Attack of the zeros and ones: the early years of digital cinema, as told by David Lynch, Miranda July, Michael Mann and more

Twenty years after the release of the world’s first digitally shot blockbuster, George Lucas’s Attack of the Clones, Sam Wigley talks to the early adopters who delighted in experimenting with a medium that would reinvent the industry.

25 November 2022

By Sam Wigley

Collateral (2004)
Sight and Sound

A blurry photo found online captures the day Hollywood began to be convinced by digital cinematography. The scene is a screening room at Skywalker Ranch 20 years ago, in April 2002. Posing for the group shot, backs to the screen, wearing the familiar range of chinos, blue jeans and casual jackets that mark out the A-list auteur, are some of the most famous directors in the industry: Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, John Lasseter, Robert Rodriguez, Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, Bryan Singer and Robert Zemeckis.

Peeking out of the back row is their host, George Lucas. He was gearing up to release his new Star Wars film, Attack of the Clones, which was about to become the first digitally shot blockbuster to hit cinemas. Thrilled with the results he’d achieved with British cinematographer David Tattersall, he’d convened this digital summit at his ranch as a show and tell; an opportunity for the advance party to share early experiences of working with digital. Coppola would screen some footage he’d shot for Megalopolis (a project he’s yet to finish); Mann showed some digital sequences he’d incorporated into Ali (2001). Yet this challenge to the century-old orthodoxy of celluloid caused rumbles of disquiet in the room. “Film is what we do. It’s what we use,” Stone was reported to have challenged Lucas. “You’ll be known as the man who killed cinema.”

If the gathering sounds reminiscent of that scene in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) in which a 1920s studio bigwig dims the lights at a Hollywood party for a demonstration of a talking picture (“Listen everybody, I’ve got a few little surprises for you tonight”), it should. In 2002, the industry was on the precipice of a revolution in the way movies were made and watched that would prove every bit as momentous as the coming of sound. Perhaps more so, in that the new technology wasn’t an embellishment so much as an ontological shift in the nature of the medium. Since the beginning, movies had depended on chemically enhanced celluloid to capture the light in front of the camera lens. In its place, digital cinematography offered a translation of reality: the light would be captured by microchip sensors and encoded as an infinite stream of zeros and ones.

“By the mid-90s the movie business was halfway into the digital revolution,” Tattersall tells me. “Sound, editorial, VFX and the art departments had all transitioned very quickly to digital systems and were enjoying all of the advantages of more efficient workflows and better quality control.” In order to close the digital production loop, advances in digital camera technology were needed, alongside an even greater challenge: an overhaul of the distribution system that would allow digital films to be screened on digital projectors, without the costly need to transfer the finished movie to 35mm.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

The story goes that, over dinner in Los Angeles in the autumn of 1996, Lucas and his producer Rick McCallum persuaded Sony to develop a movie-camera-style high-definition device, capable of shooting at 24 frames per second and with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Lucas had hoped to shoot The Phantom Menace (1999) digitally, but found initial tests disappointing. “As a cheeky experiment, however,” Tattersall says, “a couple of quick shots deeply buried in the movie were shot with a Sony HDC-750 Hi Def camera, recorded back on to film and cut into the master negative.” Watch the brief scene at nightfall on Tatooine when Liam Neeson’s Qui-Gon takes a sample of Anakin Skywalker’s blood: if you’re primed to detect it, there’s the uncanny sensation of Hollywood sampling its own future.


An HD cam filming driver-passenger conversations from the dashboard – an impossible space to fit one of your old-school movie cameras (Abbas Kiarostami’s 10). An unbroken 90-minute take gliding through St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum – an impossible length of time to capture in one go on 35mm (Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark). A nine-hour documentary that embeds us in the slow decline of a Shenyang industrial district, all shot by a crew of one (Wang Bing’s West of the Tracks ). In the spring of 2002, Attack of the Clones wasn’t the only world premiere using digital cameras to recalibrate our expectations of what a film could be.

