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Film vs. digital: the most contentious debate in the film world, explained

Why knowing how a movie was shot is so important before you go to the theater.

Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in The Hateful Eight, which has become the current center of a long-running debate over the virtues of shooting on film versus shooting on digital.
Jennifer Jason Leigh stars in The Hateful Eight, which has become the current center of a long-running debate over the virtues of shooting on film versus shooting on digital.
The Weinstein Company

"I don’t know, it looks weird. It’s the picture on the TV; it just looks … too real."

Picture a TV that appears to be displaying a cheap, unnatural-looking image, even though it's just come out of the box. We, or someone we know, have said something similar to the above when faced with just this situation. You may not be able to place a name on what’s happening, but you still instantly recognize the distracting, crisp falseness of the image. You know that’s not how TV’s supposed to look.

But there's an easy explanation for this. It's a result of what’s called "motion smoothing," also often called the "soap opera effect," a process that artificially increases the frame rate of a program by interpolating images between the 24 frames that televisions usually run every second. To many of you, that will sound like gibberish, but don’t worry. That feature is easily turned off — and we're here to explain what all of the above means.

The disconnect between the unfamiliarity most people have with the process that produces this image and the instant familiarity these same folks have with its effects — that weird-looking image — is both paradoxical and entirely typical of matters concerning motion picture format.

And this is a discussion that's only heating up. Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is filmed in a mostly extinct format, and much of the film's press has been centered on that fact. And Canadian director Xavier Dolan has gone after Netflix UK for displaying his movie in the wrong format.

We have the innate ability to recognize differences in image, but few of us ever learn what causes those variations. You know this stuff — you just don't know you know it. The general public might not be able to define what 35mm film or the Academy ratio is, but they instantly recognize both from years of movie watching.

So let's start simple.

What is film? What is digital?

Hateful Eight Tarantino
Director Quentin Tarantino has been at the center of many conversations about film versus digital.
The Weinstein Company

"If I can't shoot on film I'll stop making movies," Tarantino said on Los Angeles radio station KCRW's show The Treatment. He added, "If we're acquiescing to digital projection, we've already ceded too much ground to the barbarians. The fight is lost if all we have is digital, DCP presentations. To me, that's just television in public."

Just what is Tarantino talking about here? When someone pushes his glasses high up on his nose, raises a finger, and creaks, "Actually, film is…" chances are he’s about to explain the difference between analog and digital filmmaking.

Once upon a time, all movies were shot using machines that would take 24 photographs or "frames" every second and instantaneously leave a negative of those images on a filmstrip. It would then be treated with chemicals and displayed for showings by running the reels containing these strips of pictures through a projector. (Some cameras can also take more than 24 frames per second — see motion smoothing, above — but this generally produces an image that looks too real to our used-to-24-fps eyes.)

If that sounds like a long, laborious process with tons of room for mechanical and human error, that’s because it is. The advent of videotape and the handheld video camera made physical media somewhat easier to work with, but all it takes is one afternoon spent carefully respooling the magnetic tape on a VHS cassette (or one VCR chewing up a bunch of that tape) to realize how easily ruined it all is.

Instead of these potentially error-ridden physical procedures, many cameras now save these images as data to a digital bank, which can then be accessed like any other file. Digital video doesn’t really exist in the same way that MP3s don’t exist. As such, transportation, preservation, and even tinkering with the look of the finished product are now simpler than ever before. Recent technological advances have streamlined this process beyond what the filmmakers of bygone eras could have even imagined.

Film vs. digital.
Film degrades over time, which means that individual copies can often get quite dingy. Digital is theoretically pristine forever (assuming file formats remain uniform, which isn't always a given).
Javier Zarracina/Vox

So digital is the solution, right? Not so fast. Though digital photography may be more practical, film has aesthetic merits that aren’t as easily pinpointed. Those with the spider senses to discern such things have a habit of claiming film "just looks better," much in the same way audiophiles can tell that vinyl "just sounds better," but these both circle back to the inherently vague "know it when I see it" phenomenon.

Filmstrips are a living thing — they degrade and expand and contract and mutate and warp over time based on the conditions they’re left in. As such, they have a lived-in look. A filmstrip saved from 1979 and shown again today has clearly seen some shit. Little imperfections such as scratches or so-called "cigarette burns" (take it away, Ed Norton) appear on the strip, and quiet crackles and pops develop on the audio track.

But, in many ways, these imperfections are an argument in film's favor. Though good ol’ film stock may represent an inferior experience in terms of pure empirical quality, it has the soft-around-the-edges look that we associate with old movies. Film is transportive; it inspires nostalgia, especially among film buffs. Compared with that, digital video can look antiseptic and polished. (This is some of what Tarantino means when he calls digital projection "television in public." Television, too, can look antiseptic and polished.)

These technical distinctions dictate the daily push and pull of the film industry, but for the garden-variety viewer, digital and analog are no more than two visual modes for a film to work in, each with its own individual vibe. Neither is better than the other, only more well-suited to the story the filmmaker has chosen to tell.

Director Danny Boyle, for instance, used various film formats to subtly communicate the passage of time in his recent film Steve Jobs, which takes place at three product launches in three different years. Boyle shot the scenes at Jobs’s first launch in 1984 on 16mm film, captured the scenes around the 1988 launch on 35mm film, and switched to digital to evince a polished modernity for the third product launch in 1998. And if you know to look for it, the switch in formats in each time period is easy to spot.

