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Case Study Essay on Technological Developments: 'Back To The Future' and 'Skyfall'

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By exploring the technological developments in production; the scientific principles of film and digital shooting; the production processes, distribution, and access; standards of sustainable practice; and the social and economic contexts of filmmaking I will explore the evolution of film technology. In particular, I will be comparing and contrasting two key feature films - Back To The Future and Skyfall, and contextualizing them. Skyfall released in 2010, was directed by Sam Mendes. It was shot in locations that included Turkey, Syria, London, and Scotland. Skyfall was the first of the James Bond series to be shot entirely in a digital format. In contrast to this, Back To The Future was filmed using an entire celluloid format (35mm and 70mm distributions). It was released in 1985 and directed by Robert Zemeckis.

When it comes to filmmaking there are two main options when deciding what format to shoot on, Digital or Film. Both of these formats are used in current-day filmmaking and both have pros and cons. But how do they both go about capturing an image within the workings of the camera itself?

Digital cameras use an internal sensor that consists of millions of micro-cavities that essentially collect and measure the number of light photons that pass through the lens and reach the sensor after the exposure process has begun. The camera then calculates and processes how many photons of light hit each cavity and this information is converted into an electrical signal. The signal can then be converted into data and using additional circuitry, this data is stored on a device such as an SD card or Hard Drive depending on the camera’s hardware. This is the process that was used when filming Skyfall.

In comparison, Film cameras use an entirely different process to capture an image. Prior to digital cameras, the film was the sole format for filmmaking and held the gold standard for decades. Originally the film was only able to capture black and white images, however as technology progressed the use of color film became available. This then became the new gold standard in filmmaking. One of the game-changing color film formats was Technicolour. Technicolour merges three film strips of red green and blue to create an image that had the ability to display vibrant colors after the developing stage. Technicolor was founded by Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Frost Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott in 1914. The technicolor technology allowed famous films like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind to capitalize on the new age of films. Back To The Future also utilized the technicolor breakthrough in 1985, as it was the current successor in film formats.

Unlike digital cameras, film cameras do not use an internal sensor. Instead, modern film stock uses a chemical reaction on a strip of layered celluloid to capture an image. The film stock is coated with thousands of light-reactive silver halide crystals. Light passes through the camera's lens and hits the film strip. The silver halide crystals then change states once they've come into contact with light. The changed state of the crystals is what determines how the image will look after the developing process. The developing process consists of various chemical baths that film stips go through. It is these chemicals that reveal the images on the celluloid film strips.

The first motion pictures, dating from 1895, did not feature any editing. This was due to the lack of technology available and “the novelty of seeing a moving image was such that not even a screen story was necessary” (Dancyger, 2018). The audience was focusing their attention on the technology that was able to capture what was basically an animated photograph, rather than the context or looking for a story for entertainment value. This was known as “The Silent Period”. The motion picture was therefore one long shot and ran as long as there was film. From 1895 and over the next thirty years the principles of classical editing were developed, however “light, camera placement, and camera movement were not variables” (Dancyger, 2018). Editing during its infancy essentially meant physically cutting the film stock and taping it together to create a scene or remove unwanted footage. One of the early editing machines was called Moviola. This technique was used for many years until digital editing software was developed with the advancements of computers.

In today's world films are edited with the use of digital nonlinear editing software, such as Avid or Premiere Pro, this type of editing was used for Skyfall. The introduction of digital editing meant that the post-production of films became more streamlined and efficient whilst also allowing more creative opportunities. The emergence of digital editing software highlighted a pivotal moment in filmmaking history. Digital systems like those previously mentioned allow for scenes to be cut and manipulated digitally rather than the task of physically rearranging film stock. The use of digital editing is far more cost-efficient when compared to physical film cutting due to the film not needing re-developing after mistakes are made.

When the first motion pictures were created they were played back at a much higher speed in order to make them short in length, typically around a few seconds to a minute in length. This was for many reasons, one of the main being that they were then able to have more showings and therefore more audiences and more money (Holman, 2010). Due to the increased speed, there would be an obvious pitch shift which they were unable to adjust, therefore sound was not used and often the motion pictures were played alongside music, sometimes live. This period was therefore known as the “Silent Era”. “Sound-on-film came into use in the late 1920s” (Holman, 2010) and required standardization of 24 frames per second (fps) to increase the sound quality and make the playback pitch sound like the original. “The transition between the “silent” cinema and the cinema of synchronous sound required a complete retooling of the motion picture industry from production to postproduction to distribution” (Rea & Irving, 2015).

During the 1950s, multitrack sound emerged to help immerse the audience as part of new developments, like 3D and widescreen projection, to increase cinema audiences. Previously most sounds were recorded on a mono track. This was essentially a magnetic strip in which sound was recorded and was on the left side of the film stock.

During this time there were also developments with using different audio channels during exhibitions in the cinemas, to create encompassing sound. One division used Perspecta which was a mono-optical track that could be directed either left, right, or center. An issue with using magnetic strips was the added cost to the development of the film stock. It would also wear over time and iron oxide would flake from the strip and subsequently jam the projectors.

