I know that digital is used more than celluloid now. Still, I would like to know why celluloid film is still favored by some film makers. Only a few years ago celluloid was the standard.

What was/is the technical advantage of celluloid film over digital that kept this technique to be the standard for so long?

  • Just FYI, celluloid is not what films are made of today. Celluloid or nitrocelulose is HIGHLY flammable, to the point of being explosive. Since the 50's celluloid was phased out, replaced by acetate base, AKA safety film, which isn't flammable, but is subject to a chemical degradation known as Vinegar Syndrome. Modern motion picture film (post 1990) is made with polyester, and is very chemically stable.
    – stib
    Commented Dec 2, 2014 at 0:38

5 Answers 5

  • Film may have better long-term archival stability.

  • For theatrical exhibition, 35mm film still has a more uniform distribution and exhibition system outside the US and Europe.

  • People like Chris Nolan prefer to use film because there aren't any widely-available digital processess that can do an IMAX-style presentation, with a huge negative area and screen. Digital solutions for these exist, but the exhibition systems for these are ad hoc; IMAX on the other hand is a really well-established brand and IMAX screens are everywhere and are a reliable, known quantity.

  • Digital cinema cameras still have some funny motion artifacts (ahem, Alexa and Panavision) and funny black levels (ahem, RED) that some filmmakers don't like.

  • Film still has a different look.

  • Once you're at the highest levels of production, and making studio features, the price difference is really a wash, particularly if you're shooting 3-perf 35mm and doing a DI.

  • 1
    IMAX use digital projectors now I believe. But +1 for the archival point. Long term storage of digital moving images is a thorny question for archives around the world: how do you come up with a file format that will be readable in 100 years' time, even without a zombie invasion in the interim? Film, you can take out of the can and look at with the naked eye, even if the zombies have smashed all the projectors.
    – stib
    Commented Nov 30, 2014 at 23:59
  • The biggest ding against digital IMAX is that it's only half the resolution of film IMAX, and probably even worse. This isn't much of a point, though, considering most features you'll see in IMAX are just blowups.
    – iluvcapra
    Commented Dec 1, 2014 at 18:44
  • 2017 note- 35mm probably is no longer desirable for exhibition outside the US and Europe. China is now the largest non-US film exhibition market (this is something that's happened literally in the last 18 months) and it's all DCP all the way.
    – iluvcapra
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 19:11

The quality of the image is a big part of why film has been preferred for so long. This Wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_versus_film_photography) really outlines well the technical advantages.

However, you asked about favoritism between the two formats. I think another consideration is cost, familiarity, and accessibility. When I got my bachelor's in film/video in the late 1990s, I focused on learning how to shoot video, rather than 16mm, because I knew eventually, digital video would supplant film. I thought something like this was going to happen: that digital imaging would make filmmaking far more accessible to everyone. Since I was also a computer nerd and more of an early adopter than I then realized, I overestimated how quickly this transition would take place, both at my school (where only a favored few were given access to computers with the horsepower to render Adobe Premiere, or allowed to use our singular Avid editor) and in the world at large. Meanwhile, my classmates who were shooting traditional film were already able to produce a much, much better looking product, and over time some of them stuck with film, because that's simply how they were trained and most comfortable.

By the same token, the time I've spent producing corporate video, taught me about the inertia that can crop up, when standardization of equipment plays a role. For instance, my former workplace only switched from SD to HD cameras about two years ago, and absolutely, we had the budget to make that change a lot earlier. Upgrading was a difficult decision that had to be planned out over years. Consider that it's one thing to pick a tool that allows you to edit either digitized film or digital video (FCP, Premiere, Avid), and invest in it; it's another thing to decide you're going to switch from traditional film cameras to digital film cameras. What will it cost you in terms of a learning curve for your production personnel? What other equipment might you have to replace? How will it change your workflow?

Now, I learned a ton from a former colleague that recently retired, in his mid-60s; he was a consumate cameraman who had been working in film and TV longer than I've been alive. He could and did handle change, and move from film to SD, to HD, but still, there were areas relating to digital video he just didn't care to delve into if he didn't have to. That doesn't make him an old fogey, but someone who carefully considered the payoff of investing his time in learning new things. Because he had so many years of experience, the vice-president of our organization considered him to be the most important decision-maker about the direction of our equipment; he was very conservative. Now transfer that to thousands of other workplaces where there's not a lot of discretionary cash to gamble on the next big thing.

