I’m a big believer that camera choice should always reflect the creative direction of any given production. Whenever I embark on a new film, I ask myself which format and aesthetic matches the story most appropriately, and then choose my camera system accordingly. I’ll never choose a camera for a project simply because I own one, or because it’s easy to get my hands on one – it is always a conscious choice that is dictated by the needs of the film.
As such, I’ve shot on just about every current digital format available either on my personal projects, or commercial projects that I’ve directed/shot. One of the fun parts about choosing a digital cinema camera is that it’s similar in a way to choosing your film stock. For instance, the RED look is very clean, accurate and sharp, while the Alexa look is softer and more filmic, in my opinion at least.
That said, I think it’s safe to say that the “film look” will never be perfectly achieved with digital cameras, even though cameras like the Alexa are getting really close. The bottom line is film is film and digital is digital. There are things you can do to make your digital footage look like film – both in camera, and in post – but you are still working with digital source footage… It’s not better or worse, just different.
Digital really has come such a long way in such a short time, and there’s no question that many projects should be shot digitally for aesthetic or logistical reasons. But with that in mind, there is still something about film that keeps many directors and DP’s coming back for more. The latitude, character, depth, and color of motion picture film is very distinct, and film still offers a visual look that no digital format can perfectly emulate.
WHY SHOOT SUPER 16?
At the moment I’m in pre-production for a feature film that will go into production this summer. The feature will be shot (at least in part) on Super 16mm film, and as part of the development process I decided to shoot a little teaser for the film beforehand. The regular followers of this blog probably know that I like shooting mood films or teasers when developing bigger ideas, and in this case there is no exception.
The only difference this time around is that the teaser will not only serve as a show piece for our team as we attach cast and other key creative players, but it will also serve as a bit of a technical experiment. Having never shot on Super 16mm before, I really wanted to shoot something small and manageable on the S16 format. The goal is to test out different film stocks, lighting setups, and scanning options to ensure I get the best final product when the feature rolls around.
There are really two reasons why I am shooting this project on film: The visuals and the process.
Let’s start with the visuals –
The world in which this feature is set is very glossy and polished, which is very different from the more stark and raw environments that I’m often drawn to in my film work. The lead character is someone that on the surface is very pure looking, but under the skin has a much darker soul. Super 16mm was the obvious choice right away for this film as the grittiness, texture, and surrealistic look of the format can serve the purpose of offsetting the otherwise perfectly clean look of the environment and protagonist. The choice of S16 film will add a nice amount of metaphorical contrast so to speak, and I believe it will serve the story better than a digital alternative.
Films like this year’s Oscar nominated “Carol” and one of my personal favorites “Black Swan” have made use of the Super 16 format for similar reasons, and the results speak for themselves.
But with all that aside, the idea of shooting on S16 is also very appealing to me from the perspective of the creative process too…
One of the things I dislike about shooting digitally is that there is no time limit. That might sound funny, considering you could also make an argument that the drawback of film is that it’s finite and there are no do-overs… But I’ve always felt that the best creative work comes out of having limitations – whether it be budgetary limitations, time limits, or otherwise. While a limitation can feel like a burden initially, it can actually force you to be more creative and to think more instinctually at times.
On this feature we will likely have a 4:1 shooting ratio, meaning on average we will get 4 takes per scene, which really is all we should need. With digital, it’s not uncommon to shoot 7 or 8 takes (or far more) for any given scene, and then wind up with loads of footage that isn’t all that great, and ends up costing you a lot of time in the editing room.
Film on the other hand, forces you to commit to decisions. You need to get it right the first time. You need to capture the look you’re after in camera. It forces you to do your rehearsals beforehand (when you should do them) and not on camera while you’re “rolling the rehearsal”. It also gives the actors a sense of urgency as they understand there are only so many takes before they need to move on.
At first, the idea of shooting film can feel scary, especially if you’ve worked exclusively with digital cameras. But depending on how you like to work, the added pressure and challenge of shooting on film can really change the way that you work and force you to make some more instinctual decisions.
The teaser I’m working on right now is a perfect example of how format can affect process.
Originally we were supposed to shoot the project this weekend, but decided to push things off for a week or two to find a better location, re-tool the script a bit, and have more time to work with our cast. Had I been shooting digitally, there’s a good chance I would have pushed ahead and shot anyways, but knowing that would be shooting on film really forced me to take a step back and analyze what I’m shooting in more detail. In the end, whatever creative decisions are made with the extra time that we now have will inevitably better our final product.
