Digital filmmaking, also known as digital cinematography, refers to a set of processes used to create modern video products. These involve a variety of equipment and techniques to produce different types of content filmed for a variety of media platforms. Overall, what distinguishes conventional film vs. digital cinematography isn’t a precise line but is a reflection of an industry that has been evolving since the 1880s. Reviewing this history can help digital filmmakers understand what the creative and technical processes of filmmaking entail and what opportunities exist in the modern film industry.
Changes in technology
At the birth of the filmmaking industry in the late 19th century, movies were shot on 35mm film. This film was made from either cellulose acetate or polyester base and coated in light-sensitive materials, like silver salts. When exposed to light, these materials chemically react, leaving an imprint of an image on each individual slide or frame of this traditional film.
In the “golden age” of Hollywood during the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, higher-quality 16mm film became popular and corresponded with improvements in cameras, including smaller size. Cameras from this era could be more easily carried, allowing filmmakers to document footage from WW2 in a format similar to today’s documentary filmmaking, sparking news and informational film genres.
Over the course of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s cameras continued to shrink, became battery-powered, and eventually recorded on 8mm film and videotapes. In the early 2000s, these eventually evolved into the first handheld digital camcorders that were lightweight and battery-powered, capturing digitally rendered motion images on portable flash memory drives.
Changes in the industry
As recording equipment changed, so did the types of subjects that could be shot. This kind of early media or “content,” as it’s now called, appealed to a wider variety of audiences who could be informed and entertained by moving images caught on cameras.
As the media changed, so did the formats on which it could be displayed. The advent of television was revolutionary, allowing audiences to view media directly in their homes. This brought about concepts like Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” and the term “news hole,” describing the phenomenon that demand for content always outpaces supply.
The digital filmmaking industry
This blend of equipment and industry characteristics formulate the basis of the modern filmmaking industry. Increasingly sophisticated sound and video equipment are able to capture new shots, create new content formats, and display them on new media like social and streaming platforms. Mobile GoPros, for instance, can be submerged and tolerate the elements, allowing even amateur filmmakers to capture rare and exciting footage.
The advent of digital cinema and film production and post-production platforms designed to add post-production effects have made filmmaking a multidisciplinary activity. As opposed to traditional filmmaking where each crew member had a specific job, many filmmakers are now writing, shooting, and editing their own content, with many becoming “digital storytellers.”
These factors come together to create new opportunities for the filmmaker interested in creating video content to entertain, inform and engage audiences broadly, particularly as video genres blend together. For instance, even a workplace training video or online “explainer” may contain special effects and interactive content. Filmmaker now means playing a variety of roles on filmmaking projects that go beyond feature films.