Film has been replaced by digital in our cinemas. But some big names - including Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino - believe the switchover was a terrible mistake

If you've seen a photograph of Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, have you seen Gustav Klimt's The Kiss? You'd certainly have a good idea of what Klimt's painting looks like: two lovers swathed in orgasmic afterglow and expensivelooking pyjamas.

And if the photograph was a good one, you might also have a sense of the painting's presence: the fact that the thing's almost 36 square feet in size, for instance, or that its golden whorls and tessellations really do glint in the sunlight.

But it seems reasonable to say that if you want to really see The Kiss - experience it in the way Klimt wanted - then you have to stand in front of it in person in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna's Belvedere Palace. And anyone who has done that will tell you a photograph can't do it justice. If a gallery promises Klimt, they can't just stick up a poster.

Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt (1907), now known as the Woman in Gold Credit: © Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy/Heritage Image Partnership Ltd / Alamy

One of the most urgent questions facing the film industry today is whether what's obviously a deal-breaker for fine art should also hold true for the movies. If you've been to the cinema within the last 10 years, chances are the films you saw were all shown on digital projectors - which is, albeit in a hyper-evolved, infinitely sharper form, the same technology you use at home to watch a DVD. A silver-coloured brick called a digital cinema package, or DCP, is plugged into the projector, which translates a bundle of computer files into pictures and sound, then beams them onto the screen.

In and of itself, that's fine. When it's well-projected, digital cinema has a sapphire-sleek, almost minty visual freshness - and many new films made with digital technology, such as David Fincher's Gone Girl, Michael Mann's Blackhat, and anything shot by Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike XXL springs glisteningly to mind), will never look better than when screened from a DCP.

But many film-makers still prefer to work with film itself: the glossy photochemical strips that have been whirring through movie cameras since the late 19th century. Like digital, film has its own particular feel, which I'll elaborate on in a moment, and it's one that appeals to directors working at all levels of the business. SPECTRE, the new James Bond film, has been shot on 35mm film, as has Star Wars Episode VII and Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice - as were Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Jurassic World and Cinderella.

Daniel Craig in Spectre Credit: 2015 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/ Columbia/Jonathan Olley

Directors occasionally use other film formats as a stylistic choice: Sarah Gavron's period drama Suffragette was shot on cramped, urgent 16mm, while Quentin Tarantino captured his new western, The Hateful Eight, on velvety 70mm. And while it comes as no surprise to hear Wes Anderson works exclusively on film, Zack "Man of Steel" Snyder is just as committed to the medium. You get the idea: this isn't an affectation or a dying art. It's one of the most basic creative choices a film-maker can make.

At the moment, though, it's almost impossible to see any movie that was made on film, on film. When you go to the cinema, what you're almost certainly watching is a video file: the poster, rather than the Klimt. Projectors that are capable of screening film prints have been largely phased out of British cinemas since 2005, when the digital revolution began to pick up speed with the move to 3D, and 98 per cent of cinema screens in the country are now exclusively digital. That means that unless you've specifically sought out a 35mm or 70mm screening, which are almost non-existent for new releases, or are a regular at your local independent cinema - if you're lucky enough to have one - you probably haven't actually watched projected film for at least 10 years.

But the time might be ripe for a revival. During this year’s London Film Festival, The British Film Institute organised a morning of discussion between people from all tiers of the industry – led by Christopher Nolan, the director of Interstellar and the Dark Knight trilogy, and the film artist Tacita Dean. Also chipping in were Emma Thomas, Nolan’s producing partner; Sir Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate; the legendary film editor and sound designer Walter Murch; representatives from various UK cinema chains; and also your humble correspondent. The discussion was chaired by Heather Stewart, the BFI’s Creative Director – a job that includes overseeing the National Archive, a cache of film prints that would literally stretch to the moon and back.

Anne Hathaway in Interstellar Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

Dean, who worked with film since the early Nineties, neatly framed the problem. "The industry has been thinking about film as a technology, and technologies go obsolete," she said. "And anyone who says they want to continue using film has been positioned as standing against progress."

Sir Nicholas drew a link between the film-to-digital changeover and the sudden craze for acrylic paint in the Sixties.

"It dried quickly, it was fluid, it did all kinds of things that oil paint couldn't do … there was even talk about oil paint production being discontinued," he said. "But 10 or 20 years later, people began to realise that there are things you can do in oil that you cannot do in acrylic." Ten years on from the digital switchover, perhaps we're about to reach the same conclusion.

One of the main obstacles to getting real film projection back into cinemas is dispelling the myths that surround it.

Film isn't, for example, the more temperamental of the two mediums. A movie stored digitally costs around £7,500 per year to maintain, and will start to deteriorate after a decade or so - imagine trying to use a laptop today that you bought in 2005.

With only £700 of annual upkeep (mainly cleaning and climate control), however, a 35mm print can remain pristine for a century or longer.

The Mosasaur feeding show in Jurassic World

Another is the idea of film as a dirty technology, with scratched and out-of-focus images spluttering across the cinema screen. It's true that in the Fifties, film prints were made of notoriously meltable, scuff-able acetate - which itself was a step up from the terrifyingly unstable nitrate prints of the olden days, which would sometimes burst into flames mid-movie. But acetate was phased out around 25 years ago, and replaced by near-indestructible Mylar, a kind of polyester - and insofar as Mylar can be said to have a resolution at all, it's significantly higher than the 2K digital standard.

Film can also carry billions of colours, as opposed to the 16million or so available on digital. The differences between these shades aren't apparent to the human eye, but it means transitions between colours look smoother, particularly in very light and dark areas of the image.

Then there's the texture of the image itself. Rather than the neat grids of pixels you get with digital, the colours on a film strip come from layers of microscopic silver halide crystals, the positions of which differ from frame to frame. That's why a static digital shot of an unchanging scene looks frozen, while on film, you're always keenly aware that time is passing.

"Digital might be more predictable, but the problem is you can no longer see the best version of the film," Nolan told the group. "In other words, cinemas are taking the McDonald's approach: yeah, it's all a bit worse, but at least it's consistent."

Film-reels in the British Film Institute Archive

When you see film and digital projected one after the other, the differences are obvious. But actually quantifying them can be tricky. People talk about film giving your eyes "something to touch", or the image "looking alive" - which, as Nolan noted, can sound "overly precious", particularly in the mass entertainment business. But I've never heard it summed up better than by American film editor and sound designer Walter Murch. He recalled an experiment he carried out in which he took identical shots of an empty room on film and on video, then played them back and tried to tell the difference.

"The feeling that I got from looking at an empty room on film is of a rising potential, as if somebody was about to come in," he said.

"And the feeling I got on video was of somebody just having left."

The arguments against film prints largely come down to convenience and expense. They have to be set up and supervised by trained projectionists, which costs cinemas money - although as Nolan waspishly noted, any savings made in that area don't seem to have been passed on to the customer.

Christopher Nolan on the set of Interstellar Credit: Melinda Sue Gordon

"The idea that it's too difficult to find or too expensive to employ projectionists would be an absurd problem in any other form of entertainment," he said. "If U2 were putting on a concert and said, 'To do this properly we'd need someone to plug in the speakers or whatever, and we don't know anyone,' they wouldn't cancel the concert."

At the moment, it takes a film-maker with the profile of Nolan or Tarantino to get projectors whirring. Nolan's Interstellar was released on 35mm and 70mm prints two days before its digital roll-out, and in the US, Tarantino's The Hateful Eight will screen on 70mm prints for two weeks in December before its "official" release in early January.

As a result, less influential directors might feel able to take a similar stand - and multiplexes, which are finding it increasingly hard to prise customers from their living rooms, will realise that this, rather than the omni-glowing hell of interactive apps and "parallel content", will be the definitive only-in-cinemas experience.

For now, the future remains fuzzy - though the picture is sharper than it was two years ago, when Fujifilm bailed out of the business and Kodak, the last film manufacturer standing, was mired in bankruptcy. Earlier this year, Kodak signed deals with Disney, Fox, Paramount, Sony, Universal and Warner Bros to manufacture film for all six studios, in an attempt to kickstart a new appetite for projection.

Like all the best decisions Hollywood ever made, it's a gamble. But if it pays off, it'd be a flash of lateral thinking worthy of a Christopher Nolan film. Just imagine if century-old technology became the next big thing.