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Film vs. Video: Bart Weiss Debates Their Merits

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Categorized Under: Film and Television

Keanu Reeves and Martin Scorsese tackle the film vs. video debate in the documentary Side By Side. Photo: Tribeca Film

Guest blogger Bart Weiss is the artistic director of VideoFest and a professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. As a person who loves both film and video, he has a conversation with himself about the merits of each.

To some, the eternal questions are about love or religion or the meaning of life, but for so much of my life, the question has been film or video. Even though I run a video festival, I started off making films – Super 8 and then 16 mm. I have worked for Kodak, and I still teach students at UTA to shoot film. As long as I can remember, I have been discussing, arguing and debating long into the night after beers the merits of film. Last year at the 25th VideoFest, we showed a documentary called Side by Side (that you can now buy on iTunes) that had all the major players in Hollywood talking about the film vs. video debate. And now there is a really good story in The Atlantic about what is happening when film prints go away and all we have to look at are DVDs Blu ray or some kind of digital transfer of the film (which is not the film – it is a digital approximation – though it’s getting to be a dam good one). Basically: What happens when the original is gone. So today I bring you my inter debate. My two sides have it out in the debate between video Bart and film Bart.

FILM BART: Film is the cinematic art. With video, you just look in the viewfinder (which isn’t even a real viewfinder) and record. There’s no pre-visualization. The great craft of the masters has been replaced by a “ya see it, ya record it” aesthetic. Film makes you learn about light and exposure and focus and focal length. That takes time to learn, and you see the passion of the cinematographer on the screen. Even if you shoot video, learning how to shoot film helps you see the world as a cinematographer.

VIDEO BART: What a bunch of elitist bunk. By the way “videobart” was your e-mail address on AOL, which is also going the way of Kodak.  But back to the elitist part. Film costs so much that only the chosen few trust-fund kids can make it on their own. Others need to get financial backing to pay for the film stock, the processing and the transfer to (you guessed it) video for editing. The preciousness of film favors the beautiful image – but at the expense of performance. When if costs so much for each frame, you don’t take as many takes, limiting experimentation. And try shooting a documentary interview on film. You’ll sweat bullets as the money just flows out every second. Video allows you to get that great performance – just keep rolling until the moment comes out.

FILM BART: Did you ever think that each take means you have to log it, look at it and back it up? How many hard drives (which are just waiting to die any day) do you have to have around? But more on that later. Yea, you can keep rolling and rolling and maybe something might come up. But if you have a good script and good actors, you shouldn’t need 84 takes.

VIDEO BART: You remind me of the old cameramen who didn’t want motorized cameras because they would negate their special skills of being able to wind the camera at exactly 18 frames per second. Time moves on, we use new tools and learning how to do long division is not as important with a calculator. There is a new generation of cinematographers who can get much more out of a digital camera than a film camera. Instead of learning how to load a camera, you now learn compression and so much more. The art and the tools of the art of cinematography have finally changed after a century, Get over it. I remember an advertisement for a film camera in the ’70s that said someday video will look as good as film, but until then shoot on film. Well, that day has come. Don’t tell me you want to edit on film anymore – that’s just, slow, inefficient and stupid.

FILM BART: I agree with you there. If I never edit on a film table again, that would be fine. Video editing is fast and efficient, and it allows you to get the shot you want where you want.

VIDEO BART: And don’t forget the effects you want and need without going to an effects house that costs a bundle. One person can now do so much of the work themselves, giving the filmmaker much more control than you have in the film world.  Try getting black and white to really look black and white on a color print.

FILM BART: But that’s the thing about the film prints. Film prints look like what the director and cinematographer wanted them to look like. (Colorization, not withstanding.) The downside, of course, is that with labs going out of business and prints being so expensive, for many films there just aren’t that many prints around. That makes it hard for programmers to show a real print. And, yes, many films are being digitized – but are all of them? Probably not. And who is doing these new transfers? In many cases, those directors and DPs have passed, so others are guessing what they should look like. Many years from now, what is left of a film may have very little relationship with what was intended.

VIDEO BART: So would you rather the film not be seen at all? Is it better to see a bad version of a classic or to never have seen it? I would rather you see it. But I guess that’s the populist in me.

This argument clearly hasn’t solved anything. So Film Bart and Video Bart will be back in a future installment soon.

  • jggreene

    Interesting dialogue. I watched The Dark Knight Rises (again) last nite and was surprised (neither pleasantly or otherwise–just surprised) to see that it was shot entirely on film! With the new ARRI and RED digital cameras seemingly taking over I would have bet TDKR was shot with one of them.

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