In 1966, Ray Dolby created a pivotal development that addressed the issue of hissing in the channels of sound. By splitting the input sound into frequency bands and applying compression before recording the sound, Dolby created a better signal-to-noise ratio. During playback, Dolby reversed the compression in order to massively reduce unwanted noise. This was a huge development for sound and became the standard in the industry and was known as Dolby A.

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In 1976, Dolby then created ‘Dolby Stereo’ which featured two optical strips running along the film stock which featured four channels, this was used when filming Back to the Future.

Dolby SR was the next key point for sound in 1986 which had even better noise reduction and featured a better dynamic range when recording. Dolby Digital was then created in 1992, which is still often used, and was for Skyfall. Dolby Digital has a 5.1 surround sound and an AC-3 compression algorithm. Rather than the sound being printed as it was previously, it was printed in the sprocket holes and required a digital reader. In 1993, DTS and SDDS were released. DTS featured a CD-Rom for audio and was matched to a timecode on the film stock. SDDS used printing on the edges of the film stock.

Filmmaking is a complex process. “The process is time tested and has not changed. What is constantly changing are the tools” (Rea & Irving, 2015). The camera has come a long way since its dawn. Further digital camera advancements constantly change the shape of cinema such as 4k and 3D image capture. Digital cameras have become a popular choice for directors and filmmakers since Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones. Since 2002, digital cameras have become increasingly cheaper and more economically sustainable. The average price for a duplicate of a 35mm film reel costs around £1,500. Digital data distribution costs one-tenth of that. This has allowed budget independent film companies to create masterpieces and has had a huge impact on the variety of content that cinemas display.

Today's film industry strives to be more sustainable socially, economically, and environmentally. This can not only be a benefit to the world but also can greatly reduce costs in the production of films. In previous years of film production, not much was considered in regard to reviewing and practicing sustainable film, in some cases this had a negative impact on the environment. According to an article written by the independent in 2007 “film-makers rarely take the environment into consideration. Yet to put in measures that would reduce pollutants would probably save money.” (Aftab, 2007). This statement by Aftab can be argued as true as throughout history filmmaking has been one of the biggest contributors to pollution. Corbett and Turbco’s proved this with their study in Los Angeles in 2006. The study concluded that the motion picture industry was the biggest contributor to conventional pollution emissions, producing 130,000 metric tons. This was more emissions than the aerospace industry, and more than the hotel and apparel industry combined.

Thankfully the motion picture industry is now making efforts to reduce the impact of its pollution, this is the reason why the practice of the BS8909 Series of British Standards is a positive influence on the industry. BS8909 provides the industry with a “robust framework” (, 2011) for managing the social and environmental impacts the industry has, it has been described by actors such as Colin Firth as “an exciting step forward” (, 2011). This new standard is key for regulating negative impacts in all stages of production from planning and production to post-production and distribution. The BFI (British Film Institute) is taking BS8909 seriously and intends on setting the standard not just for Britain but internationally. The BFI believes that sustainability should be a mandatory concept for all productions in the future as said by their head of facilities Duncan McKeith “Sustainability needs to be considered in a similar way to Health & Safety, that is, as basic good practice, integrated into all organizational decision making” (, n.d.).

Back to the Future was distributed by Universal Pictures and they have made a conscious decision to be more sustainable. Their “Green is Universal” initiative has been implemented across their film production, tv production, theme parks, and facilities, as well as with their products and packaging. In order to reduce their environmental impact in film production, NBCUniversal created a “Sustainable Production Program” with the aim to empower their “film divisions to integrate sustainable best practices across their productions” (Green is Universal, 2019). Universal Pictures’ recent releases have been implementing this program. For example, Little (2019) used a majority of “tree-free paper made from sugarcane waste fiber” (Green is Universal, 2019) during pre-production. They also had a number of “recycling stations set up throughout the workspaces” (Green is Universal, 2019). Universal Pictures’ productions have “rented multiple hybrid passenger vehicles [and] used energy-efficient LED lighting to reduce power needs” (Green is Universal, 2019). The majority of the staff at Universal use digital distribution for paperwork in order to cut down on paper use. The teams also use rechargeable batteries for headsets and microphones on set and try to purchase responsibly harvested supplies, such as timber, for props or the set, in order to reduce their environmental impact. Universal Pictures also aims to give back to the local community whilst being environmentally friendly, catering often donates excess food – practices like these have led Universal Studios productions, such as Us (2019) to receive awards like the EMA Green Seal (Green is Universal, 2019). It is fair to argue that the majority of these steps may not have been used when Back to the Future was filmed and produced as it was released in 1985.

In 2011, Sony Pictures (who distributed Skyfall) became the first zero-waste studio lot in Hollywood and requested that their film and TV productions follow sustainable practices, such as “planting a tree for each day of shooting” (, 2019). This is part of Sony Pictures Entertainment’s environmental initiative, “Sony Pictures A Greener World” – which works alongside Sony Group’s global environmental plan “Road to Zero” (, 2019). Since then they have gone on to announce their second wave of environmental goals in 2013, which they aimed to fulfill by 2020. The goals included reducing their “operational carbon emissions by 15%, achieving sustainable status on film and TV productions; promoting the transition from physical to digital production and distribution; and using the studio’s global reach to raise environmental awareness and inspire sustainable practices among employees and beyond” (, 2019). Films with “a budget of $50 million typically produce the equivalent of around 4,000 metric tons of CO2” (Blogger, 2019). Therefore, Skyfall which had an estimated budget of $150 million (Lodge, 2019) can be argued as producing much more, especially with the multiple filming locations across different countries. Sony could have made Skyfall’s production more sustainable if they hadn’t shot across multiple countries as traveling has a large environmental impact – particularly flying. Despite it being difficult to keep environmental effects down with an action film like Skyfall due to the locations, special effects, and high-end vehicles synonymous with Bond films, directors of the next installment have opted for James Bond to drive a fully electric car. Director, Cary Joji Fukunaga has said: “he is keen to use the reach of Bond films to promote clean technologies” (George, 2019). Daniel Craig also participated in the United Nations' “Launch of the Sustainable Development Goals” in 2015 (United Nations Sustainable Development, 2019), highlighting that it is not only the large companies within the industry taking steps to become more sustainable.

Technological advances have altered the social and economic contexts of filmmaking by creating a non-linear pathway into the industry. Rather than working your way up through the industry or studying for a film degree, the rise of accessible digital camera technology allows more independent movies to be created. These are often then premiered in festivals such as the Sundance Film Festival, rather than being distrusted by large companies in cinemas. The first Sundance was in 1985 and was founded by the Sundance Institute, “a non-profit organization that actively advances the work of independent storytellers in film and theatre” (, 2019). The rise of independent film festivals like Sundance has allowed films shot on DSLR cameras with small budgets to premier to audiences and gain critical accommodation, which they may not have otherwise achieved. Many films that premiered at Sundance have not only won awards at the festival but have gone on to be nominated for and received both Oscars and Academy Awards, such as Four Weddings and A Funeral and Winter’s Bone (Kiang and Lyttelton, 2017).

Over 4 billion people have access to the internet in 2019 (, 2019). This has led to an increase in online video-uploading platforms such as YouTube and a range of legal streaming services such as Amazon Prime and Netflix. Platforms like YouTube allow anyone to upload for free, meaning that small filmmakers can upload trailers or even their films without added costs. Streaming services have led to new production and distribution companies like Amazon Studios, which have been known to distribute Hindi Amazon Originals. This allows more access and distribution for a variety of films which large production companies may not purchase due to not believing they will do overly well at the Box Office. Most people have access to a smartphone, laptop, or tablet allowing for viewing anywhere as long as they have an internet connection, meaning larger audiences can now be reached. People are also able to easily share trailers, interviews, and other media relating to a film via social media. This means a film can gain a larger reputation within society.

The era french new wave was arguably one of the most important and influential eras in entire cinema history that permanently changed the way that films were made. It established its own identity away from the mainstream classic world of cinema and broke the rules of how films were traditionally made. This new ideology meant that filmmakers didn't need a huge production budget as the emphasis of these new wave films focussed on creativity rather than the strict rules of classic film.

The rapid development of digital technology has revolutionized the way the public consumes media worldwide eternally. This is no exception in film production and distribution. The rise in popularity amongst filmmakers with digital recording hardware such as the digital camera has meant that films can now be distributed easier and cost-effective than before. As opposed to the traditional means of transporting costly 35mm film reels to cinemas internationally. Most modern movies are now displayed on a digital video projector that reads data from an internal storage device and can now be distributed from filmmakers to cinemas in a number of ways including being sent via the internet or satellite links, or by shipping media hardware such as hard drives or USB sticks. It is now much cheaper and economically friendly for a feature film to release films digitally rather than making thousands of copies of a film on DVD or VHS.

Outside of cinemas, there has seen a massive rise in the popularity of movie streaming services with Netflix gaining a whopping 9.6 million new subscriptions in the first three months of 2019 (Kafka, 2019). The affordable aspect of these streaming distribution services makes it a popular choice for the average consumer with a Netflix membership ranging from £5.99 to £9.99 per month (, 2019). The internet is the technology that has made this distribution process possible with 90% of households in the UK having access to it (Statista, 2019). DVD and VHS rentals have been replaced with the convenience and comfort of not having to leave the house to enjoy a movie is also another huge reason for the public to turn to this relatively new media viewing experience. Unfortunately, this rise in popularity of streaming services has had a devastating effect on DVD rental stores like Blockbuster with the company going bust in 2013.

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Case Study Essay on Technological Developments: ‘Back To The Future’ and ‘Skyfall’. (2023, April 21). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 4, 2024, from
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