt. Progress marches on and all that, but this is an art form. Today many graphic artists prefer Wacom tablets and Photoshop to acrylics and oils, but arcylics and oils are still around. Shouldn’t film stick around too?

Many filmmakers think so. In this Guardian article, masters of the craft express their deep love for the film medium, detailing the pros and cons of both digital and film, ultimately reminding everyone why film should never go away — something many once said in defense of digital: it’s yet another way to express yourself as an artist.

The selection of one film stock over another, the right chemical processes, 16mm over 35mm — these are similar to the post-process choices made now to manipulate digital data into beautifully rendered images. Knowing that film and digital offer different looks, advantages, and disadvantages, it’s up to you as a filmmaker to choose the medium that’s right for you. Film cameras still exist, but the less they are used, the less aware filmmakers are of the choice of film, the closer film comes to fading away completely.

After years and years of fighting for digital to be taken seriously, I now watch the world move forward into the digital age, seemingly intent on leaving analog behind. But like other art forms, the beauty and differences of each medium should be taught and appreciated. Technology should not completely transform our toolbox. It should add to it. Too often “older” technologies and techniques are dismissed as nostalgia instead of being recognized for their respective riches.

But while I’ll continue to use digital as my form of expression for the moment, I will consider my tools more carefully. Digital may be democratic, but there are some subjects and stories that belong on a filmstrip.

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