Resolution Isn’t Everything: S16/35MM R.I.P. 1891 – 2012


Arri 416 Super 16 Camera


I think its interesting and funny at the same time that companies are now jumping on the 4K bandwagon in regards to cameras, editing and monitoring.  We had 4K and 2K for a long time with 16mm and 35mm film.  For over 100 years in fact.  Its not new, and we have for the most part always been able to screen in 4K via a 35mm film projector.  This is how we used to watch movies.  So what changed?  Why did standard definition and high definition become acceptable?  What essentially killed film?  I have several theories.  The main theory is not cost related, but cost is defiantly a factor for many. Resolution isn’t everything, convenience is.  To me it was the VHS tape and DVD that started the death spiral of film.  Then home theater, which over the past few decades has become so cheap that almost everyone I know who owns a TV has.  Home theater systems used to be uncommon in the mid to late 90’s.  You had to spend thousands of dollars just to get a decent sound system with Pro Logic 5.1.  Televisions moving from 4:3 to 16×9 aspect ratios to match the movie screen where also unheard of.  This wasn’t common place till the past four years.  Televisions going high-def, delivering a better picture where huge boosts to the death of film.  Another factor is laziness.  Not wanting to go out to the theater when you could just sit on your couch with the creature comforts of home.  The theater experience had also changed. The quality of watching a movie in the theater had always been for the most part a mind blowing experience (with the right movie).  Theaters got sloppy and expensive (due to cutting costs, hiring younger staffs, getting in as much screenings as possible a day, etc).  Distribution companies charged more, making concession prices rise beyond what most people cared to pay.  That two dollar popcorn became six just so the smaller theaters could pay to rent the film. Concessions became the only way a movie theater could make money.  Watching movies at home outside of the occasional movie on TV was rare.  Television manufacturers, the movie studios, camera manufactures, etc all changed this.

A huge factor in the death of film was caused buy the studios, distributors and cable companies. Movies go to DVD, Blu-Ray, streaming services, on demand, etc now faster than ever in history.  The other day I saw on-Demand had seven movies that were actually in the theater available for rent.  For less that the price of a theater ticket.  That is just insane.  Now its good for the film maker but totally devalues why we used to go to the movies.  The movies now come to us.  Why would you spend $20 to go to a movie if you know its going to be on your TV at home in four weeks?  If its a good movie I will always go see it, but I am not everyone.  Many will not.  They say, ill see it when its on-demand.  Services like Netflix, Amazon, Hulu have gotten better and better to the point where it almost doesn’t make sense to use physical media anymore. This is another reason why a film print has no more place in the market. It is the reason why DVD’s will be dead in four years or less.  Blu-Ray movies cost $30 when they first came out a few years ago.  Now they are $9.99 or less.  The same happened with DVDs except you can buy those for as low as two dollars in some stores.  Movies are not even recorded to VHS tape anymore, and haven’t been since 2009.

The streaming quality threshold is beyond the DVDs of half a decade ago.  The selections are beyond what any local Blockbuster (if you can find one) or Redbox can offer.  The business has changed.  We need it right now and we want it to look good.  Instant gratification.  You can’t do that with film right?  People are not going to put a 35mm projector in their house even though the quality is better. We have all made some sacrifices in order to get it quick and for it to look better than what we grew up with.  So why did film die?  We all know it was higher quality, with better resolution and color characteristics.  We all know its latitude was much better than 80% of the cameras on the market.  We know we can buy a film camera for one tenth of its value.  We know we can project that film at 4K + resolution and it will look amazing (if shot right of course).  So why did we give up?  Is it because film costs too much?  I don’t think so.  People are willing to spend 50K on a new digital 4K or HD camera knowing very well it will be outdated in less than four years.  People are willing to buy edit suites, monitoring, storage, etc for a lot of money to make it happen.  So its clear we are willing to spend a bunch of money to acquire in the highest resolution or quality we can.  But why are we not spending that type of money to view it?  Who of the thousands of Red owners actually owns a 4K monitor or projector?  Not many.  What is that?  Well most of us that have shot 4K know that the main deliverable is 1080p and not 4K.  4K monitors are expensive.  Just like flat screens were expensive when they first came out. Once the price levels the masses adopt. This is what happened with dvd, Blu-Ray, 42″ + size TVs, etc.  So 4K viewing at home is coming.  Not this year, probably not next, but its in the pipeline for most of us.  I think its interesting because as I mentioned at the beginning of my post, we already had 4K for a hundred years, and its taking a little longer than that to have it in our homes.  This will of course probably be the death for the remaining smaller theaters in the country.  Why do I say that?  Well, if you bring 4K TV’s into the home, you are also opening up the market to larger sizes.  TV’s are getting bigger everyday while the prices are getting smaller.  32″, 37″ and 42″ Televisions used to be the norm from 2005-2009. These were considered big and dropped jaws when someone came into your home to see you had a flat screen mounted above your mantel.  Since 2009-current the average television size seems to be between 42-65″ which is significant.  These size increases seem to coincide with the popularity of Blu-Ray, HD channels on cable and HD steaming.  You want to watch the higher quality image on a larger screen.  A theater in your home. Larger than life.  When 4K becomes available by companies like Best Buy, etc and are in homes (probably in late 2014) you will see a shift to fill entire walls or portions with screen size.  4K projection if made quiet, efficient, and bright will dominate the home theater market.  I think that if film wasn’t so bad for the environment, was easier to handle (acquisition, transfer, post and viewing)  it would have lasted longer.