Wait, why are there suddenly different types of film?

Star Wars Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens was filmed on 35mm film.

Manufacturers produce filmstrips in four different sizes — called gauges — each with its own properties and applications.

The measure of a gauge refers to the width of a filmstrip, with wider stock providing sharper definition and more detail in the projected image. Most major releases shot on film — including the current number one film in the world, Star Wars: The Force Awakens — are printed on 35mm stock; a lot of movie theaters use digital projectors but might bust out a 35mm rig for special occasions, often meant to court cinephiles.

The next rung down is 16mm, a cost-effective alternative intended for low-budget student productions or amateur use. There was a time when use of 16mm was in common in the realm of TV. For instance, observe the world of difference between the look of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's first two seasons (shot on 16mm) and those that followed it (shot on 35mm, once the series' budget grew).

The lowest gauge of film stock is 8mm, which was cheap enough to produce that it was mainly reserved for home movies and experimental projects. You might remember the J.J. Abrams film Super 8, into which low-grade home movies figure prominently — its title comes from the name of a specific brand of 8mm film.

Film formats Javier Zarracina/Vox

The individual size of these filmstrips results in the quality, clarity, and detail of the image. Thus, 70mm allows for the crispest image, while 8mm has the fuzziest.

That only leaves 70mm, the largest gauge and a recent subject of minor kerfuffles within the film world. Still an enfant terrible at 52, Tarantino made waves with his announcement that his latest feature The Hateful Eight would play in glorious 70mm at various "roadshow" locations around the country, complete with additional footage exclusive to the 70mm version.

Tarantino fashioned his newest effort as a capital-E Event in the tradition of the spectacle films of yore; the 70mm format and its dazzlingly rich colors, lush sound, and ravishingly detailed image were originally used to lift epics such as Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia to godly proportions.

Seeing a film on 70mm is a transcendent experience for the senses, but the expenses and scarcity of equipment required for projection have been prohibitive for most theaters that would like to give it a whirl. Tarantino’s Hateful Eight roadshow is a massive undertaking, notable not only for the scope of its architect’s ambition but for what this could signify if the distributors, the Weinstein Company, have what it takes to pull off such a massive undertaking.

It’ll be a considerable feat if America’s projectors can screen the prints without a hitch, but if it works, it could open the floodgates for more major releases to dabble in the breathtaking visual 70 mm aesthetic. For the most part, America's projectionists seem to be handling this well — though there have been problems.

Film comes in different "shapes," as well

This frame from The Hateful Eight shows the difference between a smaller aspect ratio and the film's ultra-widescreen aspect ratio.

The other dimension of what a movie looks like by the time it springs onto the silver screen is its aspect ratio, the measurement expressing the height and width of a film image. Some films are projected as rectangles, some are projected as longer rectangles, and some are projected as squares. But all of this can be manipulated digitally with modern technology.

Most real-deal movies screen in a width-to-height ratio of either 1.85:1 or 2.39:1 in theater, which amounts to a large rectangle. But every month seems to produce new exceptions to the rule. The 2014 French-Canadian drama Mommy (the movie Netflix UK was displaying improperly above) stood out from the pack due to its unorthodox 1:1 ratio that mimicked an Instagram photo until one exhilarating sequence expanded to wider proportions. Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel leaped across multiple timelines and nimbly switched between 2.35, 1.85, and 1.37:1 (the so-called "Academy ratio," which was in popular use during the earlier days of Hollywood up until 1952).

The formats of The Grand Budapest Hotel

The three different aspect ratios of The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Another way to understand this is in the difference between old, box-like standard-definition televisions, which had an aspect ratio of 4:3, and modern, high-definition TVs, which have an aspect ratio of 16:9. Standard definition was closer to a square than our current widescreens.

In a perfect world, projectionists would be able to field diverse proportions of film, but Anderson knew he’d have to send out specific instructions for those running Grand Budapest Hotel, because there is no shortage of opportunities to foul it up.

That, however, is not nearly as hazardous as home exhibition can be, where TV sets are liable to cut off, distend, or otherwise spoil the image. Usually a Blu-ray or DVD case will dictate the proper television settings for viewing the complete image, but the instinct to make use of the full TV screen can still result in an omission of important visual information.

Why do I need to know all of this, anyway?

The Revenant
The Revenant is an incredibly beautiful film, which was shot on digital.
20th Century Fox

Having this information not only creates the satisfaction of assigning a name to recognizable parts of the film experience, but it also equips you to maximize the quality of the same. Knowing how to identify the aspect ratio of a screening of West Side Story on 70mm won’t make the horns blare more brassily or the outfits pop with brighter color, but it could make the difference between fully viewing a movie's picture and getting a fraction of the whole in the comfort of your own home.

Today, when American cinema’s most popular auteur is singlehandedly pioneering a revival of old-fashioned film technology, remarking on specifics of film image is no longer solely a die-hard film geek thing. The right to a moving picture, in its most apropos and complete form, is one of those unalienable rights of moviegoers, like the right to whip unpopped popcorn kernels at the heads of people using cellphones.

Thus, a ticket purchased is a vote cast, a tacit sign of support behind a specific film, a specific theater, and specific mode of exhibition. The least moviegoers can do before casting that vote of crucial importance is arm themselves with knowledge.