Hollywood’s battle over filmmaking formats has long been defined as a battle between film snobs vs. digital slobs. And by that definition, the slobs are clearly winning. In 2017, 92 percent of films were shot on digital. But as with most things in life, the truth is somewhat more complicated. Damar Aji Pramudita of the visual essay website The Pudding decided to examine Hollywood’s 10-year shift to digital by collecting information about the cameras used by the 100 top-grossing movies in the U.S. between 2006 and 2017. The resulting article is chock-full of interactive graphics that make the digital shift easier to understand. Pramudita marks 2012 as the big digital turning point, although directors like Robert Rodriguez were early adopters who made the switch much quicker. Of course, there are also hardcore film loyalists like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who refuse to shoot on digital at all.
Pramudita breaks down his data by director, genre, and budget to try to figure out if there are patterns as to why certain movies use film and others use digital. He finds that sci-fi and horror are the genres most likely to shoot on digital, while dramas have a lower digital adoption rate. But some of Pramudita’s data goes against the traditional narrative. For instance, while movies with smaller budgets are more likely to use digital cameras (which are much cheaper than film), the highest and lowest budget movies actually use film cameras at about the same rate. As Pramudita ultimately puts it:
Digital camera adoption is not following a linear path. Despite the growing dominance of digital cameras in the last decade, we see some directors switching back to film in their latest movies. There will still be use cases for both technologies, depending on how the filmmakers envision the story that they want to tell. In this sense, the debate of film vs digital shouldn’t be a war in which one technology would be obsolete and the other predominate. Both technologies can coexist to serve the visions of the filmmakers.
Pramudita’s article is also full of quotes from different directors and cinematographers discussing why they favor one format over the other or what they think each format can add to their storytelling. You can explore all of the interactive data over on The Pudding.
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