A Dance of Light: Black Swan and the Future of Digital Films

Posted in Equipment, Video by atifhashmi on January 3, 2011

Black Swan 7D Subway sequence127 Hours, Ironman 2, House and now Black Swan. What do all of these large-budget films and TV shows have in common? They all feature sequences shot with one of Canon’s EOS HDSLR series cameras. And in reference to Black Swan, an entire sequence was shot on the Canon 7D.

Even more remarkable, Black Swan DP Matthew Libatique shot the sequence with few assisted lights, illegally on the New York City subway, and at an ISO of 3200 and an F-stop of 8. The photographers and cinematographers among you are probably freaking out. 3200?!

Many of you know that the HDSLRs boasts remarkably large sensors for fantastic low-light performance and an ability to minimize the grain achieved by such high ISO’s by using faster lenses during video shooting. But you also know that this results in a far shallower depth of field that may not suit your films aesthetic. However, the result of using the ISO as an attempt to gain light, as such with film, is a grainier, dirtier image.

Given this understanding, we must first recognize that the difference between film and digital gain is like the difference between water and oil. Film grain is created by the chemical process the film undergoes, creating an organic, circular, pixelation that results from the sensitivity of the film negative and softens the image. In the case of Black Swan, it was shot with super 16mm film stock and blown up to a 35mm print, creating an enhanced grain effect.

Here’s the main point: digital is trying to look like film. Therefore, the comparison to digital grain is that digital grain exists under the same esoteric principles as film stock, however they are created digitally, through the manipulation of assumed exposure created by a sensor existing on a grid. This grid is essential in our recognition of digital versus film and a premiere reason why most filmmakers choose film. As a result of the grid, digital grain is not organic, each frame is not unique in its marks and flaws, and the resulted image has rigid, squarer appearance. This, and the resulting lack of latitude created by such a sensor makes it technically impossible to render an image digitally that compares on a whole with film, at least, as of yet.

But, even given the technical flaws of digital sensors, they have and are soon becoming a standard on set and in schools of film. Why? Certainly the price doesn’t hurt. The reason for shooting with the 7D on the Black Swan was it’s chassis, which allowed for movement in tighter spaces, Libatique himself complimented the camera’s lightweight design, similar by comparison to the Aaton film cameras used for a majority of the production, which allowed him to move and dance with the actors while onstage.

The liberty created by not being tethered to the costs and limitations of shooting on film, and the ability to focus on the primary element of photography in film, composition (getting that “Shot”) and coverage (does the scene edit well?). The storyteller now doesn’t have to worry about the costs of film, which means longer takes and room to experiment. Libatique chose the 7D because its sensor was smaller than the 5D, closer to 35mm film in size and able to provide the larger DOF he wanted. He said he was willing to sacrifice the added grain of the image in order to be able to provide the exposure he wanted and the composition he wanted, namely a shot where Nina, Natalie Portman, is trying on stolen lipstick on the subway looking in the reflection on a subway window. He wanted to make sure the Nina in the reflection was in as much focus as the real Nina, and therefore needed to shoot at an 8.

The ISO? Well, that was the variable. While looking at the film blown up on the big screen, I can say that I noticed the immediate difference between the analogue 16mm film, which was rich and beautifully blown out and grainy, and the Canon’s footage, which had the dual obstacles of no lighting and being shot on a dark subway car. My gut could feel the difference, and I could see the grain living on both the grid and the film print of the 35mm transfer I was looking at.

If you consider film its own reality, since we have been raised to view film as the sole medium of cinema up to this point, then digital is as a result it’s simulation. This whole charade made me consider the following: did it matter that it was digital? I could tell, the same way I could tell with 127 hours, with The Social Network and even with Zodiac, David Fincher’s underrated crime drama shot on the Viper. I knew it was, I could implicitly feel the difference, but did it stop me from enjoying the film? No. I was far too interested in James Franco’s performance, in the witty writing Sorkin displayed, in the monotonous technicalities and gruesome violence of Zodiac, and the slide of Portman’s Nina in Black Swan, to be distracted by their chosen medium.

The truth is, its not a matter anymore that the digital medium has been trying to match the quality of film, I think we have seen some fantastic results already, but the true test is whether we can make movies now that make us ignore the differences, by focusing on telling us a unique story and using whatever does the job best.


Atif Hashmi is a filmmaker based in New York City.
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4 Responses

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  1. […] very own blog, Through The Looking Glass, Atif Hashmi used the film Black Swan to examine the increasing use of video-capable DSLRs in major motion pictures, and what the future holds for digital and film […]

  2. Rose Cifuentes said, on February 3, 2011 at 10:21 am

    Thanks a lot for the analysis.
    I was very intrigued on how the film was shot.
    Why so grainy?
    What was the purpose?
    Now I understand much better.
    Thanks again.

  3. TonyMacaroni said, on March 7, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    I hate it – I go to the movies to enjoy the visual splendor of a real movie, its colors and sharpness AS WELL the storyline,acting etc.

    Siskel&Ebert: Thumbs down!

  4. J said, on June 1, 2011 at 12:53 am

    Great write up, I haven’t seen Swan yet, I must go rent it immediately! 🙂

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