Will the digital mediums replace emulsion photography, even if only partially?
If you’re going to allow me the “if only partially” escape clause, then certainly. Well-regarded films such as TADPOLE and PIECES OF APRIL are already being shot on digital video, as are the SPY KIDS movies and the STAR WARS prequels. On the distribution side, most new theaters are being built to allow for digital projectors (which will be installed whenever someone figures out who should pay for them).
Speaking in vast generalizations, digital is usually cheaper and faster than film. Videotape costs less than film stock, particularly when factoring in development and printing costs. Editing is already an almost-entirely digital process, so shooting digitally saves you a step. And studios dream of being able to digitally transmit their movies directly to the multiplex, saving the cost of striking and shipping 2,500+ film prints.
What’s more, the recent generations of digital projectors are quite good. You could switch over every movie theater in America and most people wouldn’t notice any change.
For all the progress that’s been made in digital cinematography — and it’s considerable — film still has some significant advantages that will keep it viable for decades to come. First, there’s a lot of entrenched experience. Cinematographers know film and love it. Second, film technology itself has improved dramatically. Today’s film stocks allow you to shoot in lighting conditions that would have been impossible a decade ago, and techniques like silver retention and skip-bleach processing allow for a lot of creative freedom. Third, the resolution of digital cameras still can’t match film — and when they do, there will be other creative reasons (such as film grain, focus and contrast) why you might still not be satisfied. Finally, on an $80 million movie, the film costs aren’t prohibitive, so there’s no reason for many movies to switch to digital video. (There is, however, a lot of pressure for one-hour TV shows to switch to digital cameras. Many are making the change.)
On the other end of the spectrum, digital video is a godsend for the $80,000 movie, where film and processing could eat the entire budget. Since it is these smaller movies where tomorrow’s filmmakers get their start, I can envision this new wave rising up through ranks with digital cameras in hand, and never trading them in for the “old” film cameras.