“Nothing endures but change.”
From Lives of the Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius
In the summer of 1970 -- prehistoric times for many of you -- I had a chance to wander through the Smithsonian Institution, in our nation's capitol. A few weeks from turning 20, I was nearing the half-way point of a ten week tour of the country on a motorcycle (my own personal homage to Easy Rider), following a meandering path from the San Francisco Bay Area through Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, across Kansas and Oklahoma, down through New Orleans to the tip of Florida, and on up the eastern seaboard. After exploring Washington D.C., I planned to ride north to Maine, then take the Trans Canadian Highway all the way to Vancouver before turning left and heading for home.
That's pretty much how it worked out, with a few adventures in between.
But first came the Smithsonian, and its many thousands of fascinating exhibits, most of which I’ve forgotten now, nearly 40 years later. A few stuck in my brain, though, and continue to resonate today -- including a huge gleaming red and chrome piston-driven aircraft engine designed and built by Rolls Royce to power civilian airliners in the 1950’s. The technical details have faded into the mist, but as I recall, it was a sixteen cylinder turbocharged engine, tuned to deliver a huge quantity of reliable power. At the time, it was considered to be the ultimate refinement of the piston aircraft engine, based on decades of hard-earned knowledge and experience gained in peacetime and the life-or-death crucible of war -- the sum total of a legendary engine manufacturer’s engineering skill distilled and tightly focused on a single mechanical device. At the time, it was the very best humans could do.
This engine was a product of the pursuit of perfection, and to a certain extent, represented perfection achieved -- but what should have been a moment of crowning glory turned to ashes when the introduction of the Boeing 707 jetliner instantly rendered the piston-engine airliner obsolete. Much faster, quieter, and more reliable, the jet engine turned the airplane industry on its head, and in the process, relegated that beautiful Rolls Royce engine to the history books.
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, while working on an episodic crime drama. After filming exteriors all morning, we moved inside to shoot the interiors, using two cameras whenever possible. Once the set was lit, we stood by our lamps to make any final adjustments, then began to crank out the coverage. That’s when it hit me what was strange about all this: we were actually shooting film, with a complete Panavision package. Nearly every show I’ve worked on for the past couple of years has used digital cameras, which means I hadn’t even seen a film camera up close for quite a while. I watched the familiar rituals as if for the first time – the 2nd A.C. running in with a case of freshly reloaded 1000 foot mags, handing them off to the two 1st A.C.’s in return for the exposed mags. While the 1st A.C.’s opened their cameras, mounted the fresh mags, then threaded the film through the sprockets, the 2nd A.C. was breaking the film on the exposed mags and shoving them back into empty case to be downloaded later for the lab.
A reload is all business for the camera assistants, but for the rest of the crew, it means a few minutes to relax, trade jokes, or sneak outside for a cigarette or phone call. The actors get a chance to regroup, while the director thinks about the next scene. This familiar, comfortable routine has been the rule since long before I started my Industry career -- it's all part of what comes with shooting film. At this point, Panavision and Arriflex cameras are miraculous devices, having evolved and been refined over the past 80 years to a point approaching technological perfection. In the hands of a good cameraman, there isn’t much a properly equipped modern film camera can’t do when it comes to delivering the most sumptuously gorgeous images -- but just as this level of near-perfection has been achieved, the digital revolution comes along to jerk the rug out from under the Way Things Are.
It’s deja-vu all over again.
Such is the price of progress, I suppose. Personally, I don’t much care for the new digital cameras. Where film cameras are all precision-machined metal, gears, and glass, digital is nothing but plastic and wires -- digital cameras look like cheap props from some lousy Roger Corman movie. Instead of the well-choreographed dance of the film reload after every ten minutes of shooting, digital cameras hold something like 45 minutes of tape, which means much less reloading – and when the time finally does come to re-load, it’s a simple matter of snapping a fresh cassette in place. What used to take several minutes can now be done in seconds. Maybe the producers think this is progress, but I don’t. Besides, each digital camera comes trailing an inch-thick cable all the way back to the digi-tech tent, further cluttering up the set while offering ample opportunity for the rest of us to slip, trip, and fall.
Hey, I’m a juicer – it’s my job to lay cables right where everybody else will trip on them...
As I watched the well-practiced ballet of the camera re-load that day, it occurred to me to look close, because I won’t be seeing it much longer. None of us will. Film is on its way out, slipping into the past as digital takes over. This isn’t the first big change I’ve seen, and it probably won’t be the last -- I used an upright Moviola editing machine to make a documentary in college, but that awkward, clattering machine soon gave way to fast, quiet flatbeds, which in turn disappeared when digital computer editing came of age. The old DC carbon arcs in common use when I first started were supplanted by an ever-evolving flow of modern HMI lamps, which may in turn be phased out if LED lighting -- or some other energy-saving technology -- can do the same job more efficiently.
I don't know that digital looks quite as good on the big screen as the best of film yet, but in time it probably will. Besides, visual quality was never the selling point for digital in the first place -- that argument was lost the moment the economics tipped in favor of digital. In one form or another, digital is here to stay.
That episodic I was working on? I'm told the show will be coming back next season, but with digital cameras instead of film. In the relentless pursuit of perfection – or something like it -- the only constant is change.
Same as it ever was.