Medium Appeal: Why Some of Us Prefer Analog in a Digital World

I’ve heard the arguments before: “Vinyl is better than CD!” “Film is better than digital!” “VHS is better than DVD!” but are these claims based on fact, fiction, or just personal preference?

One of the biggest debates in the movie community is film versus digital. Like it or not, movies are going digital. The convenience mixed with the savings of going digital is quickly pushing film out of the picture. The comeback of 3D is quickening the digital takeover, forcing theaters to either switch to digital projectors or find another use for their multiplexes.

I’m not 100% pro-film or pro-digital. Both formats have their uses. I prefer the warmth of film for live action as it gives a warm feeling that allows the elements to blend together creating a singular visual experience. With film, I’m not noticing the details on the couch, because they’re not important, I’m noticing a scene, which is what the director wants me to notice.

When I watch an animated feature (like Coraline or any Pixar film) I appreciate how digital projection makes the images pop out on the screen rather than blending together.

Some filmmakers, such as Robert Rodriguez, are taking things a step further by shooting digitally and altering their films in post to make them look as if you’re watching a film print discovered on the dusty floor of a long abandoned drive-in.

Now, what about IMAX? IMAX is a unique beast in the world of cinema, it’s also my preferred method for viewing movies. IMAX changes the game entirely. There is derision among IMAX purists (myself included), because not all IMAXs are created equal. IMAX was the best of the best (and for my money it often still is), but like all things that start great, corruption and greed enter in and rot it from the inside out. The public is unaware of this rotting. 

All IMAX theaters used to use 70mm film with a screen of approximately 23×30 meters. Film-goers are now being duped into paying for digital IMAX projection with screens which are often shrunk to 8.5×18 meters. I’ve been to both versions of IMAX and it’s nowhere near the same experience.

Another element in cinema viewing is the audience. While the medium plays a big part in the overall movie-going experience, the audience can make it difficult to enjoy a great film or make it easy to enjoy a terrible film. We’ve all experienced the annoying audience (phones, food wrappers, talking), but few have had the joy of watching a terrible movie with a great audience.

A great example of this is the 2003 cult film, The Room. I first caught The Room on the late-night program, [adult swim]. It was playing on April 1st as an April Fool’s prank. I wasn’t aware of this and thought it was a new show on the network. I watched for a few moments then turned the channel, wondering if I was missing something and wondering why everything about the show was terrible and unfunny.

Skip ahead a couple of years and I see The Room with an audience. It was one of the best times I’ve ever had in a theater. Men dressed in tuxedos handed out plastic spoons and when the film came on it was 99 minutes of people shouting at the screen and throwing spoons at the right moments. It was like being in an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I enjoyed it so much that I took my wife and brother-in-law to another midnight showing a few weeks later. Watching a cult film with an audience is a unique experience every time.

Few film outings are this rewarding, after years of abuse from annoying audience members, high-priced concessions, and lackluster summer blockbusters, some filmgoers have opted for the cheaper and more comfortable option, home video.

Home video has seen the greatest changes through the years. Most people, whether cinephile or occasional renter, are all for improved sound and picture quality. But, while each format brings something new to the table, something is lost with the passing of the format before it. The most notable is the switch from VHS to DVD.

In the late 1990s DVDs hit the market and it didn’t take long for everyone to notice the difference in picture clarity and sound. As an added bonus, you didn’t even have to rewind them. Not to mention, special features such as deleted scenes and commentaries. VHS was on its way out. But, unlike Laserdisc and 8-Track, VHS refused to die.

There’s a nostalgic quality to VHS, especially for my generation, it’s how most of us first saw The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Halloween (1978), and, yes, even Grease (1978). It’s also how we saw our first adult films, but I won’t get into that here. VHS has a link with us that goes deeper than poor sound and picture quality, or even rewinding, VHS is how we viewed the world in our youth. As a happy side effect, VHS made everything grittier (this was perfect for horror films as it hid the limitations of the special effects). Try watching these same horror films on Blu-ray, you’ll be amazed by how fake the effects look now. In recent years there’s been a renewed interest in VHS, people are digging through bins at local thrift shops and showing off their spoils to friends and family. And they’re not just looking for copies of E.T. (1982) or Titanic (1997), this rare breed of VHS collectors are most impressed when they find nearly-unwatchable flicks like Galaxina (1980) or The Ewok Adventure (1984).

Independent filmmakers are jumping on board as they produce films with an 80s look or feel and release them on both DVD and VHS. I had the pleasure of watching The Sleeper (2012) on VHS. This is where it gets tricky. The VCR was hooked up to an HDTV, so I’m not sure how authentic my VHS viewing experience was, but I can tell you that the movie looked like crap in the best way possible and is best viewed with a few drinks and a few friends.

Home video is bigger than ever, and with companies like Netflix, Amazon, DIRECTV, and even the computer giant, Apple, getting into the business of streaming (some of it available in 1080p) the rules are changing.

There’s no doubt that the future of cinema is digital, but many of us are not willing to let go of our analog past so easily. And why should we? Film is in our blood. So, no matter how digital the world around us gets, we will continue to play our vinyl records, VHS tapes, and reels of film.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of New Empress Magazine.