Exploring film vs. digital in Ohio University’s curriculum

By Will Ashton

The battle for film preservation does not just affect the big, Hollywood studio film game. In fact, it is critical even on a small-scale front. As digital production is less expensive, easier to produce and more readily, easily available in terms of accessibility, many film schools across the country are taking the leap from film to digital in a significant way. But one college in particular, Ohio University, continues to teach both in their curriculum.

Within the Ohio University Film Division, graduate students are expected to be proficient in both film and digital filmmaking if they wish to graduate with their degrees. Undergraduate film students can still use film cameras like soundless Bolex cameras to shoot film projects. While film processing labs are becoming harder and harder to find, the school has still been able to ship their film to a local progressing shop in Columbus, for which graduate students and undergraduate students studying film classes can have their film processed.

As OU’s paper The Post reported this February, although the local Athena Cinema theater has made the switch from operating film projectors to hosting digital ones, they are among the few operating cinemas in the U.S. that still keep their film projectors available for select occasions. For example, hosting a said film project from a student at the university.

In regards to preferences of the students, it depends. Most understand that film has a crispier, more natural look and feel to it than digital, but understand the frustrations and pain it cases that are mostly downgraded when working with digital. For example, Mitchell Toler, a senior studying audio production, recently got the chance to work with the aforementioned Bolex film cameras for his Film Techniques class, and found the process of working on film equally exciting and frustrating.

“Digital is definitely easier, and I can see and understand its appeal, both from a filmmaking and economic point-of-view,” Toler said. “But film is more rewarding, to me. While it is a lot harder to get a good image on film, and the equipment is more temperamental, I think it looks better when you get a good image on film than when you get a good image on digital. Film has a grittiness, and a kind of tactile feel that you don’t necessarily get with digital.”

Toler also made a note on digital and film projection, noting that film projection is often the source of this said grittiness. With so many theaters moving further and further towards solely running digital projectors in their theater, he believes that the process may, indeed, be losing some of its crispiness. But, referring to the recently announced plans from Paramount’s—a company that, at one time, was planning to release all their movies solely in digital formats as the LA Times wrote in January—decision to host a variety of film-projection screenings of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar two days in advance as they wrote in a press release, he notes that film projection is probably not going away overnight. Just like film itself is not going to go away instantly, he continued.

“I think film still has another 10 or 20 years in it,” he said. “But, I think when the big directors like Nolan and (Quentin) Tarantino are done making movies, I can’t see it being sustained in Hollywood. I can’t see many new filmmakers besides maybe J.J. Abrams being as abrasive about using film in their movies. Although, I can maybe see it being ghettoized to a small subset of up-and-coming filmmakers.”

To hear the sound of a local Ohio University film projector, used to screen Bolex movies like the one Toler shot, and also to hear Toler discussing the nature of film projection and why he favors it, click on the link below.

Meanwhile, Matt Serafini, a sophomore studying media arts and sciences, does not find himself bothered from watching either film or digital projections.

“I don’t really have a preference on film or digital,” Serafini said. “It doesn’t bug me too much. It was something that never really bothered me. I think both have their strengths. I think digital is better for making movies with a lot of special effects, but, if you want to make a more classical movie, I think film is the way to go.”

Serafini, being someone who would like to move on to become a filmmaker himself, is open to the possibility of shooting his movies on film or digital. For him, it is more a matter of storytelling than presentation.

Unlike his peers, however, Serafini still sees film being around and available for a long time.

“I have a feeling that it will be around for as long as the industry is around,” Serafini said. “I don’t see why it would go away. I have a feeling filmmakers are always going to be around that want to use it.”

Likewise, Daniel Telek, an undeclared sophomore who is associated with the film production and screenwriting track, feels that his experience watching the documentary Side by Side, centered on this very topic, has informed his opinion on the matter.

“From watching Side by Side, I have grown to understand that most of the filmmakers who are really enamored with film are the ones that have only worked with it,” Telek said. “There are a quote from George Lucas that I really liked about it that went along the lines of, ‘we are at a point with film were we are the best we will ever be with it, but digital is still just down here.’ Personally, I am in the middle with it, but I prefer digital, just because I think it gives some independent filmmakers the chance to get their work done efficiently.”

While the university is pushing to keep film around, this will probably not be the case for long, as it is getting harder and more expensive to keep and process film. Still, as the future pushes digital filmmaking further, it is possible that digital will be able to make its presentation as good as film.

“I would like to think that digital could recreate film,” Toler said. “I know some people like David Fincher have done it. Film will eventually be replicated. As digital becomes more able to replicate blacks, and as the digital plate gets bigger, it will become more obsolete. The gate is closing.”

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