Russian Ark (2002)

On 16 May, the day that Lucas’s film was released into cinemas worldwide, it also screened at the Cannes Film Festival, where the main competition was the event’s most pixel-heavy to date. Four digitally shot films were selected to compete, including 10 and Russian Ark, the latter filmed uncompressed to hard disk rather than tape (a first) on the same camera – Sony’s CineAlta F900 – Lucas had used. They were joined by Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People and Jiă Zhangke’s Unknown Pleasures, both of which began a run of digital features from their respective directors.

“Shooting on digital video was not a mainstream practice in China at the time,” says Jiă. “It was considered ‘amateur’ and mostly used for home videos. But I was not a mainstream filmmaker: my films were banned back then.”

Unknown Pleasures grew out of a 30-minute digital film called In Public (2001) that Jiă had made on commission for the Jeonju International Film Festival, filmed in the same locations in Datong. In Jiă’s own words, Unknown Pleasures is “about young people failing to keep up with China’s rapid economic transformation”.

Unknown Pleasures (2002)

At first, Jiă had the impression that digital was all about “off-the-cuff approaches and low definition… But even if I wasn’t yet aware of the medium’s potential aesthetic possibilities, I did think it might become a weapon in the struggle for more free creativity.

“I soon found out that digital has its own distinctive visual character, and realised that we shouldn’t try to cling to the celluloid aesthetic but instead explore digital’s particular possibilities and characteristics.” Working with his regular cinematographer, Yu Lik-wai, he also came upon many advantages to the new format: “It didn’t rely on elaborate lighting, it was easy to operate the camera with a small crew, the shoot became more flexible and it was easier to hide the camera. We used a small camera so that we could shoot in any public space without having to fork out rental charges [for locations].” 

Winterbottom was making some of the same discoveries over in the UK, and on the same small camera: the Sony PD-150, one of the early professional-grade devices that recorded to tapes, known as Mini DV. “It was those aspects of digital that I liked,” he tells me. “By using the small cameras, you could go discreetly into busy cafés or bars or out into the street without drawing attention to yourself; without looking professional. You could put your actors into a public space, and then shoot for half an hour – with no lights or mics – without stopping. It was about taking the fictional story and putting it into real, uncontrolled environments.”

The candid, reality-capturing abilities of Mini DV were put to dramatic use on Winterbottom’s subsequent docudrama In This World (2002), filmed guerrilla-style as it follows two Afghan refugees on the perilous overland route through Europe. “It would really have been impossible to make that on film,” Winterbottom says. But when I put it to him that these films make him a trailblazer of early digital cinema, he bats the suggestion away, saying digital was already “old hat”. He reminds me he’d been on the jury at Cannes back in 1998, when pixels made their first play for the Palme.

Revolutionary road

The cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle tells me a story about his film school teacher visiting him on the set of Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (1998), wearing “a cravat and cool jacket” and telling him: “‘You realise, Anthony, this is a revolution. This is going to be a revolution.’”

Festen (1998)

At film school in Copenhagen, the Oxford-born Dod Mantle had fallen in with Vinterberg and his pal Lars von Trier, who would become the brains behind the Dogme 95 manifesto – an anti-polish, back-to-basics filmmaking credo about as far from Lucas’s vision of an infinitely tinkerable digital cinema as one medium can hold. It was with the Dogme 95 films that digital cinematography got its big bang moment. Vinterberg’s Festen, in which a toxic family secret comes out during a birthday gathering, and von Trier’s The Idiots, about a commune of Danes getting their kicks by pretending to be disabled, caused a joint sensation at Cannes ’98; their handheld, digicam textures part and parcel of the films’ gnarly provocations.

“It could just as well have gone one way that I shot Lars’s or I shot Thomas’s, but I’m very glad I didn’t have to shoot Lars’s, because I would have had to get naked,” says Dod Mantle, referring to The Idiots’ notorious ‘disabled’ orgy scene.

Using a camcorder wasn’t mandated by the Dogme rules, but having tested other formats, Dod Mantle committed to shooting Festen on small Sony PC3 Handycams just two days before filming was due to start. “I wanted the camera to have that protagonist character, and that immediately requires ergonomics and spontaneous ability to move something without you conveying it to the crew.”

