The rush to digital and the degrading of the movie-theater experience is devaluing the work of filmmakers, director Christopher Nolan told the audience at the Producers Guild of America's Produced By Conference on Saturday.
"I don’t want to be the R&D department for a studio," said the "Inception" and "The Dark Knight" director of the push away from film and toward digital. "I don't have any interest in being the research end of an electronics company."
In a session that was fittingly sponsored by Kodak, a company sent into bankruptcy because of the declining role of film and the increasing use of digital filmmaking and digital projection, Nolan offered a ringing endorsement of shooting and showing movies the old-fashioned way.
(At the same time in another building on the Sony lot, panelists on a Cinedigm-sponsored Produced By panel titled "Digital Cinema: Renaissance for Innovators" sung the praises of digital.)
"I want to work with the best possible image quality, and that's film," Nolan insisted. "Film has the most range, the highest resolution by far. But you won't hear that, because there's no money in sticking with the old format.
"There's a huge danger to this, and it's being motivated by economic pressure."
In the hourlong session with his producer Emma Thomas, Nolan – who also famously refuses to shoot in 3D – said he is so old-school that he insists on printing and showing dailies at the end of every day's shoot. He also refuses to use digital intermediates, a step that is almost mandatory for special effects work, because he says they degrade the image quality.
"We're seeing an incredibly rapid and precipitous shift based purely on the economics of production," said Nolan of the push to digital filmmaking. "We're being forced to buy [digital] cameras like they're iPads or iPhones, but that's not what's best for the audience."
The filmgoing experience, he added, is also being hurt by the poor quality of projection in many theaters, and by pre-show advertisements.
"I went to a theater last weekend, and they were showing ads for TV shows on the screen," he said. "They really are treating it like you're sitting there in your living room. We're reducing it to 2K [digital] projectors that show ads for TV shows, and that runs the risk of devaluing what we do as filmmakers."
Nolan's new film, "The Dark Knight Rises," opens in July and is the final of the three blockbuster Batman movies he made, which also include "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight." He said very little about the film in his Produced By session, where the conversation was consistently steered into the driest possible areas by lengthy questions from moderator Vince Van Petten – though he did say that it is definitely the last Batman film he is ever going to make.
He and Thomas also talked about making their first movie, "Following," on weekends for a total budget of $6,000: "We could fit the entire cast and crew into one London taxi," he said.
That film opened doors for him after it was shown at the 1998 San Francisco Film Festival, but Nolan said the booking was accidental: He'd applied for and been turned down by Sundance, but one of the Sundance programmers also worked at San Francisco and remembered the film.
"I don't think we ever got into a festival that we actually applied to," he said.
The film eventually got distribution, and led to a deal to make the acclaimed "Memento," which in turn led to his first major-studio job, "Insomnia," where his cast included Al Pacino.
"People asked me, 'Does he take direction?' " he said of working with his first true movie star. "It's not a matter of taking it – he demands it."
Throughout his career, Nolan added, he's tried to be honest with studios about his budgets, whether it was the $4 million for "Memento," $40-million plus for "Insomnia" or nine figures for "Inception" and the Batman films.
"You need to sit down and say, 'This is what it's going to take,'" he said. "'I wish it could be less, and I could tell you that it's going to be less, but it's not.'
"That's a conversation you have to have."