Video Vs. Film – The Differences

Technical Articles | By: indie

It’s become an epic debate among filmmakers as to whether one medium is really superior to the other. But while there are several fundamental differences between video and film, which I’ll explain here, many times the deciding factor between who uses video and who uses film is cost.

Film is Expensive – Video is Not

Whereas film needs to be developed and have light shone through it in order to be projected, video is captured on magnetic tape and scanned back over a playhead. Whether the tape itself is analog or digital, the process of taping is fundamentally a digital thing, which means it can only reach a certain resolution before it starts to degrade in quality. Film, on the other hand, can become as large as the distance from projector to screen (determined somewhat by the strength of the projector) allows.

The average indie filmmaker doesn’t use film because, well, it costs a lot of money. If you’re old enough you may remember the days before digital cameras became commonplace and you used to have to load rolls of 35mm film into your camera to take pictures. When the roll was done, you’d have to wind it back into its casing, take it out and get it developed.

Nowadays it seems like a foreign concept to have to wait to look at your pictures, doesn’t it? A roll of camera film containing 24 or 36 exposures used to cost around $3-5 to buy and another $3-5 to develop.

Now stop. Think about that for a second; think about a roll of 24 pictures of film costing even $2.

Using a film camera, 24 frames of film is one second of screen time. One. Second. Multiply $2 by 60, and then by 90. That’s to say, if you roll camera and cut camera at the exact instant you start and end your scene, do only one take of each shot, and film a full-length 90-minute movie, that film alone at $2 a second costs you $10,800. So in a monetary sense, the difference between film and video is huge.

You probably don’t have that much money to spend on even 90 minutes of film, let alone the amount of film it would actually take after you cut the outtakes, pre-roll, post-roll, and any deleted scenes or B-roll footage. If you do have that kind of cash, you’re either incredibly rich, crazy, or you have investors who believe very strongly in your directing skills. So let’s go with you using video instead of film.

Image Quality

While cost plays a major role in the use of video vs. film, the most major bone of contention comes from the way each medium captures and displays imagery. Because film simply captures light waves its creating lines of depth and color, so it looks smooth and soft when projected, even at large sizes.

Digital video has a native resolution and is made up of pixels, so it’s sharper than film and it has more of a rigid appearance. When you increase or decrease the resolution of any digital file you start to see interpolation, which is when the computer mathematically re-interprets the pixels in an image and either adds new ones to make up for a larger size, or takes them away when the resolution becomes smaller.

Since a pixel (which, by the way, is short for ‘picture element’) is essentially a tiny square containing a single color, an increase an image’s output size without actually changing the number of pixels it contains will result in pixelation – your eye will more easily recognize the presence of pixels in the image.

Lessening the Differences Between Film and Video

So while digital imagery is cheaper and easier to produce, manipulate, and control, it also has certain constraints. That’s why High-Definition video is such a huge advancement; HD video contains an insanely large number of pixels, meaning a higher resolution that can be displayed at larger sizes. Therefore, you can go bigger before you start to see the pixelation normally associated with inflating video.

By moving to an HD standard and creating cameras that continually increase the quality of digital image reproduction, we are essentially lessening the differences between film and video. The closer we get to being able to replicate the human eye with video cameras, the better imagery we can create.

One day we’ll have digital camcorders with all the visual advantages of film and without any of the disadvantages like dust and scratches or graininess that sometimes plague film productions. Luckily, you won’t have any of the disadvantages of film if you’re using video for your productions.

Speaking of the way film looks, there are several specific technical differences between video and film, so if you want to find out more about those you can try your hand at making your video look like film.


Comment from Ms Carmichael
Time: July 21, 2011, 9:18 am

Thanks, I learned so much! I was originally trying to clarify the use of the term ‘timestamp’ in an on line post about a television episode I was viewing using Media Player Home Classic Cinema. I realized that I didn’t know the difference between video and film. Once I read this page I learned what pixel stood for (never knowing it was an abbreviation,) the definitions of interpolation, pixelation and finally what the hell high definition really means. At 50 yrs of age, I’m old enough to remember rewinding film in a camera. Thanks again

Comment from Carlos
Time: September 13, 2011, 5:19 pm

Thanks, this was helpful! 🙂

Comment from Gemma
Time: October 3, 2011, 8:57 pm

I’m studying Media production. I found this article really interesting and also taught me a lot I didn’t know. very clear to to understand . This has helped me with my course work for college. couldn’t help but write a positive comment. Thanks

Comment from N Currie
Time: May 13, 2012, 12:14 am

While I understand why digital video looks different to film when projected on a screen why can you still see the difference when film is watched via a digital medium such as DVD or Netflix?

Comment from Anna
Time: December 5, 2012, 10:16 pm

really helpful! now i actually understand something about film/video! lol 🙂

Pingback from A Guide For Indie Filmmakers • Filmmaking Lifestyle
Time: February 18, 2015, 5:02 pm

[…] is central to the differences between shooting in film and shooting in video. These differences are slightly outside the scope of this guide, but indie filmmakers have been acutely aware of them […]

Pingback from Star Wars Reinvigorates Film: A Kodak Success Story | RCTV Media Center
Time: December 16, 2015, 9:20 pm

[…] In an unprecedented move, a group of the most respected filmmakers in Hollywood banded studios together to make a financial commitment to Kodak in order to preserve the ability to shoot films on… well… film.  After all, digitally captured video just doesn’t have the same visual quality as films shot on celluloid (see Video vs. Film, the Differences). […]

Write a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.