“Impossible to see, the future is,” says Yoda at an early moment in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones, but at the turn of the last millennium George Lucas cast himself in the role of seer. Film was dead, he pronounced. Long live digital.

Released 20 years ago, on 16 May 2002, Attack of the Clones was the first big-budget Hollywood film to be shot using digital cameras. Whatever your thoughts on the Star Wars prequels (and we can save the case for their defence for another time), this makes Clones a line in the sand in Hollywood history roughly equivalent to the release of The Jazz Singer (1927), the first talking picture.

Wanting cinematography and projection to catch up with the digital revolution that had already modernised editing and visual effects, Lucas foresaw an end-to-end digital workflow that would eventually transform the industry. Just 11 years after Clones, digital would overtake 35mm cinematography as the industry standard.

Yet Lucas was far from being the first director to use digital cameras. While he waited for Sony engineers to develop a device sophisticated enough to rival professional 35mm movie cameras, filmmakers around the globe with far less clout and money were seizing upon the earliest digital video cameras as an opportunity to take the means of production into their own hands. In the new issue of Sight and Sound magazine, I speak to many of the filmmakers who were at the vanguard of this new technology, including David Lynch, Miranda July, Pedro Costa, Michael Mann, Jia Zhangke, Michael Winterbottom and Clones’ cinematographer David Tattersall.

Film culture still seems faintly embarrassed by this period, and by the often ugly, pixellated images that first-generation digital cameras brought into being. Once the disrupters, these films have now been left behind in visual terms by galloping advances in technology. But the best of them deserve to be remembered as much more than just canaries in the mine.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

Find out more and get a copy

Festen (1998)

Director: Thomas Vinterberg

Festen (1998)

An often forgotten stipulation of the Dogme 95 manifesto – the ‘vows of chastity’ laid down by Danish filmmakers led by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg – was that the films should be shot on 35mm. That rule was the first out of the door. Although there was always a whiff of film-school posturing about the Dogme movement, the decision to shoot both Vinterberg’s Festen and von Trier’s The Idiots on over-the-counter digital camcorders ensured these upsetters a place in film history. An affront to the century-old dominance of celluloid, these two films launched Dogme as an aesthetic force at Cannes in 1998, at the same time opening up a world of digital possibility and potential for other filmmakers. Camcorders were at Cannes; suddenly anyone could be a director.

A combustible country-house drama in which an aggrieved son spills the beans about his father at the latter’s birthday celebration, Festen made British cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle one of early digital’s most in-demand DPs. He’d shoot Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) for Harmony Korine, 28 Days Later (2002) for Danny Boyle, and both Dogville (2003) and Manderlay (2005) for von Trier, before winning the Oscar for Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008) – a first for digital cinematography.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Director: Agnès Varda

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Voted the eighth greatest documentary of all time in a Sight and Sound critics poll in 2014, The Gleaners and I found venerable French New Wave director Agnès Varda at the forefront of the digital revolution. All shot handheld on a Sony DV camera, her film is ostensibly about the act of foraging (or ‘gleaning’) leftovers and things that have been thrown away. But in Varda’s characteristically ruminative and open-hearted manner, it’s also what critic So Mayer called “an autoportrait of the artist as an older woman … brilliantly encompass[ing] agriculture, art history, class politics, ecology, economics, recycling and … the origins of cinema.”

From her frank examination of her own ageing skin to the impromptu sequence in which she accidentally leaves the camera running and captures a lens cap ‘dancing’ on the end of its cord, the DV cam becomes – in Varda’s hands – a triumphant materialisation of what her contemporary Alexandre Astruc once called the ‘caméra-stylo’; the camera wielded as personally as a writer uses a pen.

ivansxtc. (2000)

Director: Bernard Rose

Ivansxtc (2000)

Alongside Mike Figgis, Michael Winterbottom and Danny Boyle, Candyman director Bernard Rose was among the earliest British directors to move to digital – albeit in Hollywood. In fact, ivansxtc. is one of a number of early digital films – including Figgis’s Timecode (2000), Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal (2002), Scott Coffey’s Ellie Parker (2005) and David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006) – that take Hollywood itself as its subject, as if these first tremors of technological shift were prompting some inward reflection.