So its really not about the cost. Its about convenience and being lazy.  Making a film on film is a much more rewarding process.  It is undoubtedly better in quality and makes you choose your shots wisely.  You do not take 100 takes to get it right (minus Kubrick).  You get excited to see your dailies when they come back from the lab.  You get to see them in ultra high resolution projected on a screen.  It just seems this has all changed.  The love doesn’t seem to be the same when shooting and screening dallies on digital.  I think film makers have to put their passion on the screen and make some art rather than make someone just because you can or its easy to do (because of the conveniences of HD/2K/4K video)

Kodak filed for bankruptcy and Fuji Film has cut back production and choices of stock.  The studios used to claim that movies be shot on film because film was viewed as an archive-able format.  The idea was that video formats would change over the years, but if you acquired on film and vaulted negatives, ideally you would be able to make deliverable’s from said negative even 50 years down the line.  For the most part that is true.  The exception is if there isn’t any way to scan that film negative down the line.  Companies are not making new film equipment, they are focusing on digital.  Hopefully the studios have all vaulted a ArriScan or Spirit Data Cine to fulfill future needs. Otherwise it would be like hanging onto home movies on VHS and expecting to find a way to view them without a player (how many of us have a VHS player anymore?)  Very few.  Camera manufactures have ceased production on all motion picture cameras.  Panavision, Arri and Aaton are all working and focusing on Digital Cinema Cameras.  Eclair’s, Aaton’s, Arri’s, CP’s, Moviecam, etc can be found on Ebay for next to nothing.  A tenth of their original value (if that).

I think while we still can, we should all rent or borrow a S16 or 35mm camera one day and shoot something from the heart on film.  I think you will find it will be your most rewarding art to date.  I will miss you 5219/7219 & 7213.  Not because of your resolution but because you were beautiful.

Mike Sutton

Follow me on Twitter: @MNS1974

Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Paul

    I’m sorry Mike but this article is way off in a number of aspects.

