I was at Powell’s City of Books the other night, browsing through the film section, and I picked up a book of Robert Rodriguez interviews. Rodriguez talks about visiting Skywalker Ranch in the late 90s and puttering around with one of Lucas’ bleeding-edge HD cameras for the first time (George Lucas mostly filmed The Phantom Menace on 35mm, but as a test shot two scenes in HD).
Rodriguez was already a fan of video cameras, at least to practice with. Beginning filmmakers were better off learning their craft on video, he advised. It was cheaper, easier to use, and easier to edit. He shot El Mariachi on 16mm, then shot throughout the 90s and early 00s on 35mm. Clearly impressed by the HD technology, he shot Spy Kids II and Once Upon a Time in Mexico in digital. He never went back to film.
It’s clear in interviews from the 90s and early 00s that not only was HD a better experience for him as a filmmaker, film itself was kind of a drag. You were never sure, he says, what the film would look like when it got back from the lab. It was always different, never exactly what he intended the shot to look like. Only with the advent of HD cameras could he look in the monitor and feel confident that what he was seeing was what he was recording. And he could make changes on the fly given this feedback, something else film denies the filmmaker.
He recounts how he would shoot scenes in 35mm and then with a digital camera, and compare them side-by-side. To his surprise, sometimes the filmed image was underwhelming to his taste. He’d take the clips on the road with him when he gave talks, and show them to the audience. People were often incredulous: what do you mean, 35mm is worse? We were told it’s always better!
Rodriguez was also very much a practical effects guy early in his career. By necessity in El Mariachi, and by choice in later films because he felt he had control of practical effects. By Spy Kids, all special effects on film were getting him down. He talks about having to scan film frames, digitally remove grain, composite the digital effects, digitally add the film grain back, and then print the result back onto film. By Spy Kids II, he was done with that. He was shooting in digital, doing the lion’s share of effects digitally in post-production. It was cheaper, faster, and he felt he had more control and creativity.
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It’s a bit scary how clearly Rodriguez saw the future. In the 90s he was just a young upstart, flinging rocks at the establishment. Nonlinear editing? Replacing 35mm cameras with digital cameras? Who is this guy? This is how we do things Uptown, kid. It's been good enough for 80 years, and it ain't gonna change.
Until it did. So fast that we’re still a bit dizzy.
The lever of change, of course, was money. The studios didn’t care about enhanced creativity, or greater filmmaking freedom. In digital production and post-production they saw the opportunity to save a LOT of money. And when the technology finally matured for digital projection, they salivated at all the money they could save not having to strike and distribute 35mm prints. All the extra control they gained over theaters was just gravy. No longer would physical prints go floating around, outside of their direct control. They’d know who was projecting a movie, when and where, every time. And without a password, that video file was dead to a theater.
It’s hard to argue with Rodriguez’s line of reasoning, creatively speaking. Filmmakers who want to shoot on film in the future are certainly welcome to, but they’ll have a tough battle convincing miserly studios to open up their pockets a little more. And when theaters get digital projectors, they’ll probably junk their 35mm projectors. In five years, who will have the equipment to project on 35mm?
For a little extra profit, the medium of film has been cast aside. I feel good about HD as a filmmaker, but I feel queasy about it as a filmgoer. It's now easier to make my sandwich, but sometimes it doesn't taste as good as it used to.