Inspired by Dogme 95, Rose used a Sony HDW-700A HD camera to capture this corrosive satire, starring Danny Huston as a coked-up agent and wheeler-dealer who discovers he’s dying of cancer. The bones of the story come from Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, and ivansxtc. thrives on an intriguing tension between its grandiose romanticism, including repeated swathes of Wagner on the soundtrack, and the uniquely retrograde, wedding-video patina of the era’s early digital imagery. To these eyes, it’s a film of great beauty nonetheless, benefitting from a recent Blu-ray release – still a rarity for early digital films. 

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (2001)

Director: Zacharius Kunuk

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (2001)

Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner is an Inuit story set in the ancient past, though its Arctic setting is so spare and elemental it could be unfolding in any era. The cold sheen and pixellation of the digital images, however, place the film itself squarely in the early 2000s. 

Zacharius Kunuk’s lo-fi epic was the first feature ever to be written and performed in the Inuktitut language; a film shot documentary-style that acquires a mythic, primal grandeur over nearly three hours. A masterpiece under the midnight sun, its daily shooting schedule stretched till three in the morning, with cinematographer Norman Cohn capturing many striking moments in natural light: a breathless chase over the ice; a fight scene in which the camera gets in the way of the blows; a sexual encounter seen in silhouette from outside a tent. In 2015, the Toronto International Film Festival named this the greatest of all Canadian films, while Canadian novelist Margaret Atwood quoted a British critic as saying: “If Homer had been given a video camera, this is what he would have done.”

Russian Ark (2002)

Director: Aleksandr Sokurov 

Russian Ark (2002)

For better and worse, the arrival of digital cinematography has enabled shots to stretch on for much longer than is possible with 35mm, where the size of the reel limits what is possible to 10 minutes at a time. At the dawn of the digital era, Mike Figgis’s Tinseltown saga Timecode ambitiously comprised four shots of over 90 minutes, which ran simultaneously as four quadrants on screen – a headache-inducing gambit. Aleksandr Sokurov’s famous experiment Russian Ark kept it a lot simpler, albeit pulling off a tour de force in the process: one continuous 96-minute Steadicam shot that takes us on a tour of St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum while the assembled, on-their-marks players enact an odyssey through Russian history.

Fascinating as an experiment in which one false move would have necessitated starting all over again, Sokurov’s film transcends gimmicky by dazzling with its ideas too. With a 19th-century French visitor as our guide, Russian Ark keeps past and present, fact and fiction, life and art, as fluid as the travelling camera. Twenty years on, it remains a breathtaking experience.

The Company (2003)

Director: Robert Altman

The Company (2003)

Among what you might call the old guard of Hollywood directors who made their reputation in the 1970s or earlier, Robert Altman was second only to George Lucas in getting a digitally shot film to market. His 2003 ballet drama is perhaps the finest of his late works, a brilliant ensemble drama centred around Neve Campbell’s ambitious dancer and Malcolm McDowell’s exuberant impresario. 

Altman had filmed his 1980s miniseries Tanner ‘88 on analogue video, and – given his pioneering use of overlapping dialogue and exploratory zooms to bring us closer into the life of his scenes – it’s perhaps no surprise that he’d enthusiastically take to digital. The Company was shot using the same device Lucas had used, the Sony F900; the first camera to offer the more cinematic potential of a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. If you’re looking for examples of the quicksilver energy that digital filming can bring to a scene, look no further than the early sequence in which an outdoor ballet performance continues during a gathering storm. 

Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)

Director: Lav Diaz

Evolution of a Filipino Family (2004)

Like Chinese filmmaker Wang Bing with his nine-hour documentary West of the Tracks (2002), Filipino Lav Diaz embraced the affordability of digital cinematography as a means of pushing at the limits of how long a film could be. Evolution of a Filipino Family, his 10-hour study of the travails of a Filipino farming family during Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship in the 1970s and 80s, had been in the works as a 16mm project for years when Diaz made the call to switch to using digital cameras. It was a move that transformed his filmmaking by allowing him to take his time, organically adapting to the weather and chance opportunities on any given day. Shots were long and slow, the better to absorb the specifics of time and place as reflections of a nation’s troubled history.

“You own the brush now, you own the gun,” he told Tilman Baumgärtel, “unlike before, where it was all owned by the studio … You have a South East [Asian] independent cinema now. We have been deprived for a long time, we have been neglected, we have been dismissed by the western media. That was because of production logistics. We did not have money, we did not have cameras, all those things. Now, these questions have been answered. We are on equal terms now.”

Miami Vice (2006)

Director: Michael Mann

Miami Vice (2006)

When the lightning flashes at a perfect, moody moment atop a skyscraper in downtown Miami, you’d be forgiven for suspecting some post-production trickery has been involved; this night scene has a pulse and depth of field that feels electric. No, it was all in camera, Mann told me. “If you’re in Miami in August, the weather is very Wagnerian.”