Love & Pop (1998)

How different film history might be if an earlier 1998 film had been widely seen in the West. Anno Hideaki was an animator who’d recently completed the film sequel to his post-apocalyptic anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 to 1996) when he made an unexpected foray into live action. Anticipating GoPro aesthetics by nearly a decade, Love & Pop is something like the I Am Cuba (1964) of early digital cinema, Anno putting his tiny camcorders up into every conceivable vantage point, including inside a fridge, strapped to a moving bicycle and train set, and shooting downwards from inside a girl’s skirt. In the unlikely guise of a teen drama about Tokyo schoolgirls dating older men for money, Anno seized on the flexibility offered by smaller cameras to reach for some of the elastic visual invention possible in animation.

Next to Love & Pop’s helter-skelter ambition, even the handheld dashing about of early Dogme looks sedentary. Yet, with the benefit of a Cannes launchpad, it was the two-pronged attack of Festen and The Idiots that would shape early digital cinema, not just in galvanising cash-strapped filmmakers around the world to grab a camcorder, but also in primordially associating the low-grade, Handycam approach with either corrosive drama or a puerile, prankster ethos. Sight and Sound’s review of The Idiots compared it with “downmarket, fly-on-the-wall television shows” Candid Camera and Beadle’s About, and it would be a short step from von Trier’s antisocial hijinks to the digital japes of Jackass (which launched on MTV in 2000) and the kind of home movies proliferating on early YouTube (launched in 2005). A similar confrontational energy found its way into the likes of Chuck & Buck (2000) and Spike Lee’s media satire Bamboozled (2000), both shot on the same ‘prosumer’-grade Sony camera – the VX1000 – von Trier had used.

“Festen was the big one that we studied really carefully. It was very encouraging because you could see how visceral [digital] could be,” explains Rebecca Miller, whose own domestic drama Personal Velocity – shot by Bamboozled cinematographer Ellen Kuras and funded through Gary Winick’s low-budget digital filmmaking outfit InDigEnt – won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2002, the first digital film to do so.

Dogme initially got its tendrils into US indie cinema via Harmony Korine, who poached Dod Mantle to work on his Dogme-certified Julien Donkey-Boy (1999). But very soon no festival line-up would be complete without a smattering of camcorder dramas, usually laced with edgy, adult themes. Mike Figgis’s Timecode (2000) set four digicams running for an ambitious split-screen narrative about infidelity in Hollywood (the love rat being von Trier favourite Stellan Skarsgård). Richard Linklater’s chamber piece Tape (2001) – another InDigEnt production – confined itself to a Michigan motel room for a truculent reunion between three friends. Steven Soderbergh’s improvisational Hollywood satire Full Frontal (2002) doubled down on the dogma by insisting that his cast drive themselves to the locations, do without catering and provide their own wardrobe.

These are not pretty movies, and reviews of the time didn’t mince their words. “Shot on DV, transferred to film, cost next to nothing, looked like shit: cold, fuzzy, and coarse. If that was the point, I missed it,” wrote Film Comment editor Gavin Smith of Chuck & Buck. Variety called the German reunion drama Birthday (2001) “the latest in a string of ill-conceived and poorly executed digital video improvisations being trumpeted as fully developed films”. The Guardian said of Full Frontal: “It is so grainy at times that you begin to think something has gone badly wrong.” Not unlike the creaky, static output of early sound cinema, the digital corpus of the trial-and-error years now lies largely untended and unloved – absent from streaming services and bereft of Blu-rays.

“All digital at that time had a tendency to be quite greasy,” admits Miller. “It didn’t have the luminosity of film. Any time you had a hard edge, let’s say a white window with a darker edge around it, you would have artefacting [distortion caused by data compression] on the edge of the light part. Interior shots with this extreme dissonance between light and dark would be very ugly. What we ended up doing [on Personal Velocity] was pumping a lot of smoke into the rooms, almost like a filter in the air.”

