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So much for 'filmmaking': Digital is taking over the business

What do Fair Game, The Social Network, Jackass 3D and the upcoming drama Rabbit Hole have in common? All of them were shot with the RED ONE digital camera, a game-changing device that's revolutionizing the way films are made.

At a time when digital shooting offers greater convenience, lower cost and, most important, greater artistic control, it's fascinating to watch how some of our most acclaimed filmmakers are anxious to hasten the demise of actual film.

The RED is the first digital cinema camera to achieve 4k resolution, twice as good as high-definition and on par with 35-mm film, the traditional gold standard in image-making. The RED isn't the only one of its kind (ARRI, Sony, Panavision and Viper also make digital cinema cameras) but its 4.5 kilogram size, reasonable cost and high resolution have made it a favourite toy of contemporary filmmakers.

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First released in 2007, the RED cameras were developed by multimillionaire James Jannard, who made his fortune from the sunglasses and sports apparel company Oakley, Inc. Jannard is also a camera buff who owns about 1,000 cameras. In 2005, he assembled a team to develop a better camera, with the flexibility of digital and the quality of film.

Digital cinema has been trumpeted since the mid-nineties, but traditional film cinematographers were a slow to bite. The RED's major innovation was to create a sensor - the area of the camera that processes the image - that was as big as a 35-mm negative. That allowed the camera to have film-quality resolution and real depth of field, as opposed to the typically flattened image of high-definition video.

There are many advantages to using digital cameras. They are typically smaller and more flexible. The length of a take can be as long as the director wants (even an entire movie, as in Russian Ark). The raw footage can be dumped directly to a hard drive without the messy chemicals needed to develop film or the expense of scanning into digital form for editing and colour correction.

The ability to see results instantly and on the fly makes the RED a favourite for shooting in 3-D - including the next Disney blockbuster, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Yet it's also versatile enough to suit Lars von Trier's Anti-Christ and TV shows such as Entourage and Degrassi: The Next Generation.

At the auteur level, the cameras have a cult-like following. Directors such as Steven Soderbergh and Doug Liman ( Fair Game) have become their own cinematographers. "I felt like someone crawled inside my head with the RED camera," said Soderbergh, who used a couple of RED prototypes to shoot his two Che movies, which premiered at Cannes in 2008. Later, he shot The Girlfriend Experience and The Informant! with the same cameras.

The price allows a director to own his own camera. (You can order the basic RED camera from the company's website for $25,000, or about the same cost as the monthly rental of a film camera.) Soderbergh lent his cameras to David Fincher to shoot The Social Network. Similarly, Peter Jackson, who used the RED to make T he Lovely Bones, lent his cameras to Neill Blomkamp for District 9.

The RED's not perfect. Some television camera operators, used to rugged workhorse equipment, don't like it because it's like a big, sensitive computer. Hard drives crash and battery packs disconnect and the early RED versions weren't good with low-light.

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But for established or budding auteurs or anyone involved in special effects-intensive films, the camera's benefits in image quality and working flexibility far outweigh its flaws.

Besides, it's an instrument of the future. There hasn't been a new cinema camera introduced since 2007 that uses film. The last two annual Academy Awards for best cinematography have gone to films that were either completely or mostly shot digitally. Avatar didn't have a frame of film in it.

We still talk about "film" and "filmmakers," but the words have begun to sound strangely quaint.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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