As I was standing behind the roped off area near the director's chair, two crew members wheeled by a storage container labeled Panavision on the side. I continued to watch them open the container and pull out a large film reel and load it onto the camera. I thought to myself, "hmm, I thought many of these films were shot digitally", but what I have come to realize is that the majority of motion pictures are still shot on film.
With all the digital cameras consumers buy today, they seem to be the smart ones not wasting money on tape after tape, but instead shooting their footage right to flash memory that is automatically digitized without any extra effort. The real question becomes, why does the film industry still use film, and what are the advantages and disadvantages of tapeless production?
As a filmmaker, I work for a legal consulting firm producing and analyzing video for litigation across the country. My job requires me to be knowledgeable about every aspect of video production and there can be no room for error when the cameras begin to roll. The option for a reshoot does not exist in a video deposition when a key witness is being questioned by counsel on a case that has millions of dollars, or someone's fate on the line.
One of my professors in college used to say to us, "Digital media does not exist unless it exists in three places." Those words are now part of my mental framework whenever I begin to roll tape, or shoot digitally. As a filmmaker you have to be thinking one step ahead of everyone else, because an error will result in more time and money spent reshooting something that could have been done right the first time.
So that brings us to the question again, tape or tapeless? In my industry today, I believe that everything should continue to be shot on tape and digitized separately. There are some instances when I am able to shoot on tape and also digitize at the same time, but that requires a little more effort and sometimes the location doesn't allow for it to easily be done. After my shoot, I import the footage to a video editing hard drive which is automatically backed up to a second hard drive, but I also have the physical tape.
It has yet to happen to me (knock on wood), but if and when one hard drive fails, I will have the backup to save me. And if and when that backup fails at the same time my main drive fails, I will have the tape to fall back on. And if and when all my hard drives fail and my tape has been ruined, the never ending question of "how much backup is actually enough?" will have to be answered.
Young filmmakers love the ability to shoot in high definition right to P2 cards, but after a full day of shooting priceless material, let's only hope that they don't accidentally hit that "format" button erasing all their footage with no hope of retrieving it. Let's just say that I've learned my lesson a couple times...
The reason for motion picture production companies to still shoot on film is a little more involved than what the average consumer needs to know, but one reason is that film is durable and extremely reliable. Unlike the beginning of picture making when film was highly combustible and dangerous, it has come a long way and been perfected to last longer and endure rougher physical conditions.
To be a good filmmaker you have to think above the bar and outside of the box because there is no room for error on your watch. So whether shooting on tape or digitally, think about every possible scenario to protect your footage and deliver the highest quality product you can.
After all, it is your reputation.