11 Movies that Shaped the Digital Revolution

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Hollywood is changing: Paramount Pictures no longer produces films on celluloid and Old Guard directors like Martin Scorsese are shooting their movies with digital cameras. Here’s a list of important films that helped propel Tinseltown’s controversial shift from film into digital, from niche-market fad to high-profile industry standard.

1. Julia and Julia

We’re not talking about the 2009 Nora Ephron, Meryl Streep, and Amy Adams movie about Julia Child here. This 1987 Italian drama directed by Peter del Monte and starring Kathleen Turner was the first movie shot with Sony’s High Definition Video System. At the time, the film had to be converted onto 35mm so it could be shown in theaters. See what you think about the nascent digital format for yourself—the entire film is available on YouTube above.

2. The Last Broadcast

Shot in a docudrama style, this low-budget 1998 American horror movie about searching for the Jersey Devil in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens predates the similarly inexpensive and much more famous Blair Witch Project by a year, and was allegedly the first feature length film shot and edited on consumer-grade equipment. The whole movie is available on YouTube for your spooky viewing pleasure.

3. and 4. The Celebration/The Idiots

These two films by infamous Danish directors Thomas Vinterberg and Lars von Trier premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998 and were shot using the Sony DCR-PC7E and DCR-VX1000, respectively. They somewhat adhere to the goals of the Dogme 95 movement, a set of restrictive cinematic rules set down by a group of filmmakers—including Vinterberg and von Trier—who sought to emphasize “actual story and the actors’ performances” above all else. Despite the fact that one of the rules states, “The film format must be Academy 35mm,” both movies ushered in a more widely accepted view of digital cinema that fit along nicely with the burgeoning independent film movement of the 1990s.

5. Once Upon a Time in Mexico

The third and final installment in director Robert Rodriguez’s Mexico Trilogy featuring the El Mariachi character played by Antonio Banderas, Once Upon a Time in Mexico was shot in 2001 and released in 2003 and was among the first wide-release movies to be shot using 24-frames-per-second HD cameras meant to mimic the look of film. After seeing test footage shot by director George Lucas, Rodriguez would shoot all of his movies—including the highly stylized Sin City—digitally.

6. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones

For director George Lucas, innovation has always come hand in hand with controversy. Though he and the CGI masters at Industrial Light and Magic would use some HD digital cameras for effects shots on The Phantom Menace, Lucas decided to shoot the middle chapter in his prequel trilogy entirely on Sony’s HDW-F900. It marked the first time that a massive blockbuster dared to question the sanctity of celluloid, and despite the relatively lackluster critical response, the film ushered in a new era of digital acceptance. Much like its unconventional predecessor Julia and Julia, many theaters showing the movie screened it in 35mm despite Lucas’ plea to convert their projectors to digital. Lucas would also shoot the last film in the trilogy, Revenge of the Sith, digitally, and has been a big proponent of the digital revolution ever since.

7. Russian Ark

The same year that a blockbuster broke down digital barriers, an ambitious Russian film showed cinephiles just what the new format was capable of. Director Alexander Sokurov used HD video cameras to shoot his 2002 movie Russian Ark all in a single, unbroken 96-minute Steadicam shot. Numerous films had used long takes and had been edited to make them look like they were comprised of one continuous shot (perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), but never before had film been able to legitimately maintain the uninterrupted balletic narrative—not to mention the logistics—of Russian Ark.

8. Collateral

American auteur Michael Mann had dabbled in digital video while shooting certain sequences in his 2001 biopic Ali, but it wasn’t until 2004’s Collateral that he began to really embrace the new technology. Though some minimal shots are 35mm, Collateral’s mix of the Thomson VIPER FilmStream camera and Sony’s ubiquitous F900 gave the look and feel of nighttime Los Angeles the director required—something that couldn’t be achieved via normal lighting techniques on film. Mann has been a digital convert ever since and has paved the way for other auteurs like Steven Soderbergh and David Fincher to go digital as well.

9. Slumdog Millionaire

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle could perhaps be labeled the godfather of digital cinema. Mantle served behind the camera for The Celebration and continued to quietly hone the use of digital cameras in movies from Danny Boyle’s zombie flick 28 Days Later to Lars von Trier’s sparse chamber pieces Dogville and Manderlay. But it wasn’t until 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire—also directed by Danny Boyle—that digital cinematography was finally accepted on a major scale. Though scenes were shot with 35mm, Slumdog became the very first movie with digital cinematography to win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. It would also go on to win Best Picture. Mantle shot his next collaborations with von Trier (Antichrist) and Boyle (127 Hours) using digital cameras as well.

10. Avatar

The highest grossing movie of all time also happens to be the first 100 percent digitally photographed film to win an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. Not since George Lucas’ Attack of the Clones had a director tried to fundamentally change the cinema-going experience and, love him or hate him, James Cameron meant to do just that. He immersed audiences in the alien world of Pandora by incorporating groundbreaking 3D along with the digital Fusion Camera System to capture his vision, ushering in the final shift towards digital cinema for the majority of major movie productions.

11. Hugo

No contemporary figure has done more for the preservation and appreciation of film than director Martin Scorsese. He is, after all, the man who created The Film Foundation. So it was a surprising move for film fanatic Scorsese to shoot his 2011 movie Hugo using digital cameras. Hugo won an Academy Award win for Best Cinematography, and it was the first step leading to Scorsese abandoning film as a format altogether; his next film, The Wolf of Wall Street, was the first major studio film to be released to theaters exclusively in the digital format.

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March 14, 2014 - 5:00pm
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