The end of film, for real this time

Of all things, it was a labour dispute that accelerated the shift to high-definition video

You may have seen this article last week about the decision of several companies to suspend production of film cameras, further signaling that high-definition video rather than film is the format of the future. This has been going on for a while (companies have been slowly phasing out film of various types for several years), but was accelerated by a sudden and mostly un-heralded shakeup within the TV industry a couple of years ago. As the article notes, the TV producers were in a dispute with the Screen Actors’ Guild, but made a congenial deal with another union, AFTRA, which had jurisdiction over taped shows—including shows shot on high-def video. And so within a year, most of the producers switched production of their pilots from film to digital video, so that their shows would be covered by AFTRA contracts. And that was that:

Whereas, in previous seasons, 90 percent of the TV pilots were filmed, and under SAG jurisdiction, in one fell swoop the 2009 pilot season went digital video, capturing 90 percent of the pilots. In a single season, the use of film in primetime TV nearly completely vanished, never to return.

There are still some existing shows shot on film, including some very good-looking ones (I think Fringe and The Mentalist are or were shot on 35 mm film). But eventually, all TV shows will be shot on HD unless the creators have some very specific aim in mind; part of the point of shooting on film is to look like a feature, but since features will increasingly abandon film, there’s not much point in using it for TV.

It’s actually amazing that film lasted in television for so long, since producers have been trying to phase it out of TV ever since the invention of video tape. (The Twilight Zone famously experimented with switching to tape for a few episodes in its second season, giving up when it became clear that it didn’t look as good as film. In the UK, for many years, tape was used for anything shot in the studio, with 16 mm film used for outdoor sequences only because tape cameras weren’t mobile enough.) But the prestige of film, as well as the visual beauty it could provide at its best, kept film going in TV for many decades; in fact, there were times when film would become more popular rather than less – as in the ’90s, when most U.S. producers dropped taped sitcoms and switched to film instead. It proved remarkably resilient.

As to whether we should mourn the death of film, I don’t think there is much point in that, and it’s by no means the biggest change to hit motion pictures in the last 100+ years. I think there are always trade-offs – digitization can do most of the work of the methods it replaces, and is a worthwhile replacement in most cases, but it’s never exactly the same. HD video mostly looks like film, and eventually will look even more like film, but it won’t be 100% the same, just as audiophiles can tell you that digital sound can’t do the exact same things as analogue sound. (Film will likely undergo a process of rediscovery after it’s abandoned, just as LPs were rediscovered after the record companies stopped making them. And that won’t mean that studios should go back to film, any more than record companies went back to making LPs on a regular basis; it’s just that every medium has its own special qualities that are ripe for rediscovery.) Motion pictures will still be motion pictures, just as they were when sound was introduced, when widescreen was introduced, and when black-and-white was abandoned; but people will celebrate the special qualities of film just as we celebrate the special qualities of silent movies, black-and-white, and Academy ratio composition.

Is the death of film a big deal for TV? That’s a tougher question. I’d say probably not, overall, though there are some potential advantages and disadvantages at the margins. Potential advantages include the ability to shoot cheaply and still get a high-quality look (it might be harder to spot a cheap show, whereas you could always tell that The Littlest Hobo was cheap because it was shot on old-school videotape). There are some HD shows that have a bit of a drab or “digitized” look to them – like Hawaii 5-0 – but even they don’t look worse than the ’90s shows that were shot on film and then edited on videotape, creating masters that look washed-out and dull to this very day. Shooting and editing on 35 mm film, and then properly preserving and remastering that film, can produce results that look better than a current HD show.

The problem is, of course, that most shows are not properly preserved and remastered, and many of them don’t even have high-quality masters to begin with, so a rather high proportion of filmed shows (particularly from about the ’70s onward) don’t show off the advantages of film. (It used to seem that videotaped shows actually held up better over time, because they always looked more or less the same. They still look more or less the same, but modern televisions expose the limitations of videotape more clearly than the old TVs. With everything shot on HD, preservation might in theory be easier. Of course, it’s hard to predict the future of preservation or of how these things will be stored. And since the future of TV may in large part rest with smaller screens – we’ll be watching TV on our phones, and so on – the picture quality may not even matter as much. But for now, there’s a chance to attain good visual quality at a reasonable price, and for low-budget shows to look spiffier than they did in the ’90s.

But there’s always a possibility for film to return in unexpected places, like when the Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things discovered that their whole builiding was “surrounded by film.”

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