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Why I Shoot Film

Daniel Adams
Feb 23 · 6 min read

With every movie I set out to make the inevitable question is always posed: film or digital? For 30 years, I’ve always shot on film, but with every project, especially within the last ten years or so, a producer will make the case for digital. It’s cheaper. You can move faster. You have more technological options. It makes post easier. But it is for all those reasons that the proponents of digital make the case for film stronger because it is film’s limitations that actually make it a higher art form.

With every artistic medium comes a set of restrictions. A painter is restricted to the borders of a canvas. A guitarist is limited to the sound created with a set of strings, whether they are steel or nylon. A dancer must stay within the boundaries of a stage, whether it be a proscenium or thrust configuration. These restrictions create problems that must be solved in order to create works that express meaning. An artist, working within his or her respective medium, does not “think outside the box” as the popular phrase goes, but instead must think INSIDE the box.

When film was first invented it was hailed by the engineers who created it as a miraculous invention that recreated reality. Thus, early on, artists assumed it was not an artform. Its efficacy as an artistic device was considered practically negligible, and any deviation from “reality” was considered a mistake by the director. When Cecil B. de Mille experimented with shadow by obscuring half the face of a menacing character (in his 1915 film, “The Warrens of Virginia”), the distributor sent a telegram, “Have you gone mad? Do you suppose we can sell a film for its full price if you only show half a man?” to which de Mille replied, “If you fellows are such fools that you don’t know Rembrandt chiaroscuro when you see it, don’t blame me.” The film was marketed with the slogan, “The first film lighted in the Rembrandt style.”

Artists depend on the distortion of reality to convey ideas and emotions. Like de Mille, many filmmakers started to experiment. The camera started to move. Juxtaposition was created with the use of montage. Shapes and tone were used to create contrast and conflict. Limits of the projection of images on a flat surface were overcome by devising ways to create the illusion of depth. Techniques for distorting reality in order to express ideas artistically were developed and refined within the parameters set by the restrictions of the medium. It is those restrictions that create the artform.

But inventors are not artists. Those that design movie cameras don’t direct their efforts toward providing the artist with a more effective medium, but toward increasing the naturalness of the projected images. To an engineer, the ideal is to imitate real life exactly. And an untrained viewer feels much the same. An audience demands the greatest possible likeness to reality. It prefers 3-D to flat, color to black-and-white, sound to no sound. Every step that brings film closer to real life creates a sensation. Each new sensation means ticket sales. And film is more dependent on the general public than any other artform. Hence the avid interest of the movie industry in these technological developments.

The first such development was sound which essentially arrested the development of the silent film. Sound was a technical novelty that did not lie on the path the best film artists at the time were pursuing. They were engaged in working out an explicit and pure style of silent film, using its restrictions to transform the peep show into art. The introduction of sound film shattered many of the forms that film artists were using in favor of the inartistic demand for the greatest possible “naturalness.” By sheer good luck, sound film was not just destructive; as an advancement of the stage play which already harnessed a hybrid of two separate mediums (sight and sound), it had artistic possibilities of its own. Likewise, the advent of color film. But as far as the use of the motion picture as an artform, that’s where the usefulness of technological advances ends.

IMAX in particular attempts to recreate reality so vividly that it gives the audience an “immersive” experience resulting in a choice as to what to focus on, thereby rendering a director’s two-dimensional composition of a scene less compelling and efficient; because a combination of media that has no unity will appear perplexing and therefore intolerable. The advent of the digital camera is one more step toward the recreation of reality and thus toward a victory of wax museum ideals over creative art. It’s the filmmaker’s duty to rein in these forays into unadulterated realism.

A film director’s purpose, as Pudovkin said, is to “lead the audience beyond the sphere of ordinary human conceptions.” To shed new light on the human condition. When you are sick, your symptoms don’t reveal much without a physician to interpret them, and artists are the physicians of society. Diagnosing society’s ills is the goal. Art is a necessity if we desire a healthy society, and its method, no matter the medium, is to present evaluation by drawing the general from the specific. Thus, every aspect of a film, whether it’s the colors or shapes chosen, the tone, hue, shade, saturation, pacing or brightness, blocking and directing of actors, must adhere to and reinforce the symbolism and meaning behind the story being told. A director must always be aware of what painters call the “structural skeleton” — in the case of film, I define this as the configuration and combination of visual forces that determine the character of the scene and how it relates to overall intent. If a director creates a shift in viewpoint or angle or cut for no purpose other than to entertain by evoking a reaction without any other bearing to the story, all the director has accomplished is a betrayal of the art form. Shocking or amazing an audience with no other purpose is not art. Intense realism will certainly amaze and enthrall an audience. But without distortion from that reality, it cannot possibly serve as an artistic medium. By unburdening a film director with film’s restrictions is to limit his or her ability to create a work of art.

The flip side of the argument I’ve heard for shooting digital is that, rather than just recreating “more reality,” the new technology actually allows the director additional options to distort it. But this line of reasoning fails to account for the purpose of the distortion in the first place, which is to use a very specific set of tools to produce very specific reactions in order to tell a compelling story. The theory behind the visual language a film director employs is based on Gestalt psychology which denotes very precise reactions the human mind produces when it sees certain dynamic relationships between form, color, tone, etc. I haven’t yet seen a digital camera create new gestalts, but I have seen digital images bastardize them, creating cluttered artistic results and confused audience reactions rather than focused ones.

On a simple level, with digital it’s very easy to change color tones qualitatively; e.g., to give all the reds a cast of orange or make all the yellows greenish, or even turn blue into red and red into blue or change night into day. But all this would be a transposition of reality — mechanical shifts whose usefulness as a formative medium are minimal. What defines the artform is the clever choice of what is to be photographed contemporaneously. Otherwise the complex gestalts created, carefully meshed with an actors’ interaction with the organized visual “whole” created or camera moves that shift or enhance the gestalt, are dangerously close to having no meaning. Film, because of its restrictions, forces the director to design and rehearse each scene carefully, ahead of time, and in perfect relation to the story being told. Thus, to a film artist, the remaining advantage of a digital camera is the useless purpose of photographing images that seem more “real.”

This is not to say that shooting digital has no place. But it is a completely different, nascent medium. To documentarians who “run and gun,” commercial directors whose purpose it is to sell a product, and even some feature directors whose primary motivation is to simply entertain with less emphasis on creating relevant art, the digital camera is a very useful tool. But if a director’s purpose is to evoke emotional reactions to a story in order to most efficiently communicate a profound viewpoint about humanity, the restrictions created by shooting film are an advantage to the creative process, not a hindrance. That which might be called the “drawbacks” of film, which engineers do their best to “overcome,” actually form the tools of the creative artist.

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