Variety.com, possibly the entertainment industry news resource site, posted an article a few days ago on the upcoming sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon – the first feature-length motion picture produced by Netflix. The long-awaited sequel, titled Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend, will be shot using IMAX cameras and produced by both Netflix and The Weinstein Company. These three companies, IMAX, Netflix and Weinstein, have agreed to stream the movie the same day it’s released in theaters. This caused an uproar from the four largest theater chains in the U.S. (which house over half of the IMAX projectors in the nation) and are now boycotting the film.
It feels like everyday there’s a growing segregation within the motion picture industry, and it revolves around technology. Film-traditionalists tend to be adverse to instant streaming and digital cameras, feeling that theater experiences and shooting on film are what makes a movie a movie. Meanwhile, filmmakers who embrace technology have found shooting digitally and distributing through downloads saves production costs and creates a broader, more immediate viewership.
Christopher Nolan (director of Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy and the upcoming film Interstellar) held an event in 2011, showing the first few minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, which he shot on IMAX. It was a small screening where he only invited a few fellow filmmakers, the likes of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef), Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel), Michael Bay (Transformers, Armageddon), Bryan Singer (X-Men), and Stephen Daldry (Billy Elliot, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close) to name a few. Nolan was hoping to persuade them to shoot more movies on film versus shooting them digitally. Being a huge advocate of this, he discussed how shooting on film is more true to the movie experience and how they’re made. There’s a great documentary on this topic called Side by Side. It’s a fantastic discussion with directors, cinematographers, editors and other motion picture professionals on their experiences and views of film versus digital.
Before going any further, I want to explain the difference between movies, films, videos and motion pictures as I’ve been jumping amongst the four. In short, and in laymen’s terms, they all mean the same thing. But breaking it down a bit:
“Movies” are so called because of what the pictures are doing: moving. Moving pictures. A “move-ie,” as a stereotypical vaudeville actor might say. And it was around the beginning of the 20th century when we got the word movie. “Films” are a little more descriptive. Strictly speaking, they are movies shot on film. A movie shot digitally, with computer chips and sensors, grammatically speaking, isn’t a film because no film was used to record the footage. “Videos” are the opposite of films. Videos are movies shot digitally with no film. Though, this is more commonly used when talking about YouTube clips or amateur footage, not necessarily movies. “Motion pictures” are again just another way to say, well, pictures in motion. Typically, this is more connected to films that are feature-length narratives, not short-films or documentaries.
So to the logophile, there are differences between these words. But they all mean the same thing: a story told through moving pictures. And it’s at this point where filmmakers start to divide. How? I think the first question really is, why do we watch movies? Some watch as an escape from their everyday life. Some watch to laugh after a particularly rough day. Some simply because they got rid of cable and movies are the only source of entertainment that plays on their television. Some because it’s an art form that we feel a strong creative connection to. Whatever the case may be, people watch movies because they want to experience a story, a feeling, an attachment to something; whether they consciously know it or not. They want to feel that catharsis of driving a fast car, falling in love, overcoming fear or saving the world. Movies give us something that nothing else reaches to such an extent. Movies give us the freedom to experience.
It’s how to give this experience to you, as well as how you get it, that has so many filmmakers split. On one hand, shooting on film and the iconic grainy look it creates from light burning onto celluloid, keeping a film true to the way they have been made since the 1890’s, is a style that, in all honesty, is becoming harder and harder to accomplish because of the change in times. While shooting digitally, the sharpness of the picture and the immediate accessibility to the footage and equipment, is a style that’s becoming more and more common thanks to the advances in technology. Obviously, technology has changed the filmmaking process, as it does with nearly everything it touches. Before, filmmakers would have to wait till the next morning for the dailies to see the footage they just shot. Now, you can see exactly what’s going into the frame the moment the lens cap comes off with LED monitors, to name just one way technology has evolved how movies are made.
I have a hard time calling myself a filmmaker because I’ve never touched a single frame of film stock when shooting. Word-nerds would say I’m not, technically speaking. And in all honesty, shooting digitally has less to do with choice and more to do with when I started making movies. The classes I took in college only had digital cameras. And large retail stores don’t exactly have film cameras and reels flying off the shelves. Am I less of a filmmaker because I have not shot on film? Does that mean I am not someone who tells stories through moving pictures? Is there a right and wrong way to make a movie? How the movie was made, whether it was on film or shot digitally, is and should be a stylistic choice by the filmmaker. It means that they wanted to give that experience to you in that particular way. Even at most theaters today, movies are projected digitally onto the screen as opposed to how they used to be projected with spinning film reels passing frame by frame over a light. Does that mean you’re not watching a movie? Not getting that film’s experience? And am I just another seat at the “insta-generation” table because I stream movies on mobile devices or smart TVs? Does that mean I don’t love movies as much as the next cinephile? Am I not getting the experience the filmmaker set out to give?
The way movies are watched changes the experience, for sure. And watching films in theaters can have setbacks just as big as watching them at home on a TV or an iPad; rowdy theater-goers, crying children, faulty projectors, squeaky seats or even the over-priced, stale popcorn has an affect on how you get that experience. But watching films in a movie theater, the screen conquering the entire wall, the sound resonating so deep and surrounding every wavelength – you are completely immersed in that physical space that the catharsis is forced within you. At the same time, theater experiences are becoming difficult to attain due to ticket prices – and now industry politics. Theaters had to compensate for the movie-goers who opted to wait a few weeks until the movie was available to rent because they didn’t have to leave the house to watch it. I stopped publishing movie reviews because I couldn’t afford the ticket for every movie that came out that I wanted to see and write reviews on, and by the time I had seen the movie, so had everyone else.
I still write reviews. And I write reviews and watch movies simply because I love films and filmmaking. Filmmaking, movie-making, motion-picture-making, whatever you want to call it. The lighting, the acting, the dialogue, the score, the camera movements and the way they’re all combined to create the experience it sets out to give is something I will never grow tired of watching or making. It’s upsetting that movie experiences are kept from audiences due to industry politics, people’s view/fear of changes in technology or the economy in general. We lose that freedom to experience. That should be upsetting to anyone, especially those who love the movies.