Copyright 2017 by William Karl Thomas

Really, folks, it's not a contest. There are no winners for one medium that does it all, because each have their virtues and liabilities. All visual mediums have co-existed and continued forward as new mediums evolved. Petroglyphs, humans first scratched images on large stone faces, still exist as headstones in graveyards and cornerstones on buildings. Why? Because they're enduring, capable of surviving the test of time. As advanced as the ancient Egyptians and Greeks and Romans were, they left tons of the stuff because they wanted to brag about their accomplishments to all the civilizations that followed. And aren't we glad they did, because we learned tons of information from those tons of engraved stones.

Then cave dwellers invented two dimensional drawing and painting, because they had a protected environment where the sun and rain could not erase their work. Did you know that cave painters were the first airbrush artists, and their technique introduced the first drawings with shading to give a three dimensional quality to their work. They would chew the charcoal (for black) or red clay or berries or whatever, and they would spray the pigment with their mouth while masking some wall areas with a large leaf. The technique was lost for millennia until the Renaissance when artists borrowed the siphon technique of hydraulic scientists to blow through a tube attached to a bottle's spout, thereby atomizing the paint in the bottle. It never occurred to them to just chew the charcoal, or whatever, and atomize it with their mouth.

Cave dwellers were also the first movie makers. You first see a wall painting of people making weapons. You move down the cave wall and see them stalking and killing the animal. Next you see them butchering and cooking it, and, finally as the sun sets in the West, you see them eating it with satisfied smiles on their faces. Sound familiar: conflict, preparation, action climax, resolution, happily ever after. Okay, so maybe they just invented the first storyboard.

Then humans invented paper and quill pens to make their visual art portable. Then they invented canvas, brushes, and enduring oil paints. Then they invented gizmos like the pinhole lens, the camera obscura, still photography, motion pictures, television, and the internet. Do you own or do you know anyone who owns a pen, a pencil, paper, canvas, brushes, paints, a still camera, a movie camera, a television, an analog video camera? If you don't, then you must be living in a cave full of no talent people. Because none of these things became totally obsolete. Some may have superseded others for specific applications, but all of them still survive and each serves us well for some specific purpose.

What is the purpose of film and what is the purpose of digital? Every time a new medium is invented, the prior technology has the advantage of a greater volume of familiarity and hardware. If a newspaper or magazine owns those printing presses, if that movie theater owner invested heavily in that 35mm projection equipment, then there is a transitional period where it is economically logical to maintain the status quo. But, at the end of that transitional period, there will still be some applications for the prior technology that will make it superior and worth maintaining.

We know some obvious superiority of digital: it doesn't require investment in film and lab, it has instant access, and it is compatible with computers and the internet without the need of transfer from a previous medium. Its quality has improved dramatically and its price has fallen low enough to make most of its features accessible to all. Wanna make a still picture or video for personal or internet consumption, wanna title it or manipulate it at low cost, digital is a natural.

Why then consider film at all? Well, technically speaking, there are aspects of film, just as there are aspects of acoustical musical instruments, that scientists and purists consider superior. If you look at an oscilloscope pattern of a digital synthesizer, the waveform is perfect, a solid strong clean smoothly curved line. If you look at an oscilloscope pattern of an acoustic instrument fed directly into the oscilloscope, there will be a dominant curved line, but there will be a multitude of weaker overtones and undertones. The oscilloscope pattern of an acoustical instrument recorded digitally will have a pattern more like a digital synthesizer, little or no overtones and undertones. When a digital recording and a live acoustical instrument are played in a concert hall, very few people can tell the difference. When a digitally recorded animal sound and a live acoustic animal sound are played to an animal audience, most of the animals can tell the difference.

Here's another simile. Natural vitamin C viewed under a powerful microscope shows discs of varying size and shape, some of them grossly deformed. Synthetic vitamin C discs are large, uniform in size, with no deformations. But the natural vitamin C is more beneficial to humans, even though we don't know why.

Film is composed of hundreds of thousands of silver halide crystals of random size randomly distributed in a gelatin emulsion. Analog video and digital images are composed of magnetically recorded pixels assembled in a precise linear vertical and horizontal pattern when viewed. Another difference is that LED filters in digital video projectors cannot hold back light as completely as the black areas of film in a projector can, and digital video projector bulbs cannot create as white a light as a carbon arc projector can. Hence, film has greater contrast. When film and digital projected images are tested on audiences, very few can tell the difference consciously, but subliminal results indicate some others do not perceive the digital image as real as the film.

There is another practical distinction; resolution, how many pixels vs. how many silver halide crystals. Film already exists in large sizes which provide greater resolution than analog or digital has gotten around to. It took several decades for digital imaging to equal that of the standard 35mm cine frame (18mmx24mm). Cine film can be shot in 65mm or 70mm widths, quadrupling the number of silver halide crystals, and still film can go up to 11"x14" cut film sizes. So far, there is no digital 'slide projector' that can provide the resolution of a 3 1/4"x4 1/4" lantern slide projector, such as those used for projecting stage and film backgrounds. Even the ubiquitous Kodak Carousel slide projector offers practical display and exhibition options superior and more economically practical than current consumer digital equipment.

There is also the archival factor. It's still practical to make hard copy backups of your most critical computer files. If you've ever accidentally gotten a refrigerator magnet mixed up with your flash card or flash drives, or left your CD/DVD storage container in the sun or locked car for too long, you'll know why. If you haven't had your hard drive crash before you backed up the last six months of work, then you just haven't lived long enough. Then there are the Star Trek fans who are waiting for a giant iron meteor to pass close enough to earth to erase all magnetic media on the planet. When movies began, no one thought what might happen to archived film. The oldest films were on a nitrate base that could spontaneously ignite or explode. Better plastic bases still shrunk enough that the sprocket holes didn't line up with the sprocket teeth, so we had to build complex film printers to reprint them for restoration. Then, of course, the color dyes faded, and we had to build complex color separation printers to restore those. But, at this point in time, we don't think the giant iron asteroid will erase the films in the film vault.

And finally, there is the esthetic value. Why would someone draw, or paint, when they could just pick up a camera? Is it because of control, they could paint the guy with more muscles and the girl with a thinner waist, or vice versa if they didn't like you? Is it because of the 'feel' of the medium, holding a sophisticated instrument in your hand, the way we like to hold a hardbound paper book sometimes instead of reading an ebook on our iphone? With the photographer who shoots film and then goes to the trouble to print it in the darkroom, is it possible that composing on an easel and dodging the exposure with his hands is something that can't be captured on a computer keyboard, or is he just getting high sniffing the hypo? Ancient arts still exist because they are part of our history and part of our psyche. Whether it's graffiti on a wall or our art hanging in a museum, we still want to leave a record that we have personally created, an image that was our perception of the world in which we've lived.

Soooooo, film or digital? To each his own. Nobody really knows. I'm eclectic and pragmatic. Whatever works best for the job at hand. I will say this, however, the best work I've seen was from people who actually worked hands on with previous technologies. What's true of composition, posing, lighting, these are all best learned using the oldest of mediums. What's true of lenses for still photography, where you have the time to see and understand their effect, is true of motion pictures, analog video, and digital video. The cave dweller who sequenced his paintings of the hunt, the film makers who pioneered story telling with cine cameras, for us to walk in their shoes, understand their crafts, is necessary for us to become masters of whatever new medium we might choose.


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