When Steven Soderbergh was planning his most recent film, "Full Frontal," he decided to try an experiment: The avant-garde director of "Sex, Lies and Videotape" would photograph some scenes on film but would shoot most of the movie with a handheld digital camcorder not unlike the kind found in any neighborhood camera store.
Soderbergh said the MiniDV, as the camera is called, gave him mobility and a sense of control that a bulky film camera would not. Perhaps more importantly, because "Full Frontal" was shot on a tight schedule and low budget, the MiniDV helped Soderbergh be thrifty -- the camera records onto digital videotape, eliminating the time and money associated with film processing.
Efforts such as Soderbergh's do not sit well with Eastman Kodak Co., the world's largest maker of photographic film. The company greets the idea that digital cameras might replace film with all the enthusiasm of a guy digging a canal trench who looks up to see the first steam locomotive chugging by. Which is why Kodak has launched a public relations blitz designed to keep the film manufacturer from becoming a technology casualty of the early 21st century -- or at least to stave off what may be inevitable a bit longer.
Each year, Hollywood consumes millions of miles of film while shooting movies and television shows; each episode of a half-hour sitcom, for instance, takes more than five miles of film to shoot. Over the past two to three years, however, more directors, cinematographers and directors of photography have abandoned film cameras -- and the 35mm Kodak film spooled inside -- for high-definition digital video camcorders. More than 30 television shows in this fall's prime-time lineup, including the ABC hit "8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter," were shot digitally instead of on film.
Television can get away with not using film, but movies, whether they are shot on film or digitally, still end up in theaters the same way: in six big, round cans of film. The "digital cinema," in which a movie would be sent to theaters as a computer file, is still years and millions of dollars away, if only because a digital projector costs $150,000, and most of the nation's 35,000 theaters see no rush to convert.
For now, the biggest difference between the two methods is in the production process. With film, the camera records the scene onto negative film, which is processed, digitally edited and transferred onto print film for showing in theaters.
With a digital camcorder, there is no film to develop. Images can be recorded directly onto a high-definition digital videotape, digitally edited and then transferred onto film for theater screening.
Sony Corp., which along with camera maker Panavision Inc. invented the widely used 24P digital camcorder, estimates that studios shooting digitally can shave $25,000 to $40,000 off the cost of producing one episode of a one-hour television drama, which generally runs $1 million to $2 million per episode. The savings is especially important for creators of television shows, which lose money until they enter syndication.
Kodak, however, argues that there are things film can do that digital video cannot. Film can store more than twice as much visual data -- more color, more grain, more tone -- than can digital video. Therefore, Kodak says, film can capture emotion and warmth better than digital video, which some critics consider cold and two-dimensional.
The film company has trotted out several cinematographers to laud the artistic qualities of film. Interestingly, it was Soderbergh who, in his 2000 film "Traffic," used film to achieve dramatic visuals by changing stock and balancing color to establish setting and mood. Scenes shot in Washington, D.C., were done in a cold, flat, blue hue, while scenes in Mexico were manipulated to appear almost sepia-toned. Film advocates argue that digital cannot achieve such results.
While conceding that digital may be cheaper than film initially, Kodak says the back-end costs of getting digital up to film quality may eat up the savings. Then there is the issue of preservation, a near-religious touchstone in Hollywood. Kodak says movies shot on film can last 200 years if treated well. If a film is shot digitally and stored as data on a disk or computer hard drive, it is subject to the unpredictability of computer crashes, viruses and other glitches that could mean the permanent erasure of a film.
Despite the move to digital video by some filmmakers and studios, Kodak's film sales are up in the past year because more TV shows are being made, thanks to cable, said Michael Morelli, general business manager for Hollywood for Kodak Entertainment Imaging. On HBO, 14 hours per week of the channel's shows are shot on film, he said. And though film has completely lost the news market to videotape, where there's no more "film at 11," other markets have opened.
"Kodak had a much bigger share of the image pie, but the pie was pretty small," Morelli said. He cites the boom in sales of movie DVDs that pack in added content, such as alternative endings, deleted scenes and interviews with actors, most of which are still shot on film. Further, one of the film industry's largest customers -- NFL Films, which shoots every football game, every week, using multiple cameras -- still uses film. "They're the largest user of 16mm film in the U.S.," Morelli said.
Though Kodak's film sales to the entertainment industry were up 19 percent in the third quarter of 2002 from the same period last year, the company's overall revenue has been essentially flat in the past five years. During the past decade, Kodak's sales have dropped from $20.2 billion in 1992 to $13.2 billion in 2001. The company plans to cut more than 1,000 jobs, it recently announced. Recent cost-cutting and productivity gains, however, have pushed its fourth-quarter expectations higher.
While arguing for digital, Sony acknowledges that, as in any emerging technology, the use of digital cameras to capture images still has its shortcomings and bugs. Typically, digital cameras perform better on sets, such as when shooting sitcoms, and film cameras are better on location shoots, where weather and lighting are less predictable. Some industry jobs will be lost to digital -- there will be no more use for a film loader, for instance. But Sony will not give the emotional advantage to film.
"I think that's hogwash," said Gary Martin, president of production administration for Sony's Columbia Pictures. Filmmakers "can capture it on digital and go back to the film [in editing]. If they want to make it look warm and fuzzy, they can do it."
Film has been under assault recently by some filmmakers for other reasons. Some like it that digital cameras allow them to see what they have shot right away. When using film, directors will shoot a day's worth of scenes and then have the film developed overnight, creating what are called "dailies," or rough-cut prints. When shooting with a digital camera, directors can see the scene they're shooting as they're shooting it. No more dailies.
In addition, the gear need not be overly expensive. Soderbergh's "Full Frontal" was not only shot using consumer technology, it was edited with everyday desktop tools: a Macintosh computer using Apple Computer Inc.'s Final Cut Pro software. Digital video has so permeated film schools that learning how to cut and edit 35mm film by hand is becoming a lost art.
It's one thing for indie directors to proclaim that film is dead. It's another matter, however, when one of the most powerful figures in Hollywood -- George Lucas -- is leading the charge. Lucas shot each of his two latest "Star Wars" installments digitally, saying the new technology gives him the tools to put on screen anything he can imagine.
Kodak, however, is not ready to give up; the company even aimed a gentle jibe at Lucas. "We're out to prove the death notice for film was not only premature, it just ain't gonna happen on our watch," Morelli said at a product rollout in Los Angeles last month. "Not in this galaxy and not in a galaxy far, far away.
"This empire is definitely striking back," he said.