Open Hearts (2002)

“Shooting on film can be beautiful when it’s quite dark because the grain has a life,” says Susanne Bier, who made her infidelity drama Open Hearts (2002) under the terms of Dogme 95. “The grains you got on old-school digital weren’t beautiful. I liked working on digital but I didn’t like what it looked like when the lighting wasn’t good enough. When you shot out of a window, it blurred out the white in a way that wasn’t attractive.”

For Miranda July, the degraded aesthetic of digital video was part of its appeal. In 1995, the same year Sony’s first consumer digicam hit shelves, July launched her chainletter-style feminist video project Joanie 4 Jackie, and began making her own experimental short films. “Here was a camera designed for parents to film ballet recitals – very domestic, harmless, foolproof,” she says, “but you could misuse it to make something disruptive, upsetting or ambitious. There was a kind of appealing seedy underbelly to the video aesthetic: porn, sex tapes, ransom videos, surveillance.”

These were years in which rough edges could be inspirational. When I speak to Bengali director Subrata Sen down the phone from Kolkata, it turns out that even the Variety-derided Birthday had had a huge butterfly effect. It was seeing Stefan Jäger’s film alongside another early German-language digital film – Jessica Hausner’s Lovely Rita – at Karlovy Vary in 2001 that inspired his own move to DV. The result, 2003’s controversial relationship drama Nil nirjane, was a landmark: India’s first digital film.

There’s something about Marey

In an interlude in The Gleaners and I (2000), her docu-essay about the act of collecting and living off leftovers, the septuagenarian Agnès Varda finds herself at a vineyard that has remained in the family of 19th-century moving-image pioneer Étienne-Jules Marey. Still standing is the stone hide where Marey would train his chronophotographic rifle on passing birds and animals, shooting not bullets but rapid-fire exposures that would break down their movement into proto-filmic sequences.

The Gleaners and I (2000)

Varda shows us some of these strips in motion, the flickering magic of a zoetrope resurrecting Victorian-era ducks and horses before our eyes. And though she doesn’t make a big deal of it, the moment gently collapses 120 years of moving-image art and technology. For The Gleaners and I is all filmed on a Sony DVCAM: what we’re seeing is Marey’s 12 frames per second now rendered as pixels.

“My working with digital cameras always amuses people,” Varda told Chris Darke in Sight and Sound at the time. “There goes grandma with her DV.” But the inconvenient truth is that, with Gleaners, the ageing ‘godmother of the French New Wave’ beat all of indie’s young turks in making the world’s first digital masterpiece. And her fellow travellers in the nouvelle vague weren’t far behind in pushing the new form in unexpected directions: Godard using blown-out DV to create impasto splashes of saturated colour in Éloge de l’amour (2001); Rohmer using blue screen to set the French Revolution story of The Lady and the Duke (2001) against artificial, illustrated backdrops.

“What’s missing in all this talk of digital technologies is the understanding that they’re only tools to shoot and edit with, they’re not ends in themselves,” said Varda. “To see stuff that’s technically sophisticated but that says nothing doesn’t interest me. For me, the DV camera and Avid are tools I use to get closer to people more easily and to shoot on my own – and to collapse the time lapse between wanting to film something and actually being able to do it.”

In the same period, Portuguese director Pedro Costa had also been looking for a way for his films to get closer to people. His 1997 release Ossos began an ongoing series of intimate, minimalist works in which he embedded himself within the Cape Verdean immigrant community of Fontainhas in suburban Lisbon. But shooting Ossos on 35mm had made him frustrated with the circus of film production: the trailers, lighting equipment, time pressures and financial trade-offs that were necessary with even a small crew.

“One day I went to this small shop downtown, just a counter in the subway station selling cameras and tapes and batteries. And I asked him what camera he would advise. He told me you basically have two: the Sony, which is blue, and the Panasonic, which is green. I went for green.”

In Vanda’s Room (2000)

Armed with batteries, Mini DV tapes and a tripod, Costa returned to Fontainhas to begin shooting what would become In Vanda’s Room (2000), his three-hour portrait of Vanda Duarte, a heroin addict who’d acted in Ossos. “I used to take the bus every morning and began working or taking notes or just watching. It was a very documentarian way of working. I was completely alone. And I felt completely free. I had separated from the film world and actually I’ve never been back.”