And, as late as 7 years ago, copies of "Film School Confidential" were available, a book that outlined the atmosphere and equipment at the major film schools offering MFAs. Many schools were described as having a limited amount of film equipment that students would compete over; at some top schools, only a handful of students would create "calling card" films in the second or third years, with others relegated to crewing. I can't be sure, but I believe these schools had similar attitudes to the new technology, as my alma mater did: rather than burning the budget yearly or every other year on the newest digital cameras which would become obsolete rapidly, or didn't quite have the dynamic range users were wanting, many of these schools continued to stick with traditional film equipment - cameras, Moviolas, etc - for the vast majority of their students. Just as my former employers hung on with standard definition cameras as long as they could.

And inertia also plays a role when you consider the people who are training young filmmakers in more formal, traditional programs. I actually went to a less traditional program that emphasized documentary and experimental filmmaking, but some of my former professors apparently still prefer film, or only moved over to digital a few years ago, and that's not a surprise to me. Some folks decide they want to stick with what they know, and use that tool or format to refine their art. One of my old professors was at one time known for her "cutting edge" video art, but by the time I met her, I felt she was not at all open to new technology; the last I heard she was working on a documentary shot in the far more expensive, traditional film format, and she still has an AOL email address, for cripes' sake.


The digital chain has so many advantages unrelated to quality that as soon as it reached a 'good enough' level for capture the playing field tilted for good in its favor. And of course it didn't stop improving at 'good enough'.

As a taking medium, celluloid film still has the sort of hard-to-define characteristics that make some pine for vinyl music. But when everything else in the chain is digital, it becomes harder and harder to justify it, if only on pure economics.

Of course this is an opinion, not a definitive answer. (-:


Quite simply, the quality of digital only recently overtook film. Film is capable of capturing both high resolution (due to it's large size) and high dynamic range (due to it's chemistry). It allowed for very high quality images captured very quickly which was ideal for the film industry.

Early in the development of high end digital cameras, the primary reasons to shoot digital were cost and efficiency. Filming on cellulose is expensive and logistically complex. You need large quantities of film which must be developed before you can see if your shots came out the way you wanted. This required either beam splitting to be able to use a lower quality video camera in conjunction with the film camera (which reduced light sensitivity), shooting with something that wasn't an exact duplicate of the shot footage or simply shooting from the hip and hoping you didn't have to reshoot.

Digital didn't have either of these limitations. It could be monitored in real time and while there were large data storage requirements for it, it was far, far cheaper than the cost of film. In many cases, the cameras themselves could also be produced more cheaply as they involved fewer complex moving parts. It also required less man power to operate as you didn't need as many people to load and process film.

Eventually, as digital continued to develop, the technical disadvantages diminished while the cost savings stayed the same or even increased. This increasingly made digital a strong draw for projects. Now, in current day, digital sensors pretty much meet or exceed film's quality, range and sensitivity. Digital is now arguably a technically superior choice in many situations now, however artistic reasons still end up factoring in, such as the desire for film grain or a particular film tint. These can be applied as digital simulations, but some directors and cinematographers still prefer the natural grain and tint of film (and are willing to pay the premium to work with it.)

As others have mentioned, the archival quality of film is also worth considering, though that can be used regardless of original shooting method as it is still quite common for cellulose prints to be made for films that are shot digitally so that they can be distributed to theaters that lack digital projection. The same technique can be used for high quality archival film copies.


Didn't get the chance to read all of the above, but the answer for shooting film instead of digital is very simple. The risks for archiving source material digitally overtime seem to increase by day, as it-companies products' and services come and go whenever they please. Even law can't keep up.

Computers are being written off in 3 to 5 years, while a good securely archived film sustains over decades. Are you shooting something professionally, well researched and is your companies paperwork legally checked and balanced: then shoot film and keep it to the ones that can actually care for reasonable costs. (I sound so old fashioned..you should have a look at my work today!)

  • Gerry, this might be the start to a good answer, but it is not yet there. A good answer should be written with an authoritative voice, not a tentative or self-questioning one. If you are confident of one dimension of the answer, then give that answer, definitively. Commented May 18, 2017 at 14:01
  • This is a semi-decent argument for film based archives, but you don't have to shoot on film to archive on film. Even modern film based movies scan the negatives, edit non-linearly and then print to film. The archival advantage is also diminishing. The quality of archival formats is increasing and it's much easier to maintain digital archives in the super long term as film necessarily involves generational loss where as digital data can be translated and duplicated losslessly. It is currently more expensive and difficult, but also arguably much more secure and future proof.
    – AJ Henderson
    Commented May 31, 2017 at 16:08

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