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Digital Film vs. 35mm Film: The Ongoing Debate

The question of digital vs. film has sparked heated debate ever since digital cinematography first emerged as an option for filmmakers in the late 1980s. Now, over 30 years later, the arguments rage on between proponents of slick, convenient digital filmmaking and supporters of the traditional photochemical film process. Before declaring one format superior, it is important to first understand the technical differences, production practicalities, visual aesthetics and direction the industry is moving when it comes to digital and film acquisition formats.

A Brief History

The Rise of Digital

While experiments with digital cinematography began in the 1980s, George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel Attack of the Clones (2002) was the first major feature film shot entirely digitally. Early adopters like Lucas and Robert Rodriguez helped advance digital technology while directors like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson stuck with 35mm film through the 2000s.

As sensor and resolution capabilities improved in the early 2010s, more studios and filmmakers transitioned to digital cinematography. Cost savings combined with technological improvements made the choice easier for productions with tighter budgets. By 2013 more films were shot digitally than on film, and celluloid filmmaking looked to soon be going the way of other obsolete analog technologies.

However, a few directors still believe in the enduring magic of film…

The Loyal Film Faithful

Despite digital now dominating for economic and practical reasons, renowned directors such as Tarantino, Nolan, Anderson and Wes Anderson continue to shoot projects on 35mm or 70mm film. Nolan in particular has lobbied major studios hard to continue film production and preservation efforts. Shooting on film is now a deliberate creative choice when undertaking a major production like Dunkirk (2017), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) or the upcoming Oppenheimer (2023).

For these directors, the organic texture, dynamic range and artisanal craft film provides is crucial for achieving their creative visions. The phoenix-like resurrection of polaroid instant film in the past decade also demonstrates that niche analog formats can still deliver a special quality competitive digital has yet to replicate.

While likely never returning to its peak popularity, film retains devoted users nearly 130 years after traditional celluloid film strips were first fed through cameras and projectors.

Technical Differences Between Digital and Film

Camera Sensor vs. Film Stock

The most fundamental difference between digital cinematography and 35mm film is what actually captures and stores the images. Digital cameras contain an electronic image sensor while film cameras capture images chemically directly onto the film stock strip.

Up until the last decade, 35mm film generally had greater resolution and dynamic range capabilities compared to digital sensors. Improvements in sensor technology now allow cutting-edge digital cinema cameras to match or exceed the sharpness, color depth and latitude once only possible with 35mm film.

Aspect Ratios

35mm film has an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, while most digital cinema cameras capture footage at wider ratios like 16:9 or 17:9. Anamorphic lenses are often used on digital cameras to achieve more cinematic widescreen aspect ratios like 2.39:1.


The duration of individual film shots are limited by magazine capacity to around 10-11 minutes. Shooting digitally has no such restrictions – footage is limited only by storage media size and battery capacity which allows for extended takes.

Scenes with lots of explosions, gunfire and other pricey special effects therefore tend to favor shooting digital, while quieter dialogue-heavy scenes can be more easily captured on costly film stock.

Comparing Production Costs

[thumbnail visual comparing production costs digital vs film]

Determining whether digital or film production is more cost effective depends greatly on the size and needs of a production.

For small independent films, digital cameras can be much more affordable upfront. Digital production also eliminates film stock and film-to-digital transfer expenses. However the long-term costs of storing and backing up huge amounts of data give celluloid a cost advantage.

On a major studio production like a Marvel superhero film carrying a budget over $100 million, shooting on 35mm or 70mm film ends up costing proportionally much less than for a micro-budget indie shooting digital. Visual effects-heavy films also gain more value from shooting digital, again making up for the upfront camera investment over time.

No matter the production level, appropriate storage solutions are vital for preserving digital and film materials properly so the costs of reshooting don’t erase any production savings further down the road. The strict climate controlled requirements (cool and dry for film vs moderate temperature and humidity for digital) must also be accounted for when budgeting for long-term storage.

Artistic and Aesthetic Differences

Beauty may be in the eye of the filmgoer, but even the most casual movie watcher can discern between the different visual qualities of analog film and digital capture formats. Filmmakers often choose 35mm or 70mm specifically for the tactile, organic aesthetic properties inherent in the photochemical process.

