We still call them films, but it's a term that could become as quaint as ''talkie'' or ''motion picture photoplay''. The cinema industry, the movie business, whatever you like to call it, is now unequivocally a digital realm. The image of a strip of celluloid with sprockets down the vertical – once a universal visual symbol – is more like a souvenir. In this year's list of the candidates for best cinematography at the Academy Awards, only one was shot on film. And the director of photography (DOP) who made it says ruefully it was probably the last time he would work that way.
The story of celluloid and digital is a story of gains and losses, with an accelerated momentum. There have been remarkable advances in quality since films shot on digital video were first screened in cinemas in the last decade of the 20th century – in the beginning, it was mostly low-budget, independent works that got the most from the possibilities of intimacy and economy that digital offered.
The first digital picture to win an Academy Award was Slumdog Millionaire in 2009. It was shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, and he used the digital camera in the most dynamic, shoot-on-the-streets, run-and-carry fashion: it would have been impossible to have taken a film camera to the places and angles he took it. Digital technology and image-making have expanded in all directions, from the most economical to the most lavish, from documentary immediacy to special effects sorcery. But however endangered film seems, it still has its devotees, its advocates, its possibilities.
Among this year's Academy Award nominees for best cinematography, the only work that was shot on film, Inside Llewyn Davis, comes from the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan. It's the story of a cranky, solitary young man making music in the early 1960s, trying to break into the folk scene in New York. The movie was almost entirely overlooked by the Academy – a strange omission, particularly when it comes to the performance of Oscar Isaac as the title character. He makes a difficult character compulsively watchable, and he's utterly convincing as a singer. Inside Llewyn Davis scored only two Oscar nominations, one of them for Bruno Delbonnel's wintry images of melancholy. There was a straightforward shared reference point – the cover of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan album from 1963 – but Delbonnel has also talked in interviews about the influence of artists, of painters such as Rothko and Rauschenberg, of the importance of finding a consistent approach that is more of an emotion than a ''look''.
The Coens usually work with British-born photographer Roger Deakins, a man who knows only too well what it is like to be overlooked by the Academy. He's up for an award this year; it's his 11th nomination, and he has never won. Deakins even had two movies up for contention in 2007 – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and No Country for Old Men – and he still missed out (to Robert Elswit for There Will be Blood).
He's made 11 films with the Coens and might have worked on Inside Llewyn Davis had he not been held up on the Bond film Skyfall when it went over schedule. This year, Deakins is nominated for Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies).
It's an intense drama about missing children that at one point had Oscar buzz around it for Hugh Jackman's grim depiction of a fear-racked father with a growing inclination towards violence. The film is set in a rural Pennsylvania suburb in an atmosphere of drizzle, concrete, mud and despair, expertly evoked by Deakins, with a powerful, enveloping consistency.
Nebraska, Alexander Payne's wry, downbeat tale of a father-and-son journey through the bleak mid-West, is shot by Phedon Papamichael. It might look like old-fashioned black-and-white, but it is digital, with a grain added. Papamichael (whose father was an art director for John Cassavetes, among others) started out as a stills photographer and there's something about the beautifully observed widescreen compositions that suggests the photographic image - although there's plenty of emphasis on performance and on the impact of the human face.
Some commentators have called for two cinematography awards: one for live-action movies, one for films made predominantly with CGI images.
The Grandmaster, shot by French DOP Philippe Le Sourd, is a martial arts drama from Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai. It's the first time a Wong film has been given an Academy nod, nominated for best cinematography and best costume design (the multi-talented costume designer William Chang Suk-ping, a longtime collaborator with Wong, was also responsible for production design and editing). The story of a martial arts master who would eventually teach a young Bruce Lee is set in China and Hong Kong between the 1930s and '50s. Its action seems almost entirely nocturnal and perpetually graceful, a ballet of martial artistry.
Finally, there's Gravity, a tale of survival in space, shot by six-time nominee Emmanuel Lubezki. Like Deakins, he's never won an Oscar, despite some remarkable films, such as The New World and The Tree of Life for Terrence Malick, and Children of Men with Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron (with whom he has worked for more than 20 years).
Gravity is shot in 3D, and there's an extraordinary, extended opening sequence that sets the tone for the immersive experience to come. There were plenty of innovations in the painstaking process of image-making. One of the things the filmmakers came up with was a large-scale ''light box'' of LED panels. Rather than the actors moving, they stayed immobile in the box, while lighting and environment moved around them.
Lubezki has already won this year's American Society of Cinematographers prize for Gravity. This is not a pointer to the Oscars' result: in the past 27 years, the Oscar-ASC match has only happened on 13 occasions.
If Gravity takes the cinematography Oscar – everyone thinks it is a certainty – it will be the fourth year that a big-budget, effects-laden 3D movie has won, after Avatar (Mauro Fiore); Hugo (Robert Richardson); and Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda). Inception, shot by Wally Pfister, which won in 2011, is a contrast; director Christopher Nolan, is a 3D sceptic and a devotee of celluloid.
Last year, the Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle – best-known for his distinctive, freewheeling work on the films of Wong Kar-wai – caused a bit of a stir when he attacked the choice of Life of Pi for best cinematography, in a somewhat scattergun, dismissive way: he suggested the special effects element was being rewarded rather than the work of a DOP. But he drew attention to a concern others have expressed. Some commentators have called for two cinematography awards: one for live-action movies, one for films made predominantly with CGI images.
In the past there have been parallel awards set up to recognise technological shifts that have changed filmmaking – the advent of colour, for example. From 1936 to 38, there was an award for black-and-white cinematography and a prize for colour (special achievement). In 1939 – when Gone With the Wind became the first colour film to win best picture, there were two equal awards. This lasted until 1966 (with one exception, in 1957, when no separate nominations were considered). From 1967, there was a single award, and colour ruled. Black-and-white films have been nominated, but only one, Schindler's List, has taken out the prize.
Whatever happens over the next few years, it's undoubtedly helpful to encourage debate on images and their production and distribution. People will still choose to work with film, even if some companies have stopped making film stock or film cameras, and processing labs are closing around the world; those who want to will find a way.
And with digital technology there's another question that we should be asking: what about its longevity? What are the archival issues? If we go back to the beginnings of cinema, to the first years of the Oscars, the winners from that era could be screened right now on a projector. But what about films that exist in a digital form: will the winners of the 86th Oscars be easily screened in 86 years' time? Given the scores of format changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, it's an unnerving question.
In fact, there's a case for ensuring that every digital movie has its own enduring shadow: a copy saved onto film negative, preserved for the future. It's quite a concept – the idea that celluloid could be one way to save our digital present, our cinema legacy to come.
The Academy Awards will be held on March 2, US time.