    First of all, it’s been generally accepted that 35mm film has, in pristine condition, about 4K worth of resolvable resolution, roughly translated to a digital format of the same resolution. However, all these years people have been viewing such films in the theater, projected after they have undergone significant layers of generational loss. Then projectors themselves added in further reductions. The statement that for 100 years we have been able to “screen in 4K” is simply untue and by a large margin.
    For mechanical projection, SMPTE allows flutter and weave up to 0.2%, which often reduces projected resolution down to 1K. Well maintained mechanical projectors however can operate at 0.05%, which can almost reach 2K resolution. (see “An Introduction to Aliasing and Sharpening in Digital Motion Picture Systems”, SMPTE, 2003, and – a white paper that posits that most theatrical film presentations actually topped out around DVD resolution in perceived detail).
    Now, on the surface it seems true that people can often get sharper, more pristine viewing quality at home on HD sets and projectors than anything they could have seen in a film based theater. This seems to make sense, and is also true of 2K projectors in large theaters, as at smaller screen sizes with multiple pictire heights of distance, there is also more perceived resolution. The bigger the screen, the more resolution you need, as we all know, and in the home, even with large screen sizes of 100+” off of HD projectors, you’re going to see (depending on how close you sit) in most cases more picture detail than with a 2K projection seen at very close distances in a large theater. If you’re right up on the front rows, 4K may help increase the resolution and make the pixels less noticable. If anything, home theaters can look sharper than most celluloid based projection.
    However, all of that said, there’s a practical limit to resolution. Bringing 4K TVs into the home is utterly pointless, from a perceived detail to the human eye perspective. Due to limitations in the way the human eye perceives image detail, with a 4K screen one would have sit approximately 4 feet away (or closer) from a 60″ 4K TV to notice any resolution difference. For a 100″ projected screen, it’s closer than 5 feet, and to see -any- noticable improvement at all, it’s a more reasonable but still rather close 12 feet. (see This begs the question however – how many people have 100″ screens in their homes? (I do, and I sit a pretty close 11 feet away!) For that matter, how many people have 60″ screens? A far more common size is 45-50″. At a typical seating distance of 10 feet for a living room containing a screen of that size, you don’t even need 1080P resolution; 720P looks the same to most people! So why on Earth will we need 4K, and how will that make a difference, especially to the average person? It won’t. It won’t make a difference to anyone without better than 20/20 vision. It’s a limitation of the human body, not of electronics. To think anything else is to be living a dream – which MAY become reality when we have wall-sized screens that are viewing content a few feet away, much like artwork or wallpaper. Until then, and that’s perhaps 20 years or more out? No one needs it, and even then I highly doubt anyone would take up their whole wall for a TV or movie presentation – they may only see a portion so the furnture doesn’t block the view. And when that happens, we’re right back at human eye limitations.
    So I’m not sure what your point is about film or the need for delivering in 4k. Projected film in the vast majority of cased never even came close to 2K resolution, never mind 4K. Just like cameras and lenses, optics, mechnical issues, and generational loss were the demons there. This rush for 4K in the home is chasing after nothing but easy cash and credit card “prestiege”. And while 4K can have value in the theater for those in the first 3rd of the theater, for most of the room no one could ever see the difference or notice. 4K’s value really is in reframing, VFX, and archival purposes when and if that digital wallpaper becomes cheap. And then, no one will care about what you have made anyway, unless you’re the next Scorcese. And for those peope, their production companies will rent a higher resolution camera. In short – for distribution – 4K is and likely will forever be exciting to those selling gear and those who fawn over it- and that’s all. After all, the need for even 1080P is a stretch in many home settings.Going back to film for resolution alone is a losing proposition, even if theaters were projecting one-off copies for one night only. There are certainly advantages to film in dynamic range, analog color reproduction, and so on. But resolution is/was certainly not one of the practical benefits.
    Regarding where people get their content: this may surprise you but people are still going out to theaters. Yes, it’s not as popular as it once was, but humans have the innate need to go to a destination in a social setting and share experiences. The live theatre isn’t going away, and neither is the movie theater. If a film like the Avengers (filmed in 2k, no less) can make over $100M in its first weekend, I wouldn’t say the film industry is hurting. Mutliple distribution avenues are making films more accessible to more people, and that is great. But the home theater didn’t kill the social theater. I have a 103″ HD theater in my home and I still go now and then. I like to be around people.Celluoid died because it was expensive for a product that had diminishing returns – simple. Digital affords distrubution that is unencumbered by the pitfalls of an analog medium. There is no generational loss, there is no mechnical issue that degrades image in most cases, and there is no consumable that’s like the cost of film. Digital has afforded filmmakers (a funny statement that we even say “film” at all) the ability to be more creative, and do faster. Fim studios can push out more product and see what sticks. Is this necessarily a good thing? That’s to be decided; if the quality of the work overall suffers as it seems to have, then perhaps the studios need to rehtink how they are allocating those increased savings in time and money. But it’s not the medium to blame, that’s for sure. When it succeeds and when it fails, it’s people to blame.
    Someone once told me that the Dutch film “The Celebration” was a stunning work, and it had no fancy camera moves or film or even high definition. It was filmed on a SD camcorder. It won awards, and high praise. It’s not what the camera can do that makes a great “film”, it’s what the person makes with it that counts. People generally accept a certain quality standard (which in the past was, essentially 1-1.5k in a big theater), and after that they look at content. And frequently, if the content is significantly outstranding – story, lighting, action, direction and so on, they will care even less about the camera or resolution. Production value isn’t the equal of camera resolution or dynamic range. People are missing the point here. Cameras and resolution are only tools. Owning a better camera doesn’t make me a better story teller, it just makes it a little easier to focus on what matters. My C300 doesn’t win me praise – what I make with it does (or doesn’t). (And despite the 4K dreamers, it will look just great on that faux-IMAX screen down the street).
    In closing, saying that shooting digitally necessarily makes people lazy is a crock. Lazy people make themselves lazy. Digital can help enable a lazy storyteller a bit, but so can anything else if people are given an easy way out without direction and consequence.  Making a better chip is easy, making people better is hard.
    Bottom line – film projection didn’t bring us anything magical except for time and expense. There was no lost “100 years of 4K”. What we are perhaps losing is the ability to sit around a campfire and tell a compelling story. Until that issue is addressed, the technology doesn’t mean shit.

