June 6, 2014

Can audiences tell how crummy digital movies look? Do they care?

In an article about the replacement of film projectors by digital projectors in movie theaters (about 93% in 2014), they quote David Fincher's cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth about how convincing digital looks these days:

The proudest comment I get is, 'What did you shoot "Dragon Tattoo" on?' To me, if you can't tell, we're getting much closer. There are certain scenes that it's indistinguishable."

Here is the still that the article included to showcase how film-like today's digitally captured images can look, from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo:

You'll notice right away that this looks way harsh on the eyes, given how mundane the setting is. Most folks will not be able to put their finger on it, but their senses will pick it up nonetheless. Look at how blindingly white the light is coming through the windows, and reflecting off the table top and the papers or documents there as well. There are actually fabric curtains hanging in front of the center-right window, but they appear whitewashed.

This is a textbook example of digital having less dynamic range in brightness levels than good ol' film. Digital must make a trade-off that film does not -- pick up details in darker areas and wash them out in brighter areas, or vice versa, since the range is not wide enough to pick up both.*

If they made the other decision, the girl's black clothing would look uniformly black, like somebody traced around her outline and hit "fill" inside with MS Paint. It hardly looks any better, though, when they hit "fill" on the windows, table top, and documents with bright white.

And please don't try to rationalize this harsh crappy lighting by arguing that it's artistically justified. It's just an ordinary mundane setting, nothing supernatural or from-another-dimension is about to break through the window and into the apartment. It looks like two people who aren't having as much fun on vacation as they'd planned, and are looking for something to kill the time in the middle of the afternoon.

Perhaps it's a quirky, idiosyncratic, "signature" style? Nope. Check out this shot from an even more famous movie that the director and DP teamed up on, Fight Club:

Daytime setting, couple of people sitting around in a room lit partly from inside and partly from outside. Yet the window is not blown out into a featureless plane of ultra-white. There's enough detail for us to see each blind, and even those thin vertical strings that hold them in place. Table surfaces do not have their texture whitewashed.

But that movie was filmed in 1999, before the studios learned that audiences had lowered their standards so much that you could show them crud and still get the butts in the seats. No way you could've projected the highest-quality Betamax tape onto the big screen and expected a 1980s audience to habituate, worrying less about the quality of the image they're going to be looking at for two hours than about whether their popcorn has too much salt or whether their stadium seat is soft enough.

By now, the look and feel of film is a distant memory for most folks. That's the reason why they'd have any trouble telling if The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was shot on film or digital.

* To stylize the difference, it's as if film could pick up details in light levels ranging from -5 to +5, but digital could only do -5 to +2, where anything greater than +2 gets treated as "+2". So +2, +3, +4, and +5 would all be rendered at the same brightness level -- namely +2, the upper extreme, i.e. really fucking bright.


  1. I've always felt that the more pressing issue are the color graders in Hollywood, who seem to have gone completely bonkers. For some reason they have forgotten that you don't have to make the colors in a movie either teal or completely washed-out.

  2. something else I've noticed is that movie theaters have gotten quieter. it is a strain for me to hear most dialogue. I don't know if this has something to do with the movies themselves, or the volume being turned down in movie theaters.

  3. Film does not have better dynamic range than digital. In fact, it has worse dynamic range. The link below is a comparison between film and a Canon 1D Mark II, which is an old camera now. Modern Nikons have got even better dynamic range than it. You don't know what you're talking about.


  4. Yep, ignore the screenshots I've shown -- we're only imagining those blown-out highlights in the Dragon Tattoo shot.

    More real-world examples from outdoor daylight group pictures:


    And another of things in an outdoor daylight setting:


    Don't know how that guy constructed his test image, but it doesn't appear to bear much resemblance to how these cameras really work in real situations.

  5. Blown highlights look better with film, because you have something there -- the film base. So if you do blow your highlights, it's just a white blob.

    I honestly don't know what they shoot movies with when they shoot digitally, but digital still cameras (which more and more have video capability) have increased their dynamic range quite dramatically over the last decade. The Nikon D800E has 13-14 stops of dynamic range, which is roughly equivalent to Tri-X Pan film.

    This doesn't mean you can't blow your highlights, but it does mean that if you do it's your own fault.

  6. Actually (replying to myself) I've been researching this -- well looked at a couple of web pages, actually -- and I get the sense that the specs on dynamic range for stills may not translate when the camera is used in video mode.

    Also, apparently when they use the D800 on Dexter they actually use compressed files, because the uncompressed files are so big.

    I don't think that there is any technological reason why digital capture for motion pictures can't be as good -- or better than -- film. It's already there for still photography. But 35mm film still looks pretty darn good.


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