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The Case For Film: You Heard It Was Expensive? Inefficient? Obsolete? Maybe You Heard Wrong

Posted By Kevin Perry, Friday, February 9, 2018

Every revolution has its cost, whether paid in blood or tea or legacy, and the digital revolution is our current pop culture test case. With the ascendency and relative ubiquity of digital video, what artistic achievements might be sacrificed as film spools its way to a final reel? Or perhaps a better question: what do producers stand to gain by preserving the traditions of film?

The answers may surprise you.

 In Hollywood, the conventional wisdom is to be unconventional; readiness to run against the status quo is what fueled the recent embrace of digital photography after all. But now that digital has become the default format of choice, there’s an argument simmering in the production trenches that continues to get louder: the argument that shooting on film actually can be as or more cost-effective, time-effective and artistically effective than even the latest and best video formats.

As PGA member and 2017 Oscar nominee Todd Black will attest, it all starts with the script. “What’s the material telling us? What does it want to be? What do we want the audience to feel? That’s how I proceed when making decisions about film vs. digital.” But Black didn’t become an A-list producer without crunching the numbers. “We need to always look at the budget. That’s a given, because it’s a business. It’s show business, but it’s also show. You have to say, ‘Does this give the best show to the audience?’ And if it’s film, then use film. If you can figure out the budget.”

That’s a big ‘if’ - take it from indie filmmaker Matt Miller. “When you’re considering something low-cost, you just have to set priorities on a production,” says Miller, the founder of Vanishing Angle, an artists’ collective dedicated to furthering various creative endeavors. “What’s the best use of resources to create the director’s vision?” That vision begins with the right equipment. “Film cameras are more available and therefore much cheaper. Often, rental houses are so excited to be working on film again that their techs go nuts!” he reports. “They’ll basically give you a film package almost for free … pretty much almost for free, anyway. Because they’re available. You’re not having to compete with these ‘fancier,’ ‘more exciting’ digital packages.” (The air quotes are Miller’s.)

But the thought of relying on 20th century machinery to capture a contemporary motion picture frightens some producers. Troubleshooting is paramount on Miller’s mind as he continues. “A film camera, it’s intricate, but it’s very mechanical. There’s a power source and there’s gears that run. If something’s off, you can usually tell right away. It’s easier to assess than if you have damaged software or a dropped pixel, or some other crazy thing that’s happening with your digital camera.”

Appropriately enough, it’s when the camera starts rolling that you discover the impact that film can have, not just on picture quality, but on the entire environment of a set. “There’s a general preparedness and energy that comes with shooting on film. Because everybody knows there’s a literal translation of dollars rolling through the camera,” Miller opines. “There’s a kind of static electricity that charges everybody on set the minute you start hearing that camera go. Everybody kicks into gear and there’s a professionalism that sweeps over the set because it has this analog, tactile quality that everybody can hear and see. It becomes more real.”

These sentiments are echoed by writer/director JT Mollner, who contrasts the immediacy of film with the comparative leisurely pace that sometimes comes with digital filmmaking. “When people know that there’s unlimited data and unlimited time and you’re not spending more money by shooting more, you start to get lazy and you start to get inefficient. Nobody on the set, from the crew to the actors, is taking it seriously. I really do think that quality rises to the top when you’re shooting film because of the urgency and the sense of value with each take.” Reflecting on his own production experiences while crafting the breakthrough 2016 western Outlaws and Angels, Mollner concludes, “I truly believe that shooting film saved us money and made us more efficient, but I never could have known that going in.”

And the result: Sundance gold. “The fact that it was shot on film really tipped the scales,” surmises Mollner. “It helped us get into the most prestigious domestic festival there is, but it also increased the buzz at Sundance. We sold out every single screening, and there was a lot of promotion about the fact that we were screening a print and that we’d shot on film.”

It’s natural for passionate indie storytellers like Miller and Mollner to have a proclivity for raw stock, but what about the world of episodic television? You would think that a weekly series with millions of fans breathlessly awaiting each ensuing chapter would never dare run the risk of shooting on film, right?

Well, you’d be wrong … DEAD wrong.

“Shooting The Walking Dead on film thus far has been a surprise and a delight,” beams the series’ Executive Producer Tom Luse. Nine years ago, Luse and his team tested the look of digital video against the grain of 16 millimeter. “The big thing was the look on the zombies, the look on our ‘walker’ makeup was superior on film. This was all done for aesthetic reasons, not for financial reasons, at the time. But in shooting the show on 16, we discovered that it was an incredibly nimble format. We could move the cameras very quickly; they were light. We often shoot three, four, five cameras on a given setup and the film cameras we find give us more flexibility to move around more quickly than digital cameras.”

That scrappy sense of grit and gore helped catapult The Walking Dead to unheard-of success for a genre show on basic cable, a feat not lost on its creators. “Frankly, the big hope for us is that our show becomes that show 10 or 15 years from now that kids will watch in their basement and go, ‘Doesn’t this look great?’” Luse goes on to assess, “It has that filmic look that so many of the great horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s had. I do think that there is a history of the ‘film look’ that our show certainly continues.”