Among the early digital films, In Vanda’s Room and its follow-up, Colossal Youth (2006), stand out as much for their radical stillness as for their painterly approach to lighting, Costa using a bathroom mirror he found in Vanda’s house to create iridescent pockets of colour within gloomy rooms. “My Panasonic had an orange sticker on it that said ‘Move me’, but I decided to go against the corporation and I did exactly the opposite: I did very long static shots. I was filming long conversations in small rooms, so I couldn’t do travelling shots, and it would have been very tiring to do handheld.

“I’m a little against this urgency, this speed. My project is to go somewhere else: to go a bit more intimate, to go deeper.”


David Lynch is another filmmaker who intuited digital’s capacity for going deeper. He was jury president at the digital-heavy Cannes in 2002, but that same spring had begun releasing his own short DV experiments on his website, – notably his surreal soap opera Rabbits.

Rabbits (2002)

“I got this Sony PD-150,” Lynch remembers. “You could do stop-motion, timelapse, anything you wanted. I just loved that camera. I loved the ease of working with it; how fast things could go.

“I made lots of little tiny movies, and one thing led to another and I shot the feature film Inland Empire [2006]. It was terrible quality compared to celluloid, but it saved time; it was kind of an interesting look. You could create a world with this camera and I just got fascinated by it.”

Inland Empire arrived as a hallucinatory, three-hour B-side to Mulholland Dr. (2001); another dark vision of Hollywood as a Möbius strip in which dreams are crushed in perpetuity. But Mulholland Dr. was shot on velvety 35mm; it was a nightmare delivered via an embrace. In the cold digital light of Inland Empire, it’s as if even that comforting topsoil of dream-factory glamour has been scoured away. Lynch’s smudgy, pixellated shots are often disconcertingly close; the actors’ teeth look yellow.

The small camera enabled Lynch to work as his own cinematographer, something that transformed his dynamic with the performers. “You could have a 40-minute take instead of a nine-minute take,” he tells me. “I could talk to the actors while we were shooting. I could run the camera myself. I could hand-hold this thing, get in close, move it around where I wanted to move it. Feel the shot. I could go in, I could go out; I could go over here, I could go over there. I could say, ‘Go again, start again’ and they could get deeper and deeper. Before they got tired or we’d have to reload and lose the feel, you could get the thing. It was so beautiful.”

David Lynch filming Inland Empire (2006)

Although few have explored digital’s hazy, expressive textures in ways that are unique to the technology since, Lynch remains evangelical. “The thing about digital is it’s absolutely anything you can think you can do,” he says. “There are billions of things we haven’t discovered yet. So you gotta get ideas, you gotta get in there and find out what it can do. You gotta work with it. It’s gotta talk to you. You’ve gotta become friends with it. And you’ve got to have time to experiment. The sky’s the limit. It is a vast world that’s there to be discovered.”

By the time Inland Empire was finished, however, the PD-150 was an antique. Second-generation digital movie cameras such as the Panavision Genesis and the Thomson Viper, while still primitive by today’s standards, were huge leaps forward in the race to close the gap between celluloid and high-definition. Compatible with all of Panavision’s standard lenses, the Genesis became an instant favourite of mainstream cinematographers moving into digital, debuting on 2006 releases such as Scary Movie 4, Superman Returns and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto.

Miami Vice (2006)

The rival, slightly earlier-to-market Thomson Viper would be the camera David Fincher chose for Zodiac (2007) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008), but which had first been put through its paces by Michael Mann and his cinematographer Dion Beebe on Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006).

“I used to have nightmares in the first two weeks of shooting Collateral that none of what we were shooting was actually going to become a film,” says Mann. “It just existed in my memory as some form of perverse conceptual art and it would never be in theatres.”

Mann had broken ground by shooting the primetime TV series Robbery Homicide Division (2002-03) in high definition and, before that, sections of Ali. “There was a singular quality that attracted me to digital, and that was belief. You believed what you were seeing and you were there more intensely. There’s a truth-telling style to it.”

