I recently had my Arri SRII 16mm film camera modified and serviced, and was itching to shoot some footage with it. Rather than just capturing random test shots, I thought it’d be a lot more fun to make a little narrative short to really it put it to the test.
It’s one thing to test a camera’s technical capabilities in a controlled environment, but using it on a real world set is a whole other experience. The latter gives you insight not only into the technical performance of the camera, but also how it will affect your process in the field.
Both of these variables were important for me to learn more about, as I plan to use this camera on longer form projects (namely features) in the future.
From a strictly technical perspective, I wanted to test overall performance and image quality as this was my first time shooting with the camera since it was converted to Ultra 16mm. I’ve shot with the camera numerous times in 4:3 mode, but didn’t quite know what to expect now that the gate was widened.
Creatively, I wanted to see just how possible it would be to shoot a no budget narrative project on 16mm. In the past, some of my favorite digital projects were these little short films I threw together with no money (and sometimes no crew), and wanted to see if I could pull off something similar, even when shooting on film.
I had one 400ft can of 16mm 200T left in my fridge from another shoot, and purchased another one from B & H for $150 – one of the only expenses on the shoot.
Each 400ft roll will run for 11 minutes at 24fps, meaning I had just 22 minutes of “record time” in digital speak.
Although that sounds like absolutely nothing to work with, the script that I wrote was just over 2 pages… So even though I had limited film stock, I still had enough for a 10:1 shooting ratio due to the minimal runtime.
Going into the project, I wanted to keep things as simple as possible to keep the cost as close to $0 as I could. This not only meant keeping the script incredibly short, but also basing it around my resources – The entire story takes place in and around one location (my house), and there is no dialogue.
Right off the bat, those two decisions made a world of difference. Usually locations are my biggest expense, so by shooting at my house that immediately made things easier. And because there was no dialogue, I had no need to roll sound on set. I’m building all the audio in post by using a mix of library music and custom sound effects that I’m recording myself.
I was also fortunate to have a few friends pitch in to help out on the crew side too. In total, there were just four crew outside of myself (Andy Chinn/DP, Ryan Oksenberg/BTS, Michael Bachochin/AD, Jon Stanley/PD), as well as some friends who came out as background for one of the scenes.
I always want to respect everyone’s time on set, especially on a project like this where I’m calling in favors.
To make it easier on everyone, I limited the shooting day to just 6 hours.
Outside of a couple of hours spent earlier in the day setting up some practical lights, the actual shoot only ran from 4pm – 10pm. In just 6 hours we were able to capture 6 scenes spanning 3 different locations inside/outside the house.
We were able to work so quickly not only thanks to a short script, a tight shot list and an awesome crew, but also a technical snag that we hit early in the day.
About 15 minutes into shooting the very first scene, we had an issue with one of the camera magazines. I had pre-loaded both of them the night before, and shot a few seconds of test footage to ensure both were running smoothly… Which they were.
But about three or four takes into scene one, the first magazine had an issue. It sounded like the film had slipped and was not properly catching the sprockets, which is never a good thing. When that happens, rather than the sprockets catching the perforations, they actually clamp into the film itself, which of course can damage the image.
Immediately we stopped rolling and popped in the second magazine, which ran perfectly.
I had to decide whether to re-thread the faulty magazine so we could keep using it later on, or to just scrap it entirely. I chose the latter.
Although it would have been easy to just remove the exposed film from the magazine and re-load it, there were no guarantees that the magazine would not have the same issue again. Perhaps it wasn’t an issue with how it was loaded, but rather the mechanics of the magazine itself… In either case, I didn’t have time to experiment as we were trying to get everything in the can so quickly.
With only about 1 minute of raw footage captured so far, I made the call to try to shoot the rest of the film using ONLY the second, properly functioning mag. Doing this would cut my shooting ratio in half. Rather than a 10:1 ratio, it would be closer to 5:1…
This immediately forced me to re-think my coverage and essentially throw out my shot list. While I still used the shot list as a rough guide, I had to consolidate groups of two or three shots into one-ers, or in some cases scrap shots entirely.
My biggest concern was our main party scene, which required a fair amount of coverage to pull off. While I could eliminate a few specific shots, I knew the majority of the film stock we had would need to be used on that scene.
Knowing that, we shot the majority of every other scene using single takes only. So long as there wasn’t an obvious flub of the action on camera, we would never do a re-take. While it was a little nerve wracking to work this way as there was practically no margin for error, it was also kind of fun.
We would run through each shot a few times for a quick camera rehearsal, and as soon as everything looked good we’d shoot it for real. It felt funny to move on so quickly, but in the end that’s all we really needed! I am knee deep in the edit right now, and don’t feel like we’re missing a single thing…
By the time we shot our party scene at the end of the day, we had more than enough footage left on our roll to capture everything we needed, including a bunch of bonus shots that weren’t even on the shot list.
This never would have happened if we were shooting digital! With digital, you almost always end up shooting more takes than you need of scenes that you probably already have in the can.
Then at the end of the day, there’s no time to try out new ideas or capture bonus material as you’ve eaten up all your time re-shooting material that is now redundant.
As I watch my rough cut of the edit, there’s no sign that we shot with such a limited amount of takes. If anything the film looks more dynamic than many of my digital projects, as we were forced to shoot a wider variety of material as opposed to more takes of the same thing.
Not to mention, the film is basically editing itself since so much of the work was done in camera, and there’s far less footage to sift through. As someone who edits most of my own projects, this is a dream.
The film was scanned in full HD to ProRes 422HQ, resulting in a single 12 minute video file. That’s all I am working with in post, and it’s allowed me to create a full rough cut in practically no time. The finishing/color correction work will no doubt be easier as well, since the 16mm film does so much of the heavy lifting.
I should also mention that my total costs for the film/processing/scanning were under $500. That was effectively the budget of the film, outside of pizza and a couple Venmo payments. I tend to consider anything under $1K a “no budget” project, as there is always SOME cost – whether it’s food, gas, media, props, etc.
In any case, I’m excited to get this film out there and share it with all of you soon. Originally, I was planning to submit to festivals, but with so many of them now cancelled or indefinitely delayed, I’ll likely release online to get it out as soon as possible.
Once it’s up, I’ll share another blog post here with the film itself, as well as a copy of my script and shot list. I thought that would be helpful for those of you who want to see how things translated from the page to screen.
In the mean time, I’ll share a few screen grabs from the film below.
Almost everything you’ll see was shot using practical lights, along with a single LED Litemat and/or Quasar Tube.
There’s a little more grain than usual for 200T, because we pushed it a stop in the lab. That means the light meter was set to ISO 400 (not 200), and the film was developed a little longer to bring out more detail. We did this due to our limited lighting on the day.
Lens-wise, everything was shot on my Angenieux 12 – 120mm, which served us really well throughout the shoot.
The lab did scan the film a little tighter than I would like, which is why the images below are in 1.66 aspect ratio instead of 1.85. Ultra 16mm is an unusual format, and requires the scanner to pull back see the entire negative, including the sprocket holes. This allows you to crop in for an even wider aspect ratio.
I may have the footage re-scanned for 1.85, but I also kind of like it in 1.66, so will have to report back on that front soon. For now, check out these images from the film –
Be sure to check back soon for my follow up post which will include the finished film. If you have any questions about shooting on 16mm in the meantime, leave a comment below!