Oscars: Inside the Film vs. Digital Divide


From 'Interstellar' to 'Unbroken,' how filmmakers determined the right format to fit the story

This story first appeared in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

To shoot on film or to shoot on digital — which is better? While cinematographers debate the issue, Roger Deakins, an 11-time Oscar nominee, says flatly, "It's not about the bloody technology; it's about the person behind it." For Unbroken, the story of World War II hero Louis Zamperini, Deakins teamed up with director Angelina Jolie. The saga was filmed in Australia, and Deakins chose to go the digital route, shooting the $65 million movie with an Arri Alexa. Emmanuel "Chivo" Lubezki used that same camera on his way to winning the Oscar in March for Gravity, and then picked it up once again as he went to work on Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman. Also making use of the Arri was Dion Beebe, a previous Oscar winner for Memoirs of a Geisha. Beebe used it to lens Into the Woods, his third musical with director Rob Marshall. Filming on location in the U.K.'s Windsor Great Park and Queen's Park, as well as on a set at Shepperton Studios, he had to light the movie's woods in a way that was stylistically consistent whether the footage was actually shot on the set or on location.

Meanwhile, celluloid champion Christopher Nolan found a likeminded new collaborator in cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema. "I not only embraced shooting Interstellar on film, but maybe that was one of the things that connected us," says van Hoytema, who previously earned a BAFTA nom for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, of establishing a rapport with Nolan. "We shot as much as we could in Imax [a little more than an hour of the finished film]; the rest was shot in anamorphic 35 mm. We wanted the approach to be grounded in reality, not have an obvious aesthetic language. We wanted to give it a sort of ease that didn't feel too engineered."

Robert Elswit, an Oscar winner for Paul Thomas Anderson's 2007 There Will Be Blood, reteamed with the director on Inherent Vice and shot on 35 mm film in keeping with the detective story's 1970s aesthetic. But to shoot Dan Gilroy's $5.5 million Nightcrawler, he opted to go mostly digital, using an Arri for the extensive night shoots.