  • Mike Sutton @MNS1974

     35MM film does have more than 4K of resolution. Infact it tops out about 6K.  This is a fact and ask anyone in the ASC.  The problem is film scanners were limited to 2/4K so transfers to video were never getting past that 4K threshold. The reality is that humans cannot visually resolve anything greater than 300 ppi to begin with.  Film resolution of 35mm motion picture is 4064 ppi.  So my point stands that resolution isn’t everything.  Especially when you cannot even see it.

  • Paul

    As I said its how it’s distributed that counts. And it never showed anywhere near that resolution in theaters. I love ya but clearly you didn’t read what I wrote.

    As for resolution not mattering, I agree but that’s also not really what you wrote either.

  • Anonymous

    I mostly agree with what you said. Through personal experiences, a 2k projector feels like it has a higher resolution than almost all film projected screenings I’ve watched. In fact, film projection has become so bad over here now that even DVDs feel better. But I do feel that cinemas will become extinct unless they start treating their customers properly and start raising the standards. I don’t go to cinemas anymore.

    With regards to film: It is expensive. You can shoot multiple projects with thousands of hours of footage on a RED (or C300, or, or, or…), and your total cost will still not touch the cost of just film on a single large Hollywood production.

  • Neil

    I doubt we’ll see 4k monitors anytime soon in the home theater aside from projectors.  At this point it’s really just an economic problem, more than anything else.  Best Buy probably won’t last till 2014; they’re running out of stuff to sell, and the general consumer really doesn’t see much of difference between a lower grade HDTV and a more expensive one, aside from the size.

    Everything has been integrated into an “ipad” for the most part, and I’ve noticed a huge change in viewing patterns over the past few years.  Previously you had to watch a movie/TV program ON a TV, or computer monitor, or laptop.  Now you can watch a movie on your Iphone/Android phone, or on an ipad, or android, or Windows 8 device.

    This means that all of the other crap Best Buy used to sell is pretty much redundant for the most part.  Yeah, you can go out and buy a $300 camcorder and get a slightly better picture than your iphone, but you can’t take that camcorder with you everywhere.  Same goes for MP3 players, and any other gadget.  They all become superfluous if the consumer owns an “iphone” like device.

    Furthermore, there is huge shift away from physical media.  Nobody wants dvds anymore except to rent them at REDBOX.  Nobody’s buying Blu-Rays except for “old movies,” and those people that do buy Blu-Rays are doing to show off their system, the few people that still care about picture and sound quality.

    But for the most part, people don’t care anymore about screen size, they care about convenience.

    The real culprit is Hollywood itself.  We’re halfway through the year and I’ve only seen a handful of movies actually worth seeing at the theater, probably less than one a month.  The rest are totally garbage.  TOTAL TRASH.  It used to be Hollywood could make a crappy movie, dump it on home video and turn a small profit.  But with the erosion of home video and the explosion of what amounts to be too many choices of entertainment, means that these crappy movies are now going unseen by most.

    But film is dead because there are no longer any filmmakers.  Sure, you’ve got your Scotts, your Nolans, and your Coen Bros., but the true filmmakers are a dying breed.  Christopher Nolan just said yesterday that he’ll never use digital, he’ll always use film.  That’s fine… until film isn’t available anymore.  But “film” goes beyond just filming things. 

    Previously, if you wanted to film some grand vista shot, it had to (mostly) exist in the real world.  Today actors show up on set and even the %%*#&@* FLOOR is a damn greenscreen!  Nothing on the entire set is real.  Film has become a choreography of composition of 3D images and special effects.

    It’s weird, I remember watching “Terminator 2″ and “Jurassic Park” and were amazed at how well the computer graphic creations fit in with the real world.  Now everything isn’t real in some entire pictures.  So in part, film is dead simply because it has been erased from the production process.  Sure, you can capture two actors walking down a greenscreen “hallway” in 6k with film, but what’s the point?  Who cares if two elements of the shot are at a better, more rich, resolution if the rest of the scene is fake?

    That said, contemporary features that don’t involve a lot of special effects DO benefit from the richness of film.  These are the films that generally end up winning the academy awards.  But once again, the storytellers of yesteryear are fading, and there’s really nobody to replace them.

  • spoojwagon

    you can strikethrough a huge section of this article now that blackmagic are releasing a brand new 4k film scanner for $30K.

  • Mikailus Max

    I’d argue that the costs of film can be cut simply by shooting on S16 instead of 35mm unless it’s a major budget project.