The Great 35mm Debate: Christopher Nolan is Being a Hypocrite (Nadia Sandhu)

A tried and true mantra in the fanboy universe is “In Nolan We Trust.” I’m not so sure he is quite as deserving of that faith as I was just a week ago. Last weekend at the Produced By Conference, director Christopher Nolan continued his anti-digital crusade. You can read about it here, here, and here. Beneath the sweeping statements that indicted distributors and exhibitors who project HIS films in digital formats, is a disingenuous yarn he’s spun about his own filmmaking and indeed the filmmaking process in general.

At the heart of the matter is a conflation of two separate and distinct issues: filming in 35mm and projecting in 35mm.  This two-part piece will tackle these one by one.

Part 1: Nolan Doth Protest Too Much

Nolan shoots in 35mm. Guess what? His films, like many big budget studio films, are converted from film to digital for CGI and other “post” work.  Watch the trailer of the Dark Knight Rises. Nolan is no stranger to this digitization process, look at the collapsing stadium sequence.  Was that CGI or EAC (extremely advanced claymation)?  Nolan seems to have conveniently glossed over this important part of his own filmmaking process.

Once the film is digital, it is digital. Transferring the print back to film does not suddenly impart some magical additional depth, and Nolan’s comments seem to count on a general unawareness of this fact to bolster his status as a 35mm crusader.

Need more evidence? Check out the official press release about the nifty digital post-conversion work being done on the Dark Knight Rises to an all IMAX format for digital projection on IMAX screens across North America.

Film, as we understand it and love it, is not the chemical process of developing an image.  It’s telling a story.  The last time I checked, an unprocessed reel of 35mm does not tell stories. If he’s such a purist, where is Nolan’s outrage that cinephiles are being subjected to this digital experience of his film? I don’t see him demanding that screens be pulled in the name of his art, especially given what he apparently thinks of digital projection.  Hmmmm.  More on that later.

The fact is the only danger to Mr. Nolan’s film use is a rapidly diminishing physical film supply. With Kodak in Chapter 11 and both Kodak and Fuji Film cutting back production of the physical stock, film itself is increasingly becoming a scarce and therefore ever more costly commodity. It is simple supply and demand economics.  Our mass adoption of cell phone cameras and digital recorders has effectively squeezed the bottom lines of film manufacturers. So contrary to what Nolan contends, this at least is not some vast conspiracy against 35mm film making per se.

The trouble with this reality is that most film makers don’t have the luxury of passing this cost on to a studio as Nolan freely admits he can and does.

Nolan’s comments come from a place of concern that matters of commerce are being put before the art (as defined by the use of 35mm apparently). It’s rather easy to slag filmmakers, and in particular “less-than-Nolan’s-craft-budget” filmmakers, when he doesn’t actually have to pony up his own money. Emerging filmmakers by and large shoot on digital because it makes financial sense to the starving artist. And they either incur the costs themselves or are answerable to investors directly, many of whom are friends, family, or business acquaintances.

What really bothers me is his statement that “I don’t have any interest in being the research department for an electronics company”.  He makes CGI movies; the quality of the CGI can be directly correlated to the quality and speed of electronics and their programming. You can bet that his own pioneering techniques will be replicated in film and video gaming for years to come. It is a particularly damning statement when you consider that it was made while shilling for Kodak.  Why else would he be invited to express these views at a panel sponsored by that beleaguered film company?


Stay tuned for Part 2: Is Nolan a Pretentious 35mm Snob?

The Great 35mm Debate is a new ongoing series exclusively on Entertainment Maven.

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6 thoughts on “The Great 35mm Debate: Christopher Nolan is Being a Hypocrite (Nadia Sandhu)

  1. CGI is not the same as shooting on digital. I think what you’re also implying is that to do CGI he has to do digital intermediates. This is true, but it’s also why he tries to limit instances of CGI as much as possible. You see, unlike almost every other director not named Spielberg, Nolan still does traditional photochemical grading on his films. No digital intermediate necessary for most shots.