Mann first tried out digital cameras on some scenes in Ali (2001) before shooting the majority of both Collateral (2004) and his big-screen reboot of Miami Vice digitally. In these movies, he became digital’s poet of nighttime, using the advancing technology to capture the nocturnal atmospherics of Los Angeles and Miami in ways beyond the capabilities of traditional film. Although it’s Lucas who first proved digital’s roadworthiness in a huge Hollywood film, it’s Mann who – without the tinkering safety net of CGI – first showed how alive photo-realistic digital imagery could look in a multi-million-dollar context.

Still Life (2006)

Director: Jia Zhangke

Still Life (2006)

Chinese director Jia Zhangke first turned to Mini DV with the 2002 youth drama Unknown Pleasures, before scaling up to use the widescreen capabilities of the F900 – the Attack of the Clones camera – for his theme park-set The World (2004). Yet he found this more advanced device was “not yet mature in its attempt to equal the qualities of celluloid”. For his 2006 masterpiece Still Life, he and his cinematographer Yu Lik-wai returned to the simplest, over-the-counter digital cameras – and for good reason. An elegiac story of a community about to be subsumed, Still Life was filmed against the backdrop of the city of Fengjie being demolished to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project. All of the locations would soon be underwater.

“How could we accomplish the filming in one month or at most two? It was like racing against the demolition crews,” Jia told me. “Shooting a film in the conventional way was clearly impossible. In any case, water and power were often cut off at the site, and roads were often closed – which meant that we couldn’t bring in a generator to power any lighting. So we decided to go with a mini digital camera. Digital allowed us to capture the drastic changes in a way that traditional filmmaking would not.”

Colossal Youth (2006)

Director: Pedro Costa

Colossal Youth (2006)

The arrival of small digital cameras initiated a trend for handheld cinematography, but one filmmaker who went against the grain was Pedro Costa. With In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006) – the former of which is sadly difficult to see in the UK – the Portuguese filmmaker continued his ongoing project to document the Cape Verdean immigrant community of Fontainhas in suburban Lisbon. Turning away from 35mm, he bought a digital camcorder in order to forgo the complexities of shooting with a crew; “I wanted to find a way of doing films more simply,” he told me, “with less money”. 

By using a tripod for his long takes in gloomy rooms, he pioneered a completely different aesthetic for digital imagery – one based on stillness and DIY lighting. Like cinematographer Gordon Willis’s celebrated work on The Godfather (1972), using a ‘Rembrandt lighting scheme’ to highlight areas of a screen otherwise shrouded in darkness, Costa made use of mirrors to create shimmering pockets of light. Colossal Youth is the haunted, mesmeric story of 75-year-old Ventura, a Fontainhas resident who is about to be relocated to a modern housing project. No less than those other watershed digital films of 2006 – Miami Vice and Inland Empire – it pushed the new technology in unique and invigorating directions.

Early digital cinematography: a filmography

1987

  • Julia and Julia (Peter Del Monte)

1997

  • Conceiving Ada (Lynn Hershman-Leeson)

1998

  • The Book of Life (Hal Hartley)
  • Festen (Thomas Vinterberg)
  • The Idiots (Lars von Trier)
  • The Last Broadcast (Stefan Avalos and Lance Weiler)
  • Love & Pop (Hideaki Anno)
  • Windhorse (Paul Wagner)

1999

  • The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez) *
  • The Hi-Line (Ron Judkins)
  • The Item (Dan Clark)
  • Julien Donkey-Boy (Harmony Korine)
  • Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (George Lucas) *

2000

  • Bamboozled (Spike Lee)
  • Chuck and Buck (Miguel Arteda)
  • Dancer in the Dark (Lars von Trier)
  • In Vanda’s Room (Pedro Costa)
  • Italian for Beginners (Lone Scherfig)
  • Ivansxtc. (Bernard Rose)
  • Ju-on: The Curse (Takashi Shimizu)
  • Lisa Picard Is Famous (Griffin Dunne)
  • Our Lady of the Assassins (Barbet Schroeder)
  • Timecode (Mike Figgis)