His eureka moment came shooting Will Smith as Muhammad Ali witnessing riots break out across the city after the assassination of Martin Luther King: “From the rooftop he can see two blocks away, there’s a storefront on fire, police sirens coming.” Mann grabbed a video camera and put up a small light with a reflecting sheet – “like a bedsheet” – and “there was a special quality to it that was magical… by subtracting the theatrical lighting you felt that you were suddenly parachuted into a real event happening in real time.

Michael Mann shooting Miami Vice (2006)

“It’s with Collateral that digital came into its fullest expression for me, because the movie was happening all in one night in Los Angeles. And I wanted to see LA at night the way you could see it with the naked eye. During the winter, there’s a marine layer that comes in around 10, 11 at night. The yellow sodium vapour street lamps reflect off the bottom of those clouds and it becomes a soft illumination. You couldn’t possibly capture that with film and that became its own aesthetic.

“And it’s an aesthetic derived from the technology. It’s not taking the technology and trying to imitate an older form. If I have a negative judgement [of other filmmakers], it’s of people trying to make video look like film. The whole virtue of it is to arrive at a new form.”

In Miami Vice it’s the lightning-prone skies and humming roadsides of urban Florida that Mann captures with new, conductive immediacy. “You’re alive in the night world,” he says. “There’s a romance to things nocturnal that moves me in very strong ways. I wanted to convey the sense that we’re above the city or on the water or driving into the city.”

The end of an era

All of these explorations of digital’s potential would go unnoticed by the Academy. Beebe would get his Oscar recognition for his celluloid work with Rob Marshall – nominated for Chicago (2002); winning for Memoirs of a Geisha (2005) – not his high-def expressionism with Mann, and no digitally shot film was nominated for either best picture or best cinematography until 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire and Benjamin Button were each up for both. This landmark acknowledgement came just four years before digital cinematography would overtake 35mm as the industry standard.

From 2009 onwards, digital films screening via digital projectors began to become the norm too. The lamps went out in traditional 35mm projectors around the world. Purists such as Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Tacita Dean would sound the battle cry for the imperilled medium of film, but further strides forward in camera resolution meant that what had once been a chasm between the look (and intangible feel) of the rival formats became a hairline crack – something for aficionados to argue over, while audiences moved on or opened up Netflix (which began its streaming service in 2007). The sense of grief, of treasured things slipping away, that has engulfed film culture in the wake of these epochal shifts remains so raw that to celebrate the ugly-duckling experimentalism of what one Letterboxd list calls ‘The Bad Digital Era’ can feel indecent. Is it still too soon?

On that watershed Oscar night in 2009, there was an unintended Tinseltown perfection in the fact that it would be Princess Amidala herself, Natalie Portman, presenting the cinematography statuette to Anthony Dod Mantle for his work on Slumdog. It was like the worlds of Dogme and Star Wars, which had led the digital charge at an indie and blockbuster level, being symbolically drawn together.

On stage with Portman was Ben Stiller, who quipped that Danny Boyle’s winner was filmed entirely on a cellphone. It’s not a joke that works these days: all of that was right around the corner.

Directors on digital

David Lynch:

“It’s like a pencil and a piece of paper. Everybody has access to that. Not a lot is being done with it maybe, but everyone has access to a digital camera and sound and can record and work with things. It makes the world of motion pictures available to pretty much everybody – it’s just incredible. We’ll see what happens, what people do with it. The digital world is getting just incredibly great now. There’s something about celluloid that digital cannot do, so I’m waiting for somebody to invent something – a digital emulsion almost – to bring out what celluloid can do, inside the camera, somehow. If digital can somehow get this beauty celluloid has, it’d be great.”