    When it comes to projection, if it was up to him, Nolan would never play anything digitally. It’s not up to him, though. When his films are “converted” to IMAX it is done with the proprietary digital process necessary for blowing up a film to IMAX size. But that’s just for the 35mm shots. When it comes to the native IMAX footage, unless there is CGI in the shot, he tries to keep it all photochemical so that there hasn’t been anything digital in those breathtaking IMAX shots.

    And that’s all besides the point anyway. Even if Nolan did start using full digital intermediates by force it would still be different from shooting digitally. DI scanners can capture images of much higher quality than any digital camera currently on the market. A film shot on film and transfered to a 4K DI will (depending on your perspective) look better than a film shot on a 4K digital camera like the RED.

  2. Thanks for the feedback Corey 🙂 The thing here is, once the film is converted it is now entirely digital. The physics have changed. It’s not like water to ice to water. Outputting it back onto film afterwards does not return the stylistic qualities that the film stock had originally imparted. I just feel like Nolan is needlessly riling up 35mm purists by fudging some pertinent facts. Notice that he did not use the term “digital intermediary” at all. Approx 1/3 of his crew was digital post. Why so evasive?

    With respect to DI vs 4K- binary is binary. The difference in quality comes down to lighting and frankly a lack of skill with new cameras/tech. Same old, same old won’t produce the same results. (Incidentally, I saw “What Lies Beneath” at Shock and Awe last night and… digital or film, that movie was never going to look good.)


  3. There are a number of errors in your argument.

    First off, film has a certain quality; the grain (differing between each type of stock), the way it responds to light. These qualities are captured on film, and likewise with the inherent qualities of a certain digital camera is captured on a digital format. When a film is digitised, the film is scanned, and the image is transferred onto a clean canvas if you will, and whatever qualities the film had in its image, it retains.
    Even before DI processes, film was shot on one (or many) format/stock(s), cut, then printed onto another stock (completely different to the capture stock). The projection stock was designed to be clean and be a direct translation of the images onto the film. Digital projection is the same thing, but in 1s and 0s. Therefore, it is quite erroneous to claim that transferring a film image onto a digital format results in the aesthetics of the image being digital; and the same is said if a digitally acquired image is transferred to 35mm projected film. The key word is transfer, the image goes through no transformation, regardless of whether the image is 1s and 0s or celluloid. So yes, transferring the film image to digital and back to a projected film does not impart magical qualities. The “magical qualities” were there from the start, when he captured them, and does not lose them once it is transferred on digital or back onto film.

    With CGI, again, there is no transformation of the original image into something else. If anything, elements are added or removed, but the base of the image (with the qualities of whatever medium one chooses to shoot with) are kept intact.

    The claim that Nolan sweeps under the rug his workflow which includes DI processes is outrageous. No one expects Dogma 95 film from him, he is in the Hollywood studio system. An outstanding majority of films now have some sort of CGI in them, and most of them are color graded digitally, all to create the control of the image. This is expected of any film/movie, regardless of whether it was shot on film or digitally. He isn’t hiding anything, he is just omitting certain given facts about filmmaking.

    Nolan is primarily advocating the SHOOTING of film, the process of capturing light onto celluloid. The processes further along the pipeline, do not affect captured image. The claim that Nolan is a hypocrite does not stand, as the debate is focussed on the film as a shooting medium, not whether “CGI, Digital Intermediate or Digital Projection should all be done on film”.

  4. I know you will delete my comment.But don’t you see you are being just stupid. I agree with Kent and Corey. I have nothing to tell you. Cause stupid, they just don’t want to listen others words.

  5. Your first argument is that nolan must have used cgi or claymation to film the blowing up of the staduim. Are you high or just fucking stupid? He built a field on top of the actual field and blew it up. This is common knowledge. I guess you don’t do your research before you make ridiculous accusations.

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