The argument for film isn’t just a matter of quality; it’s also a consideration of quantity. After wrapping his latest feature, Miller arrived in the editing bay triumphant. “We automatically had great looking footage and we had less footage we had to go through on the post side. We were more efficient in how we shot that footage on set, as opposed to a lot of times on a digital project when people just let the camera run for 20 minutes at a time because they can. No matter how many times you say as a producer, ‘That’s still gonna cost us later!’”

Miller isn’t solely concerned with price in terms of dollars. He also wants to make sense. As he sees it. the integrity of his craft is being auctioned one pixel at a time, and he takes a long view of the dilemma. “What’s cost-effective about having an industry that’s unhealthy?” he asks. “What’s cost-effective about having an audience so inundated with content that they don’t know what to choose because there’s no barometer for quality anymore? It doesn’t matter how good you make something because they can’t find it or know what to watch. Low cost stops mattering. How do people recoup anything?”

Take, for example, the process of upgrading the abundance of digital films that will need to be reformatted in the years, decades and centuries to come. Miller is assured that software engineers will create the necessary technology to restore the rapidly obsolescent video work currently being churned out but warns of the ultimate cost. “Now you’re creating fakeness. You’re having a computer decide what fills in those gaps instead of reality filling in those gaps like it does on film. That’s gonna have an effect on the art form, that’s going to have an effect on the audience, that’s going to have an effect on the long term value of the film.” Miller delivers his points emphatically: “When you talk about the legacy of a project on film, beyond how the audience responds to it, there’s an actual financial implication to doing something on film vs. digital.”

Legacy isn’t just an artistic metric; it also has economic ramifications. According to recent estimates, it costs 12 times more to archive a digital project than one that was shot on film. “The only way to truly archive movies—and the best way— is on film. It lasts virtually forever,” explains Mollner. “With these new digital storage formats, they change so often that there may be a time when there’s no way to convert your file, which is essentially what you’ve turned it into if you haven’t shot film: a file. If there’s no way to convert that file at some point to the new medium, then it will vanish forever. It gives me great peace of mind to know that I have a physical film print archived and it will never go away.”

So what does Mollner say to the sizeable legion of storytellers who tout the virtues of video? “The best I’ve ever heard from anybody is that it gets close to looking like film, which should answer your question as to why we shoot film. If everybody is trying to find ways to look like film, why not just use the real thing?” Mollner summons his inner chemist as he continues, “It’s countless silver halide crystals swimming in emulsion. There’s grain and there’s texture and there’s depth. You’re never ever gonna get that from the digital medium. Video, all it is is pixels. That’s what it breaks down to. It’s repetitive, it’s consistent, it is what it is. But film is alive, it’s organic, it’s unpredictable, and it’s magic. It affects audiences in a subconscious way.”

Asked for a closing argument, Mollner doesn’t disappoint. “Filmmaking is danger. That sense of danger is what makes it exciting—it’s lavish and unpredictable. That’s what makes filmmaking beautiful and a true art form.” Drilling down even further, he insists, “I truly believe that film is art and video is commerce. If we’re going to support artists, we need to give them the opportunity to shoot film on film.”

Check the gate. Change the conversation.

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Stephen Marinaccio II says...
Posted Thursday, March 15, 2018
Nice article, yet it leaves me unsatisfied that film is 'better' from a practical, today's-world, standpoint. I am a UPM. I 'grew up' with film and worked on my last film shot with actual emulsion in 2010. I miss it, it has a look and feel not duplicated by digital. It is hard to quantify, but we all know what the feel is.

So, let me start by saying YES. A thousand times, YES. Let's shoot on film again. Super exciting...

That said, with this article, I was expecting / hoping for some legit comparisons for cost and practicality. This article also comes just at the time when I have completed a budget for a $45M feature which I actually suggested - perhaps we shoot on film. The film takes place in the 1920's and I thought that film might lend a bit of nostalgia to the story as well.

That said, I have a meeting at Kodak next week to discuss. Keeping in mind that I used to do shows with film all the time, my knowledge of what is need has not diminished - but what has is... how?

Where are the labs? Are there good Camera ACs who have been trained well on how to change a mag and not flash the film? You say that you got to editing and had great footage. Did you one-light the film and scan in DnX36? DnX110? Did you color for editorial? Did you scan to 4k and never go back to film, instead, delivering a final conform from your scan? How was, if at all, your DP choice swayed by choosing to shoot film? Did you ever have to say to the crew, "Hey, we are shooting film and we only have 12,000 feet per day budgeted, so I need everyone to be on their game."? I know you mentioned that the crew had a palpable response to the 'immediacy' of film as opposed to "endless" digital data - but, I'll sound old when I say firmly, I am not sure kids today really get it. Where did you shoot, how hard was it to ship the film to and from your location, where the new x-ray machines an issue, where did you develop? How much testing did you do for MU/Hair/set colors/wardrobe choices? How hard was it to find gear and crew who knew what they were doing?

Anyways, I continue to pursue the answers to all the real-world logistical issues. Appreciate your article and thank you for sharing.
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victor hsu says...
Posted Thursday, March 15, 2018
The cost benefit analysis scale shifts depending on one's point of view and the specific project involved. It's a good debate to have
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