George Lucas tried to kill off film for digital, but the new Star Wars is helping to bring it back

What’s old is new again.
What’s old is new again.
Image: Reuters/Issei Kato
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It was George Lucas who led Hollywood’s move to digital, pushing for its use in everything from shooting and editing to projection and special effects. His second Star Wars prequel, Attack of the Clones, was the first major film to be shot on high-definition digital cameras instead of photographic film in 2002—the biggest change to the medium and methodology of filmmaking since the 1880s. He said at the time of shooting digitally:

It’s very much like going from frescoes to oils – one is very rigid, very disciplined, very definite about the way it works, and the other is much more open, offers you more options and enables you to manipulate the pictures more, and I think that bothers people. But audiences can’t tell the difference.

Well, maybe they can—and they’re using Lucas’s own baby to prove it. J.J. Abrams’s new Star Wars movie, the first of the Skywalker sagas to be made without its creator, was shot with actual film; the behind-the-scenes footage plays up the fact that the filmmakers lugged unwieldy 70mm IMAX cameras into the Arabian desert to achieve some of their shots (around the one-minute mark):

The Force Awakens has now become the fastest movie to gross $1 billion ever and has nearly universal positive reviews. The look and feel of the movie is a huge part of why. “[Abrams’s] visual wit may not be, as it is for Spielberg, a near-magical reflex, but nor is Abrams suckered into bombast by technological zeal, as Lucas has been, and the new movie, as an act of pure storytelling, streams by with fluency and zip,” the New Yorker’s film critic Anthony Lane said.

“I would argue film sets the standard and once it’s no longer available, the ability to shoot the benchmark goes away,” Abrams said of his decision (paywall) to shoot Star Wars the way Lucas did in 1977. “Suddenly you’re left with what is, in many cases, perfectly good but not necessarily the best, the warmest, the most rich and detailed images.”

The next Star Wars sequel will also be shot on film.

This year’s awards darling, Carol, was also shot on Super 16mm film. (The number refers to the size of the actual frame; the larger the frame, the more detail it can hold.) Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, The Hateful Eight, was shot on 70mm film and, at 100 cinemas across the United States, it is being shown on old projectors designed to show off that ultra-wide frame—making how the film was made a selling point in and of itself. Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson (who shot The Master on 70mm) recently sat down to discuss the joys of working with film:

Tarantino, who bought a cinema in Los Angeles that only shows and projects film prints, says the 70mm format could be “film’s last stand.” Both he and Anderson credit Interstellar director Christopher Nolan for helping to keep film alive by refusing to shoot in 3D or on digital for his blockbusters. It was recently revealed that Nolan’s next project, a World War II film called Dunkirk, will be shot entirely in 70mm.

It caps a remarkable comeback for the medium of film, one worthy of Hollywood itself. Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012. Earlier in 2015, it reached a deal with the biggest film studios to continue to supply them with film stock as directors like Nolan, Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg all committed to using film for the next few years. Kodak recently said its film division will actually be profitable in 2016.