Even in this “digital age,” I find the change from teaching cinematography students with film to teaching with digital unfortunate. Not because I have any “nostalgic” feelings about film (which I admit I do); rather, film forces one to take much greater care in planning and execution of one’s photography than digital does. The lack of immediate feedback makes you plan well in advance and really think about the visuals you’re creating. The fact that you won’t know until at least tomorrow how the film you shot today turned out forces you to work much more carefully, which in turn forces you to think more creatively and more artistically. When established cinematographers lament that cinematography is no longer about the artistry, this is what they’re talking about: there’s a whole generation of people with digital cinema cameras who mistakenly believe the camera is what makes the images look good or that they can work sloppily and “fix it in post” – fallacies that the digital cinema camera manufacturers continue to promote to sell more of their products. I believe that the fact that no one is teaching students with film anymore also plays role in this. This is why film matters, not because of the unique qualities of film as an imaging medium, but because it forces you to work very carefully. Digital encourages sloppy working habits in those who have never worked with film.
Whether film as a capture medium is relevant to students’ future careers in this age of digital capture, I feel students really should be learning cinematography with film, because the mindset that working with film forces you to adopt – the care and planning you have to do – is essential to being a great visual artist. People who have only ever worked digitally don’t learn the discipline that film requires. Many of these students never even learn how to use a light meter – the mindset is, “why would I use a meter when I can see it on the monitor?” When you apply the artist’s discipline to digital, you can create stunning images in the digital medium, much more so than if you have never learned to have that discipline. I’m really happy that I learned with film, even though the future of cinematography is most definitely digital.
I know some people feel film presented an unreasonable barrier to entry, and one digital cinema camera company in particular likes to trumpet that they’re “democratizing” moviemaking (which they’re not, not really). Nothing was preventing people from renting a motion picture camera for a weekend and running some film through it; 16mm kits could be had for very reasonable rates, and processing of 16mm negative or reversal film wasn’t prohibitively expensive. The real barrier to entry that film presented was one of discipline: film separated the artists from the non-artists very quickly, where digital allows you to do sloppy work and then “fix it in post” (which never looks as good as getting it right in the camera). Even in stills photography, using film requires much more discipline than digital, and while digital is great for learning composition and framing because you can make tons of photographs or shoot tons of footage really inexpensively (which means it’s cheap to make all the mistakes you have to make to learn), you still don’t learn the discipline that you really need to be great. That discipline can only be learned by working with film.