WTFilm? Why do people shoot film?

PREFACE: Sorry, this is probably boring. Sorry.

That is a question I’ve been thinking a lot about this semester, since I’m in a production class that shoots 16mm film exclusively.

First, a little background: Ever since the late 1990s, there’s been a move away from film and into digital video for film production (especially student work, because although for a very long time video wasn’t really up to snuff compared to film, it was dirt cheap). In recent years, however, as viable high-definition and super-high-definition cameras have emerged, many real, budgeted feature films have begun originating on video. At NAB this month RED announced a model of camera known as the EPIC, which shoots uncompressed footage five thousand pixels wide. That is, pardon my lack of appreciation for new technology, excessive. But there are still a bunch of holdouts