THE FORM FACTOR
Everything that I’ve said so far can really be applicable to any film format, from 8mm to 70mm. But the reason I chose Super 16mm for this project (above and beyond what I’ve already stated) has a lot to do with the form factor of the camera. The film I’m shooting calls for a lot of handheld work and will be shot in somewhat of a cinema vérité style, so naturally S16mm was the perfect choice for this. Super 16 cameras are relatively light and have a small footprint, meaning I can shoot much in the same way that I would shoot with smaller digital cameras.
Not to mention, I love the physical size of the Super 16mm frame. While it may be very “cropped” by full frame DSLR standards, I actually welcome the smaller frame size as it makes focus pulling easier and creates a very unique look. I’ve never had an issue getting shallow depth of field on small formats either – in fact even when shooting on my old DVX 100B back in the day, I was able to get nice shallow DOF under the right conditions… So achieving wide or narrow DOF with Super 16mm is absolutely possible with the right lenses and blocking.
THE COST OF SHOOTING FILM
There’s no question that shooting on film can be far more expensive than digital. At the same time it has never been cheaper to shoot on film, and there are some undeniable cost benefits when compared to digital.
Film cameras are in such low demand right now that you can rent them at most rental houses for less than the price you would pay for a DSLR rental. For that matter if you choose to, you can purchase a used one off of eBay for a couple thousand dollars or less, depending on the camera of course.
So the real cost of shooting film isn’t the camera, it’s the film stock and processing. And while you may anticipate the processing will cost you an arm and a leg, it’s not as bad as you might think – especially when you factor in the cost savings in other areas of your production.
Kodak is very reasonable with their pricing of film stocks, and seem to be giving out discounts to just about anyone that’s willing to shoot film right now. A 400′ roll of brand new 16mm film (not re-cans) will run you about $100 – $125, and will give you 11 minutes of footage. The processing/scanning will come out to be around the same, so for every 11 minutes you shoot, you’re looking at about $250 all in.
That’s certainly not cheap by any standards, but it is manageable for many productions – even some ultra low budget projects.
Let’s assume you’re shooting a short film that’s 10 pages long, or approximately 10 minutes in length. With a 3:1 shooting ratio you’re going to need 3 x 400′ rolls, which will cost you about $750. Add in the price of an extra roll or a camera rental and you’re looking at about $1000.
That’s certainly more than “free” which is what you’ll get with your DSLR, but it’s less than you’ll spend on renting an Alexa package for the day, and a stack of hard drives to back your footage up on.
Storage is a huge consideration when shooting digitally as you’ll always need multiple backups of your raw files. Film on the other hand is the archival medium. You’ll always have your film negative as a backup (which by the way is far more reliable than your hard drive), and you can choose to back up (or not) your digital scans to as many drives as you see fit.
There are many other ways shooting on film can help keep your production/post costs down in other ways too. For instance, on set your days will likely run that much more quickly since you won’t be able to do 20 takes of every scene. That means less overtime, fewer meal penalties, and more money in the bank.
Not to mention in the editing room there will be far less footage to go through, which inevitably will save you time and/or money, depending on who’s editing your film… And you will probably need to do less color grading since the colors will look that much better right out of the can. That’s not to say you don’t need a colorist or some time in DaVinci yourself, but rather that you will be able to spend less time in that phase, which is one of the most costly parts of the post process.
Although I’ve made my case for choosing film in a digital world, it’s certainly not always the right choice. As I mentioned earlier, digital has come such a long way and it is still the best option for the vast majority of today’s productions. The fact of the matter is 99% of us are not shooting our own narrative projects every day. We are shooting commercials, music videos, and other projects for clients that don’t have the time or patience or need for film…
But when you do have a passion project that could benefit from the aesthetic of film, and the change in process that comes along with it – film is still an option. It’s not going to be the cheapest option or the easiest for that matter, but the challenges it creates can pay off with some very unique creative results.
That’s about it for now! Thanks for checking out this post and I look forward to sharing some footage with all of you as the project comes together.
UPDATE; I just released my custom Film Grain Packs – now available in both Clean & Dirty variations – that allow you to add real Super 35mm, Super 16mm, and Super 8mm grain to your digital footage. Check them out here!