2001

  • ABC Africa (Abbas Kiraostami)
  • Ali (Michael Mann) *
  • All About Lily Chou-Chou (Shunji Iwai)
  • The Anniversary Party (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Alan Cumming)
  • Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk)
  • Birthday (Stefan Jäger)
  • The Center of the Universe (Wayne Wang)
  • Éloge de l’amour (Jean-Luc Godard) *
  • Hotel (Mike Figgis)
  • The Lady and the Duke (Eric Rohmer)
  • Lonely Rita (Jessica Hausner)
  • Lovely & Amazing (Nicole Holofcener)
  • Tape (Richard Linklater)
  • Tortilla Soup (María Ripoll)
  • Where Does the Hidden Smile Lie? (Pedro Costa)

2002

  • * Corpus Callosum (Michael Snow)
  • Full Frontal (Steven Soderbergh)
  • In This World (Michael Winterbottom)
  • Open Hearts (Susanne Bier)
  • Personal Velocity (Rebecca Miller)
  • Public Toilet (Fruit Chan)
  • Rabbits (David Lynch)
  • Russian Ark (Aleksandr Sokurov)
  • Spy Kids 2: The Island of Lost Dreams (Robert Rodriguez)
  • Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (George Lucas)
  • Tadpole (Gary Winick)
  • 10 (Abbas Kiarostami)
  • 24 Hour Party People (Michael Winterbottom)
  • 28 Days Later… (Danny Boyle)
  • Unknown Pleasures (Jia Zhangke)
  • West of the Tracks (Wang Bing)

2003

  • The Company (Robert Altman)
  • Dogville (Lars von Trier)
  • Down the the Bone (Debra Granik)
  • Five (Abbas Kiarostami)
  • The Forest for the Trees (Maren Ade)
  • Nil nirjane (Subrata Sen)
  • 9 Songs (Michael Winterbottom)
  • One for the Road (Chris Cooke)
  • Once upon a Time in Mexico (Robert Rodriguez)
  • Spy Kids 3D: Game Over (Robert Rodriguez)

2004

  • Collateral (Michael Mann)
  • Evolution of a Filipino Family (Lav Diaz)
  • Land of Plenty (Wim Wenders)
  • The World (Jia Zhangke)

2005

  • The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl (Robert Rodriguez)
  • Bubble (Steven Soderbergh)
  • Ellie Parker (Scott Coffey)
  • Hidden (Michael Haneke)
  • Lonesome Jim (Steve Buscemi)
  • Manderlay (Lars von Trier)
  • Me and You and Everyone We Know (Miranda July)
  • The Puffy Chair (Jay and Mark Duplass)
  • Sin City (Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller)
  • Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (George Lucas)
  • The Wild Blue Yonder (Werner Herzog)

2006

  • Apocalypto (Mel Gibson)
  • Click (Frank Coraci)
  • Climates (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • Colossal Youth (Pedro Costa)
  • Crank (Brian Taylor and Mark Neveldine)
  • Flyboys (Tony Bill)
  • Inland Empire (David Lynch)
  • LOL (Joe Swanberg)
  • Man Push Cart (Ramin Bahrani)
  • Miami Vice (Michael Mann)
  • Offside (Jafar Panahi)
  • Red Road (Andrea Arnold)
  • Scary Movie 4 (David Zucker)
  • Still Life (Jia Zhangke)
  • Superman Returns (Bryan Singer)
  • Them (David Moreau and Xavier Palud)

2007

  • Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (Sidney Lumet)
  • Encounters at the End of the World (Werner Herzog)
  • In Between Days (So Yong Kim)
  • Once (John Carney)
  • Planet Terror (Robert Rodriguez)
  • Redacted (Brian De Palma)
  • Reign over Me (Mike Binder)
  • Superbad (Greg Mottola)
  • Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (Jake Kasdan)
  • Youth Without Youth (Francis Ford Coppola)
  • Zodiac (David Fincher)

2008

  • The Bank Job (Roger Donaldson)
  • Che Part One (Steven Soderbergh)
  • Che Part Two (Steven Soderbergh)
  • Cloverfield (Matt Reeves)
  • The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (David Fincher)
  • Deception (Marcel Langenegger)
  • Get Smart (Peter Segal)
  • Journey to the Center of the Earth (Eric Brevig)
  • Rachel Getting Married (Jonathan Demme)
  • RockNRolla (Guy Ritchie)
  • Slumdog Millionnaire (Danny Boyle)
  • Speed Racer (Lily and Lana Wackowski)
  • Three Monkeys (Nuri Bilge Ceylan)
  • 21 (Robert Luketic)
  • 24 City (Jia Zhangke)

* Includes some digital cinematography