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October / 2001

Hot Docs!
Part II: Is Film Dead?

by Zoe Dirse

The Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival presented its eighth annual program in Toronto last spring, screening over 70 non-fiction films from Canada and abroad. In addition, over 1,000 delegates from 25 countries attended the extensive industry program. CSC Associate Zoe Dirse, a noted documentary cinematographer and director, was there, and Part I of her two-part report appeared in last month’s CSC News. This month, she reviews a filmmakers’ panel discussion on Is Film Dead? Film Revolt Versus Digital Revolution.

FILM proponent John Walker csc uses his Aaton camera to make a point during the heated Hot Docs panel discussion on Is Film Dead? The panelists were, from left, independent filmmaker Kevin McMahon; Fred Franzwa, hybrid R&D technical director at Kodak Head Office in Rochester, N.Y.; Terry Horbatiuk, senior manager of broadcast and industrial video at Panasonic Canada; Walker; and NFB producer Gerry Flahive, who moderated the session. Photo: Zoe Dirse

The subject of one of the Filmmaker Discussions held during the 2001 Hot Docs Festival was: Is Film Dead? Film Revolt Versus Digital Revolution. The question for debate was: “Has the digital revolution improved the quality of films and the lives of their makers?” There were many cinematographers in attendance and a heated discussion ensued.

The several panelists included Fred Franzwa, hybrid R&D technical director at Kodak Head Office in Rochester, N.Y.; Terry Horbatiuk, senior manager of broadcast and industrial video at Panasonic Canada; Kevin McMahon, an independent filmmaker; and John Walker csc, a cinematographer and director of The Fairy Faith. NFB producer Gerry Flahive moderated the session.

I attended hoping to get some definitive answers from this debate. Since my departure from the National Film Board in Montreal following the closure of the French and English camera departments and the film development laboratory in 1997, I have been on a constant lookout for documentaries to shoot on film. Ironically enough, the head of the English camera department at the time, David Devolpi, was certain that he could convince the administration that if the Film Board continued shooting its documentaries on film it would hold a unique place in the documentary world. The money crunchers disagreed and all that vanished.

The Film Board did hold on to its cache of Aaton 16mm cameras, but I have heard lately that those are now being sold off at bargain basement prices. I still continue to work on documentaries, but more and more the shooting format is video.

During the panel discussion, the pro-video side argued that the digital revolution was more economical and more accessible. John Walker, on the cinema-side, argued that when photography came on to the scene critics claimed that painting was dead. He added that film has texture and expression, that lenses give him a vision and richer range, and that ultimately films feel less dated.

Franzwa, the Kodak representative, said that technology does not take the place of creative talent and that creativity is the key. Horbatiuk, the Panasonic representative, countered by saying that everything has gone digital and it is all about acquiring content. He said that distribution has changed due to the digital revolution, and that the key is content and consumer commonality in a global community. He added that film was not dead but moving into another facet.

Walker argued that the economic facts did not always hold up, as was the case of the Hot Docs opening night documentary, Startup.Com, which was shot on mini-DV and transferred to 35mm film for theatrical release. The blow-up cost $50,000 (U.S.), which could have financed a film shoot. When Kevin McMahon countered with the issue of intimacy, Walker pulled out his Aaton with a prime lens and demonstrated that this was not necessarily the case. He concluded that film does not limit you but gives you more options.

This part of the discussion became quite heated, and finally apologies were doled out. McMahon did concede that film schools should continue to instruct in the film format, although this is being phased out gradually as the schools respond to the marketplace.

As for myself, I am still searching for the opportunity to once again shoot a documentary on film.

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