The Difference Between Film and Video
I may not have always known it, but I always wanted to be a filmmaker. Ten-year-old me commandeered my dad’s VHS camcorder to shoot my own Brittney Spears music videos (I only liked her for her looks), GI Joe adventure shorts (a la Robot Chicken), and a documentary welcoming newcomers to my secret fort (I’m the only one who ever watched it). Proud as I was of my creations, I would always lament that “they don’t look like the real movies.” And they didn’t. Not even Steven Spielberg’s home movies looked like the real movies. Therein lies – or at least laid – the difference between film and video.
Video has come a long way since the analog days of VHS. The seemingly perpetual advancement of digital video technology has encroached upon an industry once dominated by film as its sole medium. That mainstream audiences hardly seemed to notice this shift is a testament to the ability of this modern technology to mimic film. However, though the untrained eye may not initially notice a difference between the outcomes of film and video, it is there, both in the final product and in how it is produced.
Photographic motion picture film captures an image via a light sensitive chemical surface that reacts to the varying levels of light entering the camera’s lens. The film rolls by the camera’s gate at a uniform rate, usually 24 frames per second, so named because every second 24 different images, or frames, are exposed on the film. When projected, the individual images appear as fluid motion due to a phenomenon called persistence of vision. Once exposed, a roll of film is shipped to a film lab where it is processed in a chemical bath that reveals the image on the light sensitive surface and makes it permanent.
As with film cameras, digital cameras rely on light to create an image. However, digital cameras use charged coupled devices, or CCDs, rather than photographic film, to record images. The CCDs record the light rays entering the lens as data and convert that data to an image, which is stored on some sort of physical media (such as a CF card or hard drive). Similar to the film camera, the digital video camera will capture 24 frames per second (or in some cases 30) that, when played back, appear as fluid motion.
Processed photographic film has a grain structure to it that subconsciously feels “cinematic.” This contrasts the often squeaky-clean image of digital video, so much so that some amateur editing programs have “film grain” filters to make video looks more like film. Furthermore, film has a higher exposure latitude than digital video. This means that the range of brightness required to achieve a usable image on film is much wider than with video. An image that would be totally overexposed (or too bright) on video may be usable on film. However, video cameras allow for the user to view the real-time results of their camera settings. When one looks through the viewfinder of a digital video camera, one sees the image as it will actually appear on screen; a film camera’s viewfinder, however, only shows the composition of the image, but does not account for the exposure settings of the lens.
The inexpensive cost of digital storage gives it a competitive edge over traditional photographic film that has made it popular with many film schools, including Boston University. At BU, the Film/Television Department has embraced both mediums. In Production I, BU’s introductory production course, students shoot on a digital single-lens reflex camera, or DSLR. In past years, Production I has used the Bolex, a tried-and-true, yet extremely temperamental, 16mm film camera, abandoned for its learning curve and the cost of film and processing for students. Some students choose to apply their knowledge of digital filmmaking to photographic film, an option still offered in Film Production II where students shoot on the Arri SR, a 16mm film camera. However, digital sections of Production II are also offered that continue use of the DSLR. In a shift from past years, students enrolled in Production III, the final production course at BU, will be allowed to shoot on digital for the first time this semester. BU has rented students wishing to shoot on digital the Arri Alexa, a professional high-resolution digital camera. Many students, however, elected to continue shooting on film as has been the tradition for years.
Both film and video have advantages and disadvantages, but the technology alone cannot make a great movie; instead it’s the filmmaker’s ability to effectively wield the tools of the trade that determines the result. While Wally Pfister, who just won the Academy Award for cinematography for his work on Inception, vows never to abandon film for digital video, some icons like Star Wars creator George Lucas has fully embraced the purist-perceived dark side of digital video. Regardless, both men are master filmmakers, who, unlike ten-year-old me who didn’t know an f/stop from a stop sign, make great films with whatever technology they choose (even though Inception and the three latest Star Wars installments were awful).