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Important Firsts in Digital Filmmaking  

Ann Casano
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In 1987, Italian director Peter del Monte’s Julia and Julia became the very first movie shot with a high definition video system. The movie looked grainy, the resolution unclear. Over the next decade, digital filmmaking rapidly developed. Yet even a novice could detect the difference between a movie shot with a digital camera and one shot on film. In 2016, digital technology is so advanced, such detection is nearly impossible. Here are the 14 most important firsts in digital cinema.

Shooting with digital cameras is less expensive, easier to edit, and more accessible to filmmakers outside of Hollywood than shooting on film. Yes, of course, there are directors like Quentin Tarantino who swear by celluloid and feel that the look of a motion picture should not be comprised. However, veteran directors like Martin Scorsese and James Cameron have made blockbusters that represent important moments for digital films.

George Lucas’s Attack of the Clones is also on this list of digital filmmaking firsts. He filmed the entire movie using digital cameras. Esteemed directors Robert Rodriguez, Danny Boyle, and Michael Mann also have important firsts in digital movies. The controversy and debate of celluloid versus digital may rage for a while longer, but in the meantime, more and more acclaimed filmmakers are abandoning the old methods in favor of new technology.

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James Cameron has always been at the forefront of film technology. He had the idea for Avatar (2009) several years before he could make it, because he needed the technology to catch up to this vision. Among various other innovations, Cameron and his team invented a camera for the film. 

Avatar was the first movie to be entirely shot with digital cameras to win an Oscar for Best Cinematography (which made some question the nature of cinematography). With Avatar, Cameron was able to effectively combine digital filmmaking with 3D, which had never looked so good. The film also became the highest grossing movie ever.

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First Film to Come Out of the Dogme 95 Film Movement - The Celebration
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Danish director Thomas Vinterberg's The Celebration premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998. The entire film was shot using the Sony DCR-PC7E digital camera. The Dogme 95 movement that birthed the film was born of a manifesto governing production of films and approach to filmmaking. The manifesto banned certain aspects of post-production, such as sound editing, as a protest against high-budget Hollywood excess and trickery. However, The Celebration is not just a statement against the blockbuster; it's a well-made, artistic film showing audiences (and independent filmmakers) that great movies could easily be made using a small scale production and limited resources.

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The third and last film in Robert Rodriguez's Mexico Trilogy, Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003), was one of the very first feature-length wide-release movies shot using 24-frames-per-second HD cameras. The new technology was designed to mimic the look of celluloid. Rodriguez now shoots all of his films using this digital format, which inspired the director when he visited George Lucas at The Lucas Skywalker Ranch.

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Change is hard and film critics were really tough on early digital cinema. Michael Mann's Collateral (2004), starring Tom Cruise, was lauded by most critics, especially in regards to its visually striking aesthetics. Most impressive was the way Mann made the city of Los Angeles appear at night, and how it essentially became a prominent character in his drama. The film earned more than $200 million at the global box office and showed the world that a movie shot in HD digital could look great and achieve financial success, while having a unique aesthetic not bound by the rules of celluloid film.  

Two years before the release of Collateral, 28 Days Later (large portions of which were shot on low grade digital cameras) also received acclaim for its gritty look, though not to the degree Collateral did. 

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