End of an Era … the Last Motion Picture Film Camera Gets Built

It’s been 123 years since French filmmaker Louis Lumiere invented the portable motion picture film camera. Since then, we’ve seen a veritable revolution of communication that has accelerated from silent movies shown to the tune of player pianos to Al Jolsen singing Mammy in the first “talkie,” Walt Disney introducing the layered animation camera, motion control cameras by George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic, and beyond. But the great trail of motion picture film is running out as ARRI, Panavision and Aaton have all ceased manufacturing of motion picture film cameras in favor of focusing on digital filmmaking options.

We’ve been seeing this day coming for awhile now.  Last year, Kodak processed it’s last roll of Kodachrome film.  The market for film is just drying up as people make the transition to digital cameras.  In the consumer world, this is fueled mostly by smartphones now, which make any cell phone your best camera (some are even up to 8MP and higher).  So fewer and fewer one hour photos are being made.  And Super 8s and even 16mm’s day was cut short with the advent of the portable video camera 20+ years ago.  Although Super 16mm has really advanced to the point that it can rival 35mm.

It’s a shame filmmakers (can we even use that term anymore? are abandoning film, because some experts say that film still is the densest, most vibrant storage medium we currently still enjoy. It doesn’t have codec issues, and it can last a lot longer than some digital formats (like burned DVDs) which were promised 100 years of storage time only to be unreadble after less than five.  And film can suffer the ravages of time if not maintained in climate controlled conditions.

But even with all it’s advantages, film has been surpassed by digital cameras like it was standing still thanks to digital cameras best friend, the computer.  And with those two working in concert, digital is moving so fast in its development that they are rapidly surpassing any advantage that film can offer. Digital cameras such as the ALEXA is said to offer nearly the same as film, while the RED HDRx is said to exceed it.  And 4K cameras have already exceed film’s native resolution.  And when you consider the ratio of cost to workflow, and results, digital simply gives the filmmaker the most bang for the buck.

But what has really put the final nail in the film camera coffin may have been the advent of 3D video.  According to Aaton founder Jean-Pierre Beauviala, what has always held back 3D production is not the funny glasses, but the difficulty to synchronize twin film cameras for shooting.  But with a digital camera, synchronizing is far easier.  And with more 3D televisions being sold on the market, the demand is going to be there for 3D content.

But does that mean that the old addage that “film is dead” is finally true?  Well, not really.  Film is still being used, but it will likely be an artistic choice – much like black and white is today.  And while it will be going away in favor of digital projection, both the analog and digital medium will continue to coexist – at least for awhile.  However, film will become an end of line delivery resource, where digital images will be telecined  onto film only to project.  But as more theaters make the transition from film to digital projection, it will eventually be a art house medium exclusively, if that.

So it’s an end of the road … a road that has brought us from All Quiet on the Western Front to Star Wars.   It’s been an long and adorable ride that sometimes got a bit bumpy (thanks to gimmicks like 3D and Sensoround).  But with digital filmmaking, the journey is about to go light speed into the future.  And who knows that tomorrow may bring? Someday, we may be writing an article celebrating the short lived career of digital filmmaking.  And when that day comes, we’ll be heralding something new that’s always over the horizon.

About James DeRuvo

James has a multi-faceted career that spans radio, film and publishing. A writer about the technology in the video industry for nearly 20 years, James is also an award winning film director, having garnered a Telly Award for his short film Searching for Inspiration. He's also worked as a producer of many talk radio programs in Los Angeles with topics ranging from entertainment to travel to technology.