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Format Wars

Sep 9, 2009 12:00 PM, By Michael Goldman

The end of film for TV production?

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Film out?

With your current experience in mind, do you think we are at a watershed moment, heralding the possible end of film for episodic TV? If so, what will that mean for the larger industry?

Tilson: Honestly, I think we’re almost there. We’re already seeing places we work with, post houses, consider going out of business because so much of their business is film transfer, and major studios are already saying no more film for television, period. And even if some shows stay on film, they will be the exception, and as those shows finish their runs, I expect we’ll be all-digital after that.

Devlin: I don’t think we’ll be using film very long. And that will change the world of post production. Some will go out of business, but hopefully, the smarter ones will adapt—many already are. This does not have to be a death knell, but they better adapt quickly. One big problem post houses have, especially, the smaller ones, is that they spend enormous amounts of money to get equipment, and before they can amortize it, it is obsolete, so they never profit from their equipment. The new digital workflows are vastly cheaper to acquire, upgrade, and maintain equipment. This can allow a post house to be more nimble and reduce costs dramatically.

Lonsdale: Distributors of TV shows were always very interested in two things: foreign sales and media storage. They always felt that film was the best storage media, and foreign distribution, for years, required a film finish because of different broadcast standards. Then, slowly, they stopped requiring that film finish, and with the 1080i HD format, you can now more easily take a master and downconvert or crossconvert it to another format with little or no quality loss. So now, they are considering digital more reliable. That also opened the door for making them more comfortable about saving money shooting digital. And every year, the technology is just getting better—the F35, for instance, is just about at the pinnacle for this kind of work.

In addition, audiences are more receptive to seeing images from the digital world even if they look somewhat different. So yes, we are seeing a definite shift. I would hope film would stay around a long time. But these factors would seem to indicate we are moving away from film. If the shows are good, the audiences will be more interested in the drama or comedy they are covering than the medium it was recorded on.

Underschultz: Personally, I do believe this is the case. You only need to see the history of electronic gathering over the past five years and compare where it was then to where it is now. Five years ago, there were almost no [hour-long episodic] shows shooting HD. Now, probably close to 70 percent of all programming on TV is acquired electronically. This is a reality. There are lots of reasons for it, but one of the big ones is the quality of the electronic cameras out there now. I’m now shooting with a camera every bit as workable as the ones I used shooting 35mm film, with great latitude, and now, the same lenses. For all intents and purposes, I think we can make it look exactly the same, if we want to. Logically, this will progress forward.

Reibman: As an artist, you hope they would let you shoot whatever [medium] you thought best, but the truth is, economics are involved, and all shows, no matter if you shoot them on film or HD, are getting finished the same way and are being broadcast out in high definition. So generally, they will look as good as the [viewer’s monitor] will let them. As a cinematographer, if I’m doing my job right, no one watching should be thinking much about the photography. From a cameraman’s point of view, let’s say I’m very encouraged, and moving quickly from encouraged to optimistic.

Author Michael Goldman can be reached at

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