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The immeasurable beauty of film

This senior grader/colorist loves the look and feel of celluloid.

By Paul Dean

During my 34-year career as a film and digital grader/colorist, there has been much technological advancement. However, there is one enduring constant that never ceases to amaze me: film’s unique ability to capture and render light so beautifully.

This led me to ask myself some deep questions as to exactly why I prefer film over digital. The answer was quite a revelation and has more to do with human perception than anything that can be measured technically.

Regardless of how good next-generation digital cameras are, in my opinion, they simply fail to capture images with the same subtle, natural feel. This, I believe, is due to the unique way film captures light, which is incredibly similar to the way our eyes process light and color through the rods and cones of the human visual cortex.

If you view a very low-light scene in real life and allow your mind to describe what you are actually seeing, you will notice an effect comparable to film grain in dark areas as your eyes try to decipher what little light there is, creating subtle step-less progressions as the more discernible features emerge from granular darkness, forming an analogue curve that is perfectly replicated when film captures light.

The human subconscious has evolved over millions of years to be capable of detecting when something is instinctively wrong, without our conscious minds ever being aware of any impending danger. These deep subconscious survival instincts equip human beings with warning emotions such as the “sixth sense.” We have all experienced that gut feeling when we intuitively know when a situation is not as it appears and we are being deceived.

We are a highly developed, finely-tuned, organic, analog, three-dimensional species — is it really any wonder our powerful subconscious minds detect and reject two-dimensional 1s and 0s masquerading as human reality?

Cinelab recently worked on the dailies for Suffragette.

When viewing images captured on film I become totally immersed and engaged in the story and performances; the emotion and energy projected from the cast is fully conveyed to the audience, the movement and flow of the action effortlessly watchable.

Conversely, when I view images captured digitally, this all-enveloping engagement does not occur due to the constant distraction from my subconscious alarm warning, “Don’t trust it, it’s not real.” I feel that film absorbs the audience into the story itself, where digital leaves them on the outside looking in.

When you consider the huge amount of skill, time, passion, dedication and energy — not to mention the often vast sums of money involved in filmmaking — why choose to capture all of this on anything other than a technology that has been refined and perfected for over 100 years, and is absolutely unique in its ability to capture every facet of a production, every emotion and the very soul of a performance?

Of course, digital has its place and is rightly admired and respected; its technological achievements cannot be denied when specifications boast a resolution equal to, or greater than film, but I don’t agree with the fixation on these numbers — it is simply not better, it is just different.

Co-existence
The “Which is Best?” debate is irrelevant; the two technologies can and should co-exist. The choice will inevitably be genre led, however we must ensure a choice remains by not allowing film to disappear from the cinematographers palette.

Capturing a story in moving pictures is both complex and technical, but capturing emotion takes something more, something special. Film is something special, so let’s not lose it. If I had a story to tell, I would capture it on the beautiful canvas of film, and rest assured that nothing was lost in translation.

Paul Dean is head of telecine at Cinelab in London. For 20 years he has worked as a senior colorist, specializing in dailies/archive, working at Todd-AO UK, Soho Film Lab and Deluxe on hundreds of features and TV dramas. Dean joined Cinelab in 2013 to head up and develop its telecine, scanning and grading services.

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