Miranda July:

Miranda July filming Kajillionaire (2020)

“I didn’t know or care about the industry – it seemed old school. I thought moviemaking would only really become an artform if anyone could access it, the way anyone can paint or sing or write. Mediums don’t suffer from being available, they evolve. If movies always need a company behind them, they will never really be an art. I spent ten years trying to spread that idea to women through Our phones and TikTok, Instagram and [video messaging app] Marco Polo, are good for filmmaking as an artform. I hate that the algorithms are designed to override self-care but that’s going to end soon and meanwhile I like to see this kind of avant-garde, spontaneous filmmaking replacing old-timey conventions that are totally arbitrary at this point. It has to be that a movie can be any length… in any style that works (as opposed to conventional coverage), and can star anyone or no one. Video has helped all different kinds of people conceive of themselves as filmmakers (even if they don’t use that word) but the industry will always be very behind – with so much money at stake, decisions have to be fear-based and the familiar always feels safer. It will take about 20 more years for everything to become totally different – we have to get out from under these tech monopolies and you have to have grown up with them to destroy them.”

Michael Mann: 

“My friend Chris Nolan is a huge advocate of preserving 35mm, preserving photochemical. And I totally endorse his position. That’s the way he sees. I would have all cinemas be able to do everything, to be able to do digital and photochemical. There’s no ideological difference to it. We respect how each other works. Directors are very egalitarian about this kinda stuff.”

Pedro Costa:

“The twist is that digital filmmaking is going back. Cameras are much bigger now. The main Alexa is bigger than the 35mm camera I used to work with. There’s a lot of new tasks and new technicians around the shooting to treat the digital image, to grade, to colour correct, etc. And so it’s what it was. I remember at that time, all of us thought, here comes a sort of democracy, here comes small, cheap equipment and young guys can buy it and can do cheaper films alone with friends, et cetera. It’s completely dead, it doesn’t exist any more. Digital shooting today, you need maybe more people than you used to need in 35. It’s ridiculous. It’s how the capitalistic system grabs you again by the back.”

Jia Zhangke:

Jia Zhangke
© Xstream Pictures

“On the one hand you can say that digital is achieving maturity; on the other that it’s doing so by returning to the qualities of shooting on film. Maybe the only place you can find ‘pure’ digital imagery these days is in experimental art. The digital mainstream is bent on producing images for mass consumption. That’s a problem for us all: how conservative you are, how conservative digital makes your images, how aggressive you are, how radical digital makes your images. The ultimate question is not the difference between digital and celluloid, it’s still the difference between one human being and the next.” Translated by Casper Liang, with assistance from Tony Rayns

A short history of the digital revolution

1987: First digital feature film shot using Sony’s analogue high-definition system HDVS: Julia and Julia

1995: Sony and Panasonic launch the first consumer DV cameras

1998: First features shot on DV to screen at Cannes: Festen and The Idiots

1998: First digitally shot, digitally distributed film: The Last Broadcast

1999: The Blair Witch Project, a low-budget independent film incorporating DV footage, makes nearly $250 million at the box office

1999: First big-budget Hollywood film to incorporate some digital cinematography: The Phantom Menace

2000: First digital Palme d’Or winner: Dancer in the Dark

2001: First Inuktitut-language film is shot digitally: Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner

2002: First digitally shot blockbuster to be released: Attack of the Clones

2002: First film shot uncompressed to hard disk rather than tape: Russian Ark

2003: First Indian digital film: Nil nirjane

2006: First film shot with Panavision Genesis: Superman Returns; first film shot with Panavision Genesis to be released: Scary Movie 4

2008: First film shot with Red One camera: Che: Part One

2009: First mainly digital best picture/best cinematography winner: Slumdog Millionaire

2010: First completely digital best cinematography winner: Avatar

2013: Digital overtakes celluloid as industry standard

2013: First major Hollywood film to be released exclusively for digital projectors: The Wolf of Wall Street

Further reading

10 great early digital films

From Festen to Miami Vice. Twenty years after the first digitally shot blockbuster, George Lucas’s Attack of the Clones, we select some of the best films from the dawn of the digital era.

By Sam Wigley

10 great early digital films

The new issue of Sight and Sound

Hamaguchi Ryūsuke: insights on and from the Japanese auteur Plus: Mica Levi on their innovative score for The Zone of Interest – Víctor Erice interviewed about his masterful return to feature filmmaking, Close Your Eyes – a festival report from a politically charged Berlinale

Get your copy

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