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Films shot digitally


Films shot digitally

Digital cinema

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Digital cinematography is the process of capturing motion pictures on digital video in place of (or as a substitute for) traditional film. Although this subject has received a good deal of publicity in recent years, it is certainly not a new concept: before it was reintroduced as "Digital cinematography" in the late 1990s it was known for many years as "Electronic cinematography". Sony had been trying to market this concept using tube-based analog HDTV cameras since the late 1980s, with very little success. It was not until 1998 when they were able to introduce workable 1920 x 1080 pixel CCD cameras with attached HDCAM recorders that the industry began to take the medium seriously.

There are frequent disputes regarding what actually constitutes "cinematography", since in its normal sense the word implies something that exhibitors think worth displaying on a giant screen in a cinema, usually with the goal of attracting paying customers. At the moment, many of the projects shot using electronic cameras do not face this market. Public airings are generally at non-profit film festivals, and are frequently projected as video rather than film. If such projects are ever released for sale, it is nearly always on DVD or videotape, so they might be more accurately called "non-broadcast television productions". It's important to note that the majority of lower-budget television programs have been shot this way for the past two decades, using TV-resolution Betacam camcorders. Although these were based on older analog technologies, the actual principles involved differ little from the "digital" counterparts; certainly the average viewer would be hard put to pick any difference in the received image quality.

Around the turn of the last century, several directors, including James Cameron and George Lucas, stated that they would probably never shoot on traditional film again. Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of commercial movies are still shot on film, as are most American prime-time television programs and commercials.

Lower-budget and limited-release movies are increasingly being shot using digital video cameras (although usually not those equipped with high-definition sensors), but the preferred medium for that is still 16mm film.

Since the late 1980s there have been a variety of experimantal "Cinematographic" projects that used both electronic cameras and electronic projection, although these used earlier analog HD technology; none was commercially successful. One of the first documented public viewings of "true" digital cinema was a film titled "Driven Together", directed and produced by David M. Kaiserman. It was a feature film shot, edited, and projected digitally, premiering on a digital playback system on August 26, 2000.



The basic idea of digital filmmaking is simple: to use digital video cameras to capture and store motion images in binary data (similar in process to digital photography), as well as to record synchronized digital audio. Thereafter, the image and sound are edited via non-linear editing and then sent for projection in a digital cinema, a theater with digital projectors, or pressed straight for video in playback capacities like DVDs. In most cases in mid 2006, though, digital is transferred back to a film master, using a 35mm film recorder. This film master, or internegative is then used in a traditional 35mm lab to create the hundreds to thousands of film prints for distribution to theatres.

At this writing, (mid-2006) a minority of high-end movie productions are using HD cameras to make theatrical films A few high profile directors, including Robert Rodriguez, James Cameron and George Lucas, are exclusively using high-end digital cameras to photograph the original images for their films. For the time being, films are mostly shot on film, and perhaps composited to a digital intermediate (DI). From the DI, they can go to film or digital release. A growing number of other directors have shot at least one of their productions with a Digital Cinematography camera, as the technology is refined and becomes more familiar to more artists in the film industry.

HD vs. 2K and 4K formats

HD refers to High definition television and means a resolution of either 1280 720 pixels or 1920 1080 pixels at various scanning rates. 2K means video with 2048 pixels on its longest side, and 4K means video with 4096 pixels on its longest side.

Digital release of films may progress with 2K technology, but, on the other hand, may not. Sony has developed and released 4K projectors using their SXRD technology, with one of the major purchasers being Mark Cuban's Landmark Theatres. 4K, being four times greater in resolution, will allow much bigger and brighter 3D images.


Some producers/directors (George Lucas and Robert Rodriguez) have publicly declared their stance that celluloid (film) is as good as dead and the future is an all-digital medium. Others, such as Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann while not going that far have experimentally shot some parts of their most recent pictures on digital. Many think digital filmmaking will democratize the world of film and point out how inexpensive shooting digitally can be considering the cost of film, especially if the output is on video as a movie can be edited on a home computer and burned to DVD. Others characterize this as wishful idealism, as film and laboratory work are only about 1% of the cost of a Hollywood or even "Bollywood" style production, but it is part of the "cultural" background of the issue.

