The Resurrection of DVDs

I will admit to laughing at people who collect DVDs. I’ve considered it a giant waste of money and space. But now I’m started to wonder if I was wrong.

Samsung announced recently that they’re done producing new Blu-Ray players. It was seen as the first domino to fall in the inevitable death of physical media for film.

This set off a panic among some DVD and Blu-Ray enthusiasts, but it delighted others who have kept DVD collections, or make a living off of selling rare DVDs. Why? There’s a perceived scarcity coming and streaming advocates may be on the wrong side.

There are advantages to DVDs and Blu-Rays we give up when we rely on streaming services:

  • They often include commentary, documentaries, and bonus features unavailable on streaming services (or even in later releases of the same DVD). These features are sometimes suppressed by studios if the latest batch of executives didn’t care for the originals.

  • You own the film and can watch it whenever you like (as opposed to whenever Netflix decides you can watch it). Even when you “buy” a movie online, it’s really just a license to access it, totally dependent on the whims of studios, streaming companies, the market in general, and new/changing laws.

  • You can watch the version you prefer. Movie and television studios are constantly tinkering with their releases, removing songs, editing endings, and changing who shot first. Typically there’s only one version of a film available for streaming or buying online, and it’s probably not the best — it’s the most palatable to the masses.

  • They allow small, indie studios to make money when they are ignored by streaming services.

  • They make classic films more accessible. Classic films are rarely available on streaming services and cable. When they are, what’s available is often the most well-known, and doesn’t include the smaller films you may love (if you got the chance). The DVD craze of 20 years ago gave re-birth to many classic films that might have been totally lost without the profits possible from a physical form of media.

  • You can sell, trade, or pass them along. Again, you own them. Rare and out-of-print DVDs are actually a blossoming business right now. What will happen when they grow even more scarce?

  • You can get them real cheap, new or used, for now. On Black Friday, Blu-Rays are dirt cheap. At thrift stores, they’re practically free. Parents know how much milage can be had from a Pixar DVD, proving they can be dirt cheap even at full price.

  • They’re free to rent at your library.

  • They don’t rely on a connection.

  • They’re privacy-friendly. Netflix, Hulu, Google and Amazon are watching you while you watch that movie.

  • They allow for more and better bootlegs. If your film has enough fans, it will spawn new versions, or foster the environment needed for the “release” of studio versions that the public was never meant to see. These versions may be downloadable with some effort, but they will probably never be streamable from a legitimate service.

  • They encourage and preserve music documentary and concert footage. My favorite concerts and musician’s videos are being removed or copyright-stricken from YouTube by the labels. These artists (even the big ones) have no intention of ever releasing streaming versions of this material and the streaming services have no interest anyway. We’re probably losing access to performances every day we’ll never see again. Some were only released in the first place due to the music VHS gold rush of the late 80s/early 90s and music DVD gold rush of the late 90s/early 2000s. This doesn’t even include the bootleg concerts I’ve loved watching on YouTube. I hope someone is capturing them somewhere before it’s too late.

  • They can be superior in quality to the streaming version. I put this as the last reason, because (to me) it’s the least important reason. Some of my favorite films never made it to Blu-Ray, let alone 4K discs or Netflix. If the film isn’t even available, quality doesn’t matter. The best quality version a concert film from the 80s may be on VHS. That’s better than nothing.

I’m not going to kid myself. Streaming is the (near) future of media. And I may be too old to care by the time it all shakes out. But if recent history has taught us anything, from books to vinyl, physical media will always have a market. Cassettes are even making a comeback!

Maybe in 20 years there will be enough nostalgia for all the points I made above to trigger a resurrection in physical media for film along with boutique, retro playing devices sold by Shinola.

As for my like-minded minimalist friends who embraced streaming media to cut down on their physical libraries, I pose this question: Is spending more money on less enjoyable things really minimalist?

If you have a favorite movie, or TV show, I recommend grabbing the physical version you love on the cheap while you can. It will last you for at least the rest of your lifetime. It’ll look good on a shelf next to your favorite books, and in a few decades you’ll have the jump on the next generation of hipsters.

A List of Reasons to Pick Up a Film Camera

John Crane has many reasons for sticking with film during his career, but this is one of my favorites:

"I spend so much time in front of the computer that when the time comes to get away and enjoy photography – the last thing I want to do is pick up another computer."

That's a new one to me and I love it. His photos are wonderful too.

I've been dipping my toes back into analog photography for a year or two now. It's more than a nostalgia trip. Forcing your brain to think more about what you're shooting really helps.

And it's fun. Who says this can't be about fun? Unless you're a pro, fun is the only reason you ever need to justify using film.


