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Thread: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

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    Default Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

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    Originally published on my personal site.

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    I’ve begun to hate pixels lately. They’re actually quite evil if for no other reason than they’re simply too easy to quantify and thus be used against us. Pixels have spawned a variable arms race and in their wake left a trail of dead formats and products, all because they eventually didn’t quench are thirst for more. Did these products deserve to die? No, in truth, many of them had nothing wrong with them apart from not possessing enough of the magical squares we’ve come to “understand” and love. But what is a pixel exactly?

    Wikipedia defines a pixel as, “a physical point in a raster image or the smallest addressable element in a display device.” It goes on to say that a “pixel is a sample of an original image.” And what is the original image? With regards to digital video, whether it be capture or exhibition, the original image is one that would’ve otherwise been obtained via a film medium -i.e. 35mm film etc. Unlike digital, film has no resolution -it just is, or better still, is all encompassing. Film may have aspect ratios, but those are different from resolution.

    You see digital formats are largely based on their approximation of various film formats. For example, 4K is said to have the same “image quality” or “density” of 35mm film, and 2K (HD) is the equivalent of 35mm film projected upon a screen. Sounds great, except that film can be 8K, 16K or even 100K or more, provided you possess the scanning equipment required to digitize said image at such a quality. So again, film has no resolution.

    Film also has no compression, sure there are sensitivity issues with regards to certain film stocks but that is not the same as digital compression. Film also doesn’t have a restrictive color space nor does it have sample rates. Because it doesn’t natively have these things it can never be rendered obsolete -though it can degrade over time and with repeat usage. So, film is still as good as it will ever get, where as digital finds itself in a constant race to keep pace.

    Now there are benefits to digital, it’s (largely) consistent, easier to store (though longevity isn’t infinite) and more flexible in its everyday use. Digital is great and I for one don’t pray for its demise, nor do I feel that its presence upon the technological landscape is cancerous. That being said it is important to understand just what we’re talking about when we discuss digital video and its supposed superiority, whether it be at the capture and/or exhibition levels. With the advent of digital film and exhibition we’ve introduced new and often confusing variables to the equation; variable such as color space, bit depth compression etc. These are difficult concepts for many to grasp which is why pixels have become so sexy -they’re just numbers. We like numbers. Not only are pixels easy to quantify in numbers; those numbers are easy to convert in order to showcase better or worse. After all the more pixels the better…right?

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    Last edited by AndrewRobinsonOnline; 02-02-2013 at 08:34 AM.

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    Default Re: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

    Film does have a resolution, just not one expressible in pixels. If it didn't, movies could be shot in 8mm and nobody would know the difference (except the accountants, who could book the savings in film-stock expenses). You seem to be arguing that if one were to digitally scan a film frame at increasing resolution he would extract increasing amounts of detail, without limit, which is very definitely not the case -- eventually you hit the grain. (This is somewhat akin to the similarly flawed idea held by many audiophiles that raising the sampling rate in audio analog-to-digital conversion increases detail without limit irrespective of the original signal bandwidth.) Film also has a color space. The concept of color space was originally developed with regard to human vision and then applied to printing and film. Film just has different primary elements from those used in video, dyes rather than phosphors or filters. Film has a dynamic range as well. It's true that film lends itself less readily to stupid numbers races, which is a benefit, but this has no bearing on the relative capabilites of the two media.

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    Default Re: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

    You are correct however the "limits" of film are such that even with digital reaching and/or surpasing 8K, DCI color etc we're still not hitting them (film), which is why I phrased it the way that I did. Film is the equivalent (give or take) of what the eye sees as you pointed out which is why anything we do digitally is simply attempting to live up to film. There does reach a point both audible and visual where we can no longer discern the difference and while we may push for more, more, more (see megapixel wars of a decade ago) it doesn't mean we're getting it.

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    Default Re: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

    Quote Originally Posted by AndrewRobinsonOnline View Post
    Film is the equivalent (give or take) of what the eye sees as you pointed out which is why anything we do digitally is simply attempting to live up to film.
    Well, I didn't say that. Human vision is a very dynamic process relative to either film or video, both of which capture discrete, static, full-field images. What we see is very much a mental construction, stitched together from many small samples collected as the eye moves its rather narrow focus quickly around the field of vision. And when an object is in motion, the brain has to compensate for its own processing latency by predicting the trajectory, so that you don't see the car still coming at you after it's already hit you! (I suspect that great hitters in baseball are so good in part by virtue of doing this processing faster than other people.) In this respect, digital video is arguably closer given all the processing required to generate a picture from the output of an image sensor. (Similarly, our hearing also operates more like a digital audio system than an analog one, with the inner ear functioning very much like the front end of an MPEG encoder.)

    I also don't buy the idea that video is just trying to live up to film. Years ago (we were talking mainly about NTSC), I had a conversation with Mark Schubin in which he argued persuasively that video is more accurate than film, citing in particular its much better linearity. He noted that there actually was a device available, called the Emulsifilter, that was designed to emulate on video the look of film, essentially by degrading the video in certain ways. On the other hand, he said, certain artistic effects were easier to achieve with film specifically because of its nonlinearity -- a cowboy riding off into the sunset for example, where film crushes the luminance of the sun into a beautiful frame while video just clips. If you buy his position -- which, having seen a lot of film and video over the years, I'm inclined to do -- veneration of film just seems like another romantic attachment (that 24-fps thing, especially), sort of like the attachment some maintain to vinyl records, which are demonstrably far less accurate than good digital formats, such as CD.

    Finally, what got me started was the comment about constricted video color spaces. I don't know much about the color gamuts of currently used 35mm film stocks relative to that of something like DCI, but I'm skeptical that film's is much, if at all, larger. And if it is, I expect that could be overcome. It's a chemical process versus an electronic one; chemistry tends to be less malleable.

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    Default Re: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow

    I thought it was generally accepted that H.265 would be used for UltraHD which would provide better compression?
    adson

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    Default Re: Digital vs. Film - Why Digital Will Always Live in Film's Shadow


    H.265 is more efficient, so it can pack more information into a given bandwidth for a given quality level.

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