Film Grain

The most noticeable indicator of a film source is the appearance of visible film grain. These tiny particles of silver halide that comprise chemical images in celluloid film have a distinct chaotic pattern reminiscent of photographic film. While a huge annoyance for early standard definition digital video, the current high resolutions delivered by digital cinema cameras can now comfortably replicate realistic film grain. But there’s still no beating the real thing.

Color and Exposure Latitude

The color science behind current digital cinema cameras yields excellent color reproduction accuracy. However the creamy texture and highlight roll-off unique to film emulsion still set celluloid footage apart. Similarly film boasts up to 14 stops of dynamic range vs 10-12 stops on even the most advanced digital cameras. Skilled cinematographers though know how to maximize their camera’s capabilities for capturing exceptional images regardless of format.

The Film Look

Through factors like resolution, color sensitivity, exposure latitude and inherent grain structure, 35mm film has a distinctive aesthetic quality unmatched by digital. The shift towards digital acquisition ironically also spawned a cottage industry of plugins and filters for artificially emulating the “film look.” For many, however, the only true way to achieve that coveted photochemical magic is to capture images on actual film in the camera, rather than attempt to replicate it in post.

Which Hollywood Directors Use Digital or Film Cameras?

The visual quality and working methods privileges celluloid provides partially explain why some of this generation’s great auteurs refuse to give up on film. Collectively Nolan, Tarantino, PTA and Wes Anderson capture some of the most magnetic, sumptuously cinematic images across Hollywood. Here are some of today‘s top directors and their preferences regarding digital vs film production:

Digital Directors

  • James Cameron
  • David Fincher
  • George Lucas
  • Robert Rodriguez
  • Steven Soderbergh

Film Loyalists

  • Paul Thomas Anderson
  • Damien Chazelle
  • Alejandro G. Iñárritu
  • Barry Jenkins
  • Christopher Nolan
  • Jordan Peele
  • Quentin Tarantino
  • Denis Villeneuve

Is Film Really Dead?

Less than a decade ago some touted the death knell of 35mm film as the replacement by digital acquisition looked inevitable. But just as vinyl records have enjoyed an unexpected resurgence, film stock continues to endure as a boutique creative option for photographers and eminent movie directors alike.

Nearly all major studio productions may now be captured using digital rather than film cameras, yet iconic filmmakers like Tarantino and Nolan keep the photochemical flame alive. Young indie directors frequently kickstart projects using affordable digital cameras, however celluloid likely remains a aspirational dream they hope to someday shoot on.

Film as a format then seems poised to follow the path of gourmet coffee, craft beer and direct-to-consumer fashion brands. What was once ordinary is suddenly a premium product Americans view as artisanal and authentic. For directors who came of age enamored by the films they watched in their local rep theaters, the magic of celluloid remains essential to their own filmmaking practice. Can a digital copy ever truly replace owning your beloved album on vinyl? Likewise the inimitable texture and hands-on process shooting with film cameras offers creatives of a certain devotion a singular experience quite different from digital.

Much as the mainstream music industry shifted irrevocably towards streaming in the past 15 years, commercial filmmaking will never return from digital to film-based workflows. But don‘t expect artists like Nolan and Tarantino who remain devoted to analog craft to vanish anytime soon. If anything the next generation of filmmakers may view mastering the photochemical discipline as a badge of honor only achieved through years of apprenticeship. We all still have record players and listen to vinyl even as Spotify streams to our phones daily. Film cameras will persist as a boutique creative tool if not the mass filmmaking standard.

Just as digital did not ultimately replace but only diminished film’s dominance, these two formats can amicably coexist serving both niche creators dedicated to analog methods as well as studios adopting the most convenient modern production workflow technology has to offer. Film lush photographs and album covers can still be admired as art even by those who opt for purely pragmatic digital streaming. As long as revered auteurs stand by celluloid, film will endure in our cultural imagination alongside music on vinyl, printed books and other analog formats rendered commercially obsolete but symbolically irreplaceable.

So while film as the predominant filmmaking technology may seem dead, celluloid itself still lives on as a beloved creative tool too conceptually elegant and undeniably cinematic to ever fade away completely. The format’s inherent foundational role in the art form’s history solidifies its mythic status for those directors driven at their core by rational passion rather than purely economic motivations.