Given the constant year-on-year improvements in digital cinema technology, it appears that the future of cinema is likely to be digital within the next 10 to 20 years. However, digital cinema still has some way to go before it can completely replace film.

For the last 100 years all movies have been shot on film and nearly every film student learns about how to handle 35mm film. Digital, especially the super high-definition equipment, has not had the time to become as widely accepted, though the growing popularity of HD video camera (less than 2K) equipment in the television domain will certainly have an effect to spur development of theatrical grade 4K cameras and post-production facilities.

Some purists would argue that digital does not have the same "feel" as a movie shot on film. While this may be a matter of personal preference more than anything, digital cameras have been evolving quickly and quality is improving dramatically from each generation of hardware to the next. Also many counter-argue that because most films are developed back to film when distributed to theatres the film's 'feel' returns to the audience. While today's digital cameras cannot achieve the same level of quality as 35 mm film some believe clarity and color are "good enough". 70 mm offers a sharper picture, but is now considered obsolete. IMAX remains well out of reach for now, since the equivalent resolution (around 30 megapixels) is far beyond the capability of any digital motion picture camera today. The compromise, 6 perf. 35mm format, delivers 4K for a low cost, so might find a place with 3D and to "recover" the lost 70mm roadshow market.

It is also hard to say how democratized cinema would become if it were to turn all digital. It is estimated that there are over 5,000 commercial films a year shot digitally. With such a huge supply, digital filmmakers may have difficulty getting their products even looked at by distributors and, therefore, they rarely get the upper hand in distribution negotiations.

In addition, the current distribution structure may be altered by the economies of scale which digital filmmaking allows. If traditional distribution methods change in the future, by way of a more directly accessible product (such as Soderberg's "Bubble" or Morgan Freeman's ClickStar, Inc.), then digital filmmaking will be able to overcome the current obstacles of traditional celluloid film distribution. More realistically, it may very well just create new ones, but these new obstacles will not be as dependent on the money necessary to distribute the final product. This is because distributing a film digitally theoretically is cheaper than creating and shipping all the final prints of a celluloid film. This traditional method of distribution requires huge amounts of money for a finished film to reach the thousands of theatres across the country, therefore becoming one of the final steps for a film to be able to make money. Sometimes a film will not get made unless the film is vetted by a distribution company first, in order to hedge the distributor's ability to make their money back on the potential film, based on the distributor's belief that the film has the potential to make money.

Technical challenges

Film is in many ways more portable than its high quality digital counterparts. The chemical process initiated by exposing film to light give reliable results, that are well documented and understood by cinematographers. In contrast every digital camera has a unique response to light and it is very difficult to predict without viewing the results on a monitor or a waveform analyzer, increasing the complexity of lighting. However, accurate calibration techniques are being developed which eliminate this as a practical problem, and the possibility of inexpensive post-production color grading can make digital cinematography more flexible than film in achieving artistic color effects.

More seriously, most digital cameras have an insufficient exposure latitude when compared to film, increasing the difficulties of filming in a high contrast situation, such as direct sunlight. Exposure latiture is also known as a dynamic range and the problems of the insuficient dynamic range are addressed by the high dynamic range imaging. This is a much greater problem, because if highlight or shadow information is not present in the recorded image, it is lost forever, and cannot be re-created by any form of exposure curve compensation. Cinematographers can learn how to adjust for this type of response using techniques garnered from shooting on Reversal film that has a similar lack of latitude in the highlights. Digital video is also more sensitive than film stocks in low light conditions, allowing smaller, more efficient and natural lighting to be used for shooting. Some directors have tried the "best for the job" route, using digital video for indoor or night shoots, but traitional film for daylight work outdoors.


There are several models of cameras currently favored for digital cinematography:

Sony CineAlta

Lars von Trier shoots Dogville using a Sony HDW-F900 Lars von Trier shoots Dogville using a Sony HDW-F900

The CineAlta series of cameras are essentially the high definition video descendant of Betacam, geared toward motion picture production. As well as the standard NTSC and PAL frame rates of 29.97 and 25 frames per second respectively, they can shoot at the same 24 frames per second (24p) as film. Their CCD sensors have a resolution of 1920x1080 pixels (1080p). For comparison, some film scanners are capable of capturing up to 10,000 pixels horizontally from a standard 35mm frame.

