Moving Beyond ‘Film vs. Digital’

by Christopher Nolan

Filmmaker Christopher Nolan received the 2017 FIAF Award, an honor presented at the annual FIAF Congress, which brings together film archivists from around the world. Below is an excerpt from his speech, which was followed by a 70mm screening of Nolan’s 2014 film Interstellar at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.


I first became really passionate and aware of some of the issues facing the archiving community as a result of a purely selfish impulse. Emma, my producer and wife, and I started to feel a real encroachment on our beloved photochemical film process.

It’s the way we’ve made all of our films and the way we intend to continue making all of our films.

About ten years ago now, we started to feel increasing pressure from electronics manufacturers, from studios, and so forth, to shift. We started to feel that [film], as an option, was under threat.

Christopher Nolan speaking at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater on May 1.

So we started talking to filmmakers about these issues, people like Martin Scorsese, Alexander Payne, Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson… people facing the same dilemma.

But like a lot of other filmmakers, I’ve always taken film history for granted, naively so.

It never occurred to me that we, as an industry, would be committing a lot of the same mistakes that the film industry has committed in the past in terms of undervaluing or underestimating the effort that was required and the importance of maintaining film history.

Just as for filmmakers there’s been a tremendous danger of losing the option to shoot film, in the archiving community, there’s been a tremendous reluctance or inability to talk about the importance of photochemical and how it’s the essential backbone of archiving.

It’s through conversations that we’ve been having around the world that we started, with cautious optimism, to change the conversation from the idea of ‘film versus digital’ into the notion that we live in an era where, because of digital technology, access to the history of film has reached unprecedented levels.

There is extraordinary benefit to the ways in which younger filmgoers have been exposed to film history.

Now we’re at a point where that has to be balanced with the acceptance of the ongoing responsibility to maintain access to photochemical film prints, to see films the way in which they were intended to be shown, the way in which they were originally made, and to preserve them for future generations.

FIAF President Éric Le Roy (left) with filmmaker Christopher Nolan.

As I thought about the issue of archiving, it occurred to me that one of the issues with the digitization of archives has been that, from a fundraising point of view, or from a political point of view, it started to give us all the idea there would be a finite end to the process of archiving. Of course, there isn’t.

Archiving is a necessary part of filmmaking, just as production is and distribution is and marketing is, and it always will be so.

And it continues to require expertise and funding and commitment from the major studios, from the people who can afford to help. In saying thank you to FIAF for this honor, I’d also like to remind you all that you serve not only as the collective memory of the industry and the art form to which we’re all so committed, but to some degree also as its conscience.

I think it’s vital that you feel able and empowered to stand up for the standards that you know to be necessary and important, even if funding for those things is hard to come by or not forthcoming.

It’s very important that the leaders of our industry understand, if we’re not living up to your standards, in what way we’re falling short. So at least these decisions can be made with our eyes open and with a view to the future of preserving film for generations to come forever.

That’s really the commitment of archiving.
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