Why Choose Film in 2016?

It's rare that a pro-analogue article gets beyond nostalgia, but European CEO gets it right in their post Film Photography Makes a Stunning Comeback (via David Sax):

"'Necessity is the mother of invention; there is no point staring at the back of a film camera after taking a shot – that time and energy is already going into the next one. Not knowing immediately what has been captured is a creative advantage', said Walter Rothwell, a professional photographer who regularly uses analogue cameras for his work."
Rothwell is not alone is this view, as more and more professional photographers are choosing film for similar reasons. This is particularly apparent in the world of fashion, as photographers seek to take back control of a creative process that is falling ever further into the hands of editors. 

Hollywood Directors have made a similar argument in wrestling back control of filmmaking from high-paid actors who want to review the scene they just acted in to determine if it works best for them (not necessarily the movie).

Another part of the article that stood out:

"For related reasons, the Hasselblad Xpan, a panoramic film camera, is one of Rothwell’s favourites for personal work. 'The Xpan was a unique moment of madness from a large manufacturer; a comparatively small panoramic camera that shoots across two frames, producing very high quality negatives. Around 10 years ago, I noticed that I was ‘seeing’ panoramic photos, so I got the camera to answer a yen.' Rothwell’s panoramic street photography has earned him international acclaim, and while it would certainly be possible to use the panoramic mode on a digital camera or phone to replicate the effect, there is something about the lack of choice that lends his shots a unique feel. To stitch together a panorama from digital images with would not give the same results in terms of artistic impression, though the scene may be the same."

I cannot rationally explain my desire for the Xpan and Xpan II. They remain two of maybe a handful of cameras I still lust after (even after my A Lesser Photographer experiment) for the very reason stated above. I see in panoramas, but digital cameras have never offered a great way of capturing that vision.

The rest of the article offers the same arguments I've made here for years about the lack of an archival digital medium and the fact that most of our modern photos will probably disappear in short order. There may never be another Vivien Maier to discover.

I dare you to read the article and not fall in love with analogue again (if only for a few minutes).

Film Isn't Dead

Make sure if you take part in the analogue film resurgence, you do it for the right reasons: the slow, mindful approach to photography and the emphasis on material output. Pretty much everything else about it is the same gear trap as digital.

There is No Digital Archival Format

Just a reminder from Martin Scorsese and the reason I recommend some kind of analogue output your photographs:

“Everything we do in HD is an effort to recreate the look of film. Film, even now, offers a richer visual palette than HD. And, we have to remember that film is still the best and only time-proven way to preserve movies. We have no assurance that digital informaton (sic) will last, but we know that film will, if properly stored and cared for.”

What Film Does that Digital Can't

Lesser photography doesn’t necessarily mean analogue photography, it just means finding ways to boost your creativity by recognizing the power of constraints, editing and storytelling.

For some photographers, that means choosing film over pixels. Why? There are still some things film does better, while remaining a constraint.

There are obvious technical differences that makes film a great choice for long exposures and easy panoramics, but more intriguing are the differences that affect more than can be measured.

Eric Kim recently wrote about why he switched over to film for his street photography projects (via Mike McKniff). He noticed that not focusing on individual images in a monitor helped him concentrate on the story he was trying to compose. He could also refuse to delete an image when asked, because it wasn’t possible. His camera doesn’t need to be upgraded every few years - in fact, it will last the rest of his life. But over all, he reports a sense of mindfulness that comes from the process of telling the story and developing the images by hand that seems missing from digital.

Mahesh Venkitachalam wrote about why he’s a better digital photographer, because of his slide film use (via Peter Wingard). Slide film is an unforgiving mental boot camp that forces you to consider everything you know about exposure and composition before every click of the shutter. You can’t hide the holes in your photography education when using slide film. It’s a learning process that can’t be taught any other way.

One more thing digital can’t do: be archived.

Reshoot Your Archives

My best friend, Tom, had a house fire in the 90s that destroyed all of his photos and negatives (during his most prolific period as an enthusiastic young hobbyist). As a result, he developed an entirely different way of approaching archivism and we all could learn something from it.

Recently, I was talking about my own archives from that same period and how I was going to deal with scanning the thousands of negatives I had amassed. I wanted to create a digital archive I could easily back up to avoid the same destruction Tom faced.

Tom advised me to revisit the places in those negatives and produce something better than I had produced back then. Then, throw away the old negatives. He gave me a few hundred new projects in under 5 seconds and I couldn’t wait to get started.

Life is fleeting and you can’t take your archives with you. Chances are, no one will tend to them even a few years after you’re gone. The real value in photography is an appreciation of the present.