CineAlta cameras (most notably the Sony HDW-F900) record onto HDCAM tapes. However, the CineAlta can only record 1440 x 1080 pixel compressed component video in this mode. Episode II of the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy was shot with the CineAlta. Episode III was shot with more advanced HDW950 cameras which can record the full 1920x1080-pixel frame. When shooting in the 2.35:1 widescreen format (often referred to as "Panavision") only about 800 of the 1080 vertical pixels are actually used.


Mini-DV cameras have been around for many years and have been used on independent and low-budget films, but are most popular with common consumers. Steven Soderbergh used the popular Canon XL series camera while shooting Full Frontal. The Mini-DV tape format is capable of recording images of considerable quality, but the technology is often limited by the optics of compact cameras.

One of the first Mini-DV cameras used on a feature film was the Sony VX-1000, which was used to shoot Spike Lee's Bamboozled.

Thomson Viper

Michael Mann shooting Collateral with the Thomson Viper. Michael Mann shooting Collateral with the Thomson Viper.

The Viper FilmStream Camera has the same resolution and frame rate as a high definition video camera like the CineAlta, but captures an uncompressed video image, unlike many earlier HD cameras, which applied lossy compression to the video stream. The Viper was first used on Rudolf B.'s short movie Indoor Fireworks. The first major motion picture shot using the Thomson Viper was Michael Mann's Collateral, and his upcoming film Miami Vice. One of its strengths is the capability to shoot in extremely low light levels, allowing much of Collateral to be shot on the streets of Los Angeles at night without the need for large supplemental lighting equipment.

While the Viper is designed to produce full resolution raw images in 4:4:4 log data, it is also very capable of producing 4:4:4 RGB video images as used by Michael Mann. Tom Burstyn, CSC, used a Viper in the 4:2;2 HDstream mode and was nominated for an Emmy in Cinematography for the first season of the USA Network show "The 4400."

The signals from the Viper may be recorded to either a tape format or a disk array. It is sometimes incorrectly assumed that the images from the Viper must be recorded uncompressed to a disk recorder. Most feature production is recorded 4:4:4 to Sony HDCAM SR tape for practical reasons with no perceptive differences in quality to disk systems.

Of all features available to the Viper user, the most unique is Dynamic Pixel Management . The camera can be adjusted to change its aspect ratio by vertically ganging pixels. The pixels can be made taller/shorter thus consistently delivering a standard line count with different relative picture heights.

All professional CCD cameras made by Sony, Panavision - including the Genesis - and Panasonic are fixed pattern arrays (e.g. 1920x1080) with a 16:9 aspect ratio. The ARRI D-20 can produce only 4:3 or 16:9 images, although anamorphic lenses may be used.

In addition to a TV standard 16:9 aspect ratio, the Thomson Viper can shoot with a 1:2.37 - true cinema aspect ratio while still recording at the industry standard 1080 lines of picture height. Other CCD camera technologies must crop the 16:9 picture and blow up slightly more than 800 lines to achieve a 2:40 aspect ratio.


The 3-D IMAX film Aliens of the Deep was shot with a custom-built, underwater high-definition video system.

Panavision Genesis

Following the lukewarm film industry response to the "Panavized" CineAltas used by George Lucas, in 2004 Panavision introduced the Genesis. The Genesis produces similar 1920 x 1080 resolution images to its predecessor, using a similar tape format, but uses a single CCD sensor with the same width as a standard 35mm film frame. This overcomes a number of the shortcomings of small-format imagers as used in the above cameras, and also allows standard 35mm cine lenses to be used, with much the same control over depth of field as a 35mm film camera. The Genesis is currently (Oct '05) being used on the films Superman Returns and Flyboys, (now in post-production). Recently released (Feb 2006) Superman Returns "teaser" footage suggests the film will have a "comic book" finish (similar to that of X-Men 2) which may not really be indicative of the "mainstream" performance of the camera.

April 14 2006 saw the release of Scary Movie 4, first general release of a Genesis-captured feature film. There was considerable industry comment about the variable image quality, (mostly the often soft-looking images) until it was revealed that parts of it (in particular the opening scenes) were actually captured on 35mm film. Hence, the producers' claim of "indistinguishable from 35mm film" does not appear to hold up, at least in this instance. However comments on the color quality were generally favorable, at least compared to earlier "All digital" productions.

Dalsa Origin

Although it is a relative newcomer into the field of motion-picture and video equipment, Dalsa are a respected manufacturer of extremely high resolution imaging systems, known for their satellite and military imaging products. The Origin uses a 4K x 2K pixel Frame Transfer CCD sensor, much larger than that of any competitor, having the same height as a 35mm film frame but more than 1.5 times its width. Dalsa refer to it as "4K" sensor, although this is somewhat misleading for two reasons:

  • A "True" 4K sensor would have 4,000 pixels each of Red, Green and Blue across its width, whereas the Origin only has 4,046 Bayer-Masked pixels, giving an actual resolution closer to 2K.
  • Most lenses designed for 35mm film cameras will only produce a fully-focused image slightly larger than a standard 35mm film frame, so a considerable amount of the image produced on an Origin sensor is "wasted". With the majority of existing 35mm-type fillm lenses, only about 2,500 horizontal pixels can be used in practice.

Perhaps the most unique characteristic of the Origin is its dynamic range. The raw output of the camera records 16 bits per pixel with 12 f-stops of latitude on a nearly linear response curve. Like the Arri D-20, the Origin uses a rotating mirror shutter to give an optical viewfinder option, although its real purpose is to blank the CCD sensor chip during the frame readout period. The present incarnation of the Dalsa camera body is also extremely large, resembling a desktop computer.

The Origin offers several data output options including uncompressed RGB, but at present (Nov 2005) there is no provision for on-board recording, and to date no major feature projects have been shot using the camera.

Digital video vs. film

Sin City shot using the Sony HDC-950 Sin City shot using the Sony HDC-950

Some notable directors have stated that they have been "converted" to digital cinematography and will never return to using film, including George Lucas, Robert Rodriguez, David Fincher, David Lynch, Lars von Trier, and James Cameron. Lucas, however, modified his stance somewhat in a recent interview, stating that he "would use whatever is more appropriate to the particular project." Directors Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Tim Burton, Ridley Scott and Oliver Stone belong to the opposing camp of those who have vowed to continue to shoot on film.

Some of the benefits claimed by digital video are:

  • Digital video allows for films to be shot faster, and for less money than film.
  • Digital video, unlike film, does not need to be developed and can be played back and edited immediately after shooting. This can help in avoiding continuity errors.
  • Digital video can record image and audio on the same media.
  • Digital video cameras are smaller and lighter than film cameras.
  • Digital video is recorded on cassettes or hard disk drives, which can hold considerably more footage and are cheaper than a ten or twenty minute film stock.
  • Digital video is more sensitive than film, and usually requires less supplemental lighting.
  • Most films are already edited on a digital system after the developed film stocks are converted to digital video. Film requires a lengthly telecine process to be converted to digital video.


A scene from November (2004), one of many low-budget films shot on digital video. A scene from November (2004), one of many low-budget films shot on digital video.

Digital cinematography has some big economic advantages over film, being very cheap compared to film. For instance Rick McCallum, a producer on Attack of the Clones, said that it cost US$16,000 for 220 hours of digital tape where a comparable amount of film would have cost US$1.8 million. Obviously this matters most to low-budget films which are often shot for a few million dollars or less.

Digital cinema can also reduce costs while shooting and editing. It is possible to see the video and make any necessary adustments immediately instead of having to wait until after the film is processed. Digital footage can also be edited directly, whereas with film it is usually converted to digital for editing and then re-converted to film for projection.

Criticisms of video

After an initial flurry of interest, the use of digital video for motion pictures has caused a backlash among many film enthusiasts. The primary argument against digital cinematography is simply that the image quality has not yet caught up to most 35mm film, and that films shot digitally appear too crisp and "washed over".

Generally, the problem is that despite being re-labeled as "digital cinematography" cameras, the technology still retains many of the limitations of the television cameras that preceded it. In other words, the necessary technological breakthroughs needed to make Digital Cinematography viable do not appear to have actually occurred. TV cameras have always worked satisfactorily and economically in totally enclosed sound stages or studios where lighting may be easily controlled, (which is how the vast majority of the Star Wars and Spy Kids films were shot). However, taken outside into "on location" situations where there is far less control over the lighting, video cameras tend to perform poorly. In this case, any potential savings in stock costs tend to be eaten up by the need for extra lighting equipment to "flatten" difficult lighting situations.

For precision monitoring when shooting outdoors, a collection of black tents is usually needed, often referred to sarcastically as the "video village". All of this equipment has to be operating even when just setting up a shot, whereas with a film camera's optical viewfinder, no power is required between shots, making battery operation far more practical.

Cost comparison

For the last 25 years, many respected filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas have made the claim that digital techniques will make films cheaper to produce. However, in the last 25 years, the average production budget has jumped by 300% (from $20 million to $80 million), despite the embrace of many new types of digital equipment and techniques. Movies are continually spending more and more on computer-generated images (CGI) and editing. On average, they spend far more on CGI than 1950s and 1960s epics did on special effects and extras (even after inflation).

There is also the complication that the very cheapness of videotape may encourage inept film makers to try to improve their chances of success by simply making excessively large numbers of takes of the same scene, rather than putting in the effort required to "get it right the first time". As a case in point, with a film like Attack of the Clones the unanswered question is: If the CineAltas were not available, would they have actually shot $1.8 million dollars worth of film, rather than the stated equivalent "$16,000 or so worth of videotape"? In any event, such a "shotgun" approach to filming is more likely to simply make more work for the editors, who may typically have to wade through 30 sloppily-videotaped takes, instead of a small number of carefully-filmed ones. Such false economies merely serve to shift operating costs from one department to the next.

The size of the production budget must also be accounted when considering the cost savings presented by a digital format compared to film stock. Two recent films Sin City and Superman Returns, both shot on digital tape, had budgets of $40 million and close to $200 million respectively. The cost savings in these cases would be negligible when considering the size of the production budgets.

Other issues

  • Although it is true the "per minute stock cost" of videotape is much less than an equivalent amount of film, in most cases this is more than offset by the cost of the extra monitoring equipment required. In any event, even if the cost of shooting digitally could be reduced to zero, the overall effect on the cost of producing the average feature would be negligible, since film costs normally make up a tiny part of a film's budget -- currently, even very inexpensive "made for cable" movies are nearly always shot on film.
  • The "instant playback" feature, often touted as a major advantage of shooting digitally, has been available through the "video assist" systems that have been in regular use since the early 1980s. Although this is only lower resolution NTSC video, for the vast majority of monitoring and framing "confidence" applications, it has proven more than adequate.
  • For anything but low-budget work, there is no particular advantage in having the sound and image recorded on the same medium. Most sound recording is done by specialist operators, usually with their own desk of equipment. Using the image recorder to record the sound as well would involve running extra cables up to the camera/recorder combination.
  • Although very compact digital cameras are available, none of these produces anywhere near the quality demanded for large-screen film work, and in any event there are also extremely compact 35mm film cameras that produce the full 35mm film resolution and accept standard 35mm lenses.
  • The digital systems used for editing most films today are in fact PC-based "off-line" editing systems, Final Cut Pro and Avid being two common examples. The "wild" film segments are transferred rapidly and inexpensively at NTSC resolution onto a hard disk drive, and all the editing decisions are then made on a computer system, to produce an on-screen-edited "NTSC resolution" version of the project. An automated machine then duplicates the project on film by cutting up and splicing the original negatives, using the edit marks produced on the computer system. This is very similar to the way most television programs are post-produced, using almost identical equipment, except that the original camera tapes are edited by re-recording, instead of cutting up film negatives. So really, in principle most films today are edited and duplicated much the same way they have been for the past century, but using computers to simply streamline the process.
  • More recently, some post-production has been done by scanning the film and carrying out all the editing at full resolution on a computer, and then transferring the resultant digital files directly back onto film to produce the master release negative. This is the so-called "digital intermediate" process. However, at present, it is so expensive that it is normally reserved for projects that require a lot of digital manipulation, such as science fiction and fantasy films, or large-budget films where the cost is not an issue. For more cost-conscious projects, it is only used in the scenes that actually require it, which may make up only a very small part of the whole film. Costs are continually falling, though, and there is little doubt that this will eventually become the standard technique.

See also

External links

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This guide is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia.