I’m a huge fan of the 16mm format. Many of my favorite films are shot on 16 or S16, and for years I’ve had a goal of shooting future projects, notably a feature film, on 16mm. I had written about the idea on my blog a while back, but it’s taken me some time to find the right project to put it to use on and figure out the most cost effective method to get it done.
Unfortunately, since I first got bit with the 16mm bug in the early 2010’s, prices associated with shooting film have gone up substantially. Not because film is becoming less popular, but because it’s having a massive comeback right now.
There was a point several years back when digital overtook film in terms of popularity, even on most large scale projects. There were of course still some die hard celluloid lovers that refused to shoot on anything but film, but that number was dwindling. It was unclear what would happen with film, or if it would even survive at all.
At that time, everything was dirt cheap. 16mm cameras and lenses could be found on the used market at ridiculous prices. And raw film stock was being sold for rock bottom prices too. To put it in perspective, in 2016 – just two years ago – I was able to buy 16mm film from Kodak for $125/400 ft roll at a discounted rate. Today the standard price is about $180 for the same roll.
There are currently options to buy discounted film stock (re-cans, short ends, returned stock) for around $150 per roll, which is a good option for longer form projects.
But it’s not just the film stock that’s gone up. Camera bodies and kits have increased in price substantially too, as there are far fewer on the market compared to 5 years ago.
The bright side to this price increase is that it signals film is here to stay… At least in some capacity. But for those of us that want to reap the benefits of film but are still looking to keep our budgets in check, we need to think outside the box when working with 16.
I’ve been doing loads of research on the market, trying to figure out what the best combination of gear, processing, and workflow considerations would result in the highest quality image, in the most cost effective way.
Here’s what I learned along the way –
16MM & SUPER 16MM CAMERA CHOICES
One of the first things to consider when getting into 16mm is your camera choice.
There’s a huge range of incredible 16mm/Super 16mm cameras on the market, all with massively different price points. Many filmmakers are tempted to simply go with the cheapest option, as they understand that film stock and lens choice are ultimately what play the biggest role in their final image.
Cameras like the K3 (Krasnogorsk 3) or Bolex H-16 can be found relatively inexpensively on eBay, and are capable of delivering beautiful results. Naturally they are popular with budget conscious filmmakers.
On the other end of the spectrum are cameras like the beautiful Arri 416, which is effectively a Super 16mm version of a true modern 35mm motion picture camera – Arguably the best 16mm camera in existence.
If all you’re doing is shooting MOS material, music videos, or more experimental films, the lower cost options might work just fine. Provided they are in great condition and there are no mechanical issues.
But once you start getting into narrative filmmaking, the ultra cheap cameras just won’t cut it for most filmmakers. Issues with ergonomics, noise, amount of load the magazines take, or basic functionality (like crystal sync for true 24fps), lead most filmmakers to look at cameras that are truly designed for professional use.
Most of the popular professional grade 16mm cameras were made by Aaton and Arri, with Arri’s 16SR line being the most popular of all.
The lineup, which consisted of variations of the SR1, SR2, and SR3, was iconic and massively popular with filmmakers thanks to incredible performance and reliability. These cameras were only overshadowed by the Arri 416… But the 416 was released just as film was being replaced by digital on higher level productions, so it never gained the same cult-status the SR series did. There are also far less of them on the used market.
So when it came time for me to make a purchase, the Arriflex SR’s seemed to be the perfect happy medium. Professional enough to use on a real set, but not as expensive as the 416 which can run upwards of $20K (or more).
Today, it costs anywhere from $5000 – $10,000+ to purchase a fully functioning 16SR series kit, depending on what it comes with, which model you choose, and the condition. Drastically higher than the going rate just a few years ago.
That said, I personally ended up paying only $2500 for my entire kit, which included an SR2 body, 2 x batteries (with charger), mattebox, vari-speed controller/digital footage counter upgrade, 2 x 400’ magazines, and a Zeiss 10 – 100 T2 lens.
I was able to buy the camera at this price was because 1) it was purchased directly from the owner, not a reseller, and 2) the camera is standard 16mm.
For me, it was the perfect option, as I had planned to shoot my 16mm film project in 1.33 aspect ratio (4:3), so I was happy not to spend extra money right now for the wider gate of Super 16mm. If I want to upgrade it down the road for a future project (which I plan to), I can always bring it into the shop to be converted.
It’s fairly expensive to convert 16mm SR2’s to Super 16mm right now, but it can still make sense financially if you get a good enough deal on the Standard 16mm SR2. Not to mention, if you are able to purchase Super 16mm magazines, you don’t need to convert your standard 16mm magazines, and that brings the conversion cost down further.
It’s become harder to find shops that have the parts/ability to convert 16 to Super 16, so for those interested in doing so, I would suggest getting it done sooner than later.
Most filmmakers will find it more cost effective to simply rent a camera when they plan to shoot a 16mm project. If you’re in a major market like LA or NY, you can rent them for a couple hundred bucks a day, which is optimal for those that just want to dabble. For me personally, I wanted to have it long term, and use it across multiple projects, so the purchase made sense.
FILM & PROCESSING COSTS
A quick note: I touched on this subject on my recent micro-budget weekly newsletter, and used some slightly different examples/cost projections. The numbers outlined here are most current with the vendors and facilities I’m currently working with.
When you start working with film, you realize quickly that the camera package is the least of your concerns, cost-wise. Film stock and processing is by far and away where you’ll spend the most amount of money, especially if you work with a pricey lab.
To give you a rough idea of cost, let’s start with the film stock itself which you will likely purchase straight from Kodak. The going rate is about $180 for a 400 ft roll. Each roll gives you approximately 11 minutes of runtime (at 24fps), so if you are shooting a short film that’s approximately 10 minutes long, and shooting with a ratio of 5:1, you’ll need 5 full rolls, which comes to $900 at full price.
Ideally, the goal is to not pay full price for the stock. If you can find re-cans or returned stock, you can save anywhere from $25 – $50 per roll. The lowest I’ve paid for stock was $125, and that was brand new straight from Kodak, but that was also two years ago.
That said, there are lots of options out there for getting discounted stock, especially if you’re a student or if you’re buying in volume. Not to mention, some labs will bundle their film stock with processing and scanning, which can help you save money too.
Typically labs will offer à la carte services for processing (developing your film) and scanning it to a digital file. They will usually also offer bundled packaging with both processing and scanning included, as it’s unlikely you would process your film at one lab and scan it somewhere else.
The lab I plan to work with charges about $112 per roll for the processing and prepping to be scanned (cleaning, etc.). So using the example above, the 5 rolls processed and prepped would run an additional $560.
Pricing out the scanning gets a little more intricate, as the cost varies significantly based on how you scan the footage. For instance, older telecine systems (which run the footage through in real time, or close to it, typically cost a lot less than data scanners that go frame by frame, and are more expensive as they deliver superior quality. Also – if you want to have the lab do any sort of color correction, that’s going to add to the cost as well, which is why I recommend having your lab scan a log file (ideally in ProRes 422HQ minimum), and do the color grading yourself.
There are lots of other cost variables to consider during this phase too, such as resolution (HD, 2K, 4K), and whether or not you want the lab to remove dirt or scratches from your scanned files.
The most cost effective solution that I found – which seems to offer a nice balance of quality and price – runs the film through a Cintel scanner at a rate of $250/hr. This will result in a 2K file which will be nearly identical to it’s 4K counterpart, but far more economical. Without doing any color work during this stage, the footage effectively runs at half speed, meaning for 5 rolls of film (which total almost one hour of runtime) will need two hours to scan, not one. That brings our scanning cost to $500.
Some of these numbers may sound high, but these are really bottom of the barrel. Some labs will charge double or triple these rates, so this type of pricing is actually quite competitive.
If we tally up the full cost of stock/processing/scanning, we are looking at:
Raw stock (assuming reduced rate of $150/roll): $750
ADJUSTING THE SHOOTING RATIO
Clearly, even taking the most economical approach to raw stock/processing/scanning still results in a high sticker price. If we were to budget out a 90 minute feature film (which would require 41 rolls at a 5:1 shooting ratio), we’re looking at $6150 for the stock (at the reduced price), $4592 for the processing, and $3750 for scanning. That’s a total of $14,492.
For many true micro-budget films, that figure is their entire budget, or at least close to it. A film with a $50K + budget might be able to work with those numbers, but on the ultra DIY end, the only way to make shooting film possible is to utilize a much lower shooting ratio.
Some filmmakers coming from the digital world will find it hard to wrap their heads around even a 5:1 ratio. They are used to shooting 10:1 or 20:1 – essentially just spraying and praying, as they say.
I’ve been guilty of that myself from time to time, but I’ve learned over the years that I typically only need 3 takes to get what I need on set, provided we’ve rehearsed actors and camera. Not to mention, there are many instances where I’ve gotten what I needed in a single take, and simply done one extra take for safety.
When shooting digitally, you often just keep shooting because you can, and if anything it can be a hindrance to the production as time is wasted. Film creates the opposite problem as the scarcity forces tough decisions on the director and DP, but at the same time it leads to more instinctual decision making.
All that said, it’s important to understand that reducing your shooting ratio (by default) means you need to reduce your coverage too. To illustrate the point –
Imagine we are shooting standard coverage on a one minute dialogue scene between two characters (one wide shot, two close ups). That’s 3 individual shots that could span the entire length of the one minute long scene. A 3:1 ratio doesn’t mean we need 3 minutes worth of film for that one minute scene. It means 9 minutes of footage, since we are shooting 3 different angles, and each angle needs 3 minutes.
So in order to lower our shooting ratio, we need to minimize our coverage too. The good news, is that doesn’t mean we can’t capture a wide variety of shots in the film, or that scenes can’t “feel” like they are covered. It just takes a different approach.
A longer dialogue scene for instance, could be broken up into 3 or 4 smaller chunks. Each of those sections could be covered as it’s own piece, rather than doing a single master shot for the entire scene, and then shooting inserts or closeups separately. When stringing it out in the edit, the scene will still have multiple shots in it, and it can be just as visually interesting. But by not overlapping coverage (and instead only shooting what you need), your shooting ratio can drop without needing to sacrifice shots.
And if there are some scenes that can be captured from a single angle (and are nailed in one take), that will leave you with extra raw stock that can be tacked on to one of the more challenging scenes. It call comes down to really thinking about what you need, and realizing you don’t need to overshoot your material. If anyone doesn’t think it can be done, read Rebel Without A Crew by Robert Rodriguez and then get back to me.
In our hypothetical example above, if we can get the ratio down to 3:1, that would bring the total cost down to just $8800 – a big drop from nearly $15,000 at a 5:1 ratio.
For some no-budget or DIY films, this will still be too high. In those cases – digital is absolutely the way to go. But for many films in the $25K+ range, this is a reasonable option to consider, and likely in line with prices that would be paid out for a digital camera rental, media, drives, and peripherals.
A lot of what we’ve discussed above focuses on mitigating the challenges associated with shooting film – namely cost. That said, there are so many benefits to shooting film that matter just as much as the quality.
As I alluded to earlier in the article, film changes the entire dynamic of what you shoot and how you shoot. It forces you to truly think about what you’re saying on a deeper level, and challenges you to be a more effective storyteller by using those creative limitations to your advantage. It adds a level of importance, urgency, and immediacy to everything you do, and that is felt throughout the cast and crew.
There are practical advantages too. For instance, shooting a low ratio means your edit time will be massively cut down. Less time and money is needed for post-production, including color grading as the film scans will likely be far closer to a final look than a digital negative might be.
But most importantly is that beautiful 16mm image that simply can not be replicated digitally. Picking up your DSLR will always be the easier option, and for some projects it may be the better way to go. But for those films that do call for that unmistakable 16mm look, the extra blood sweat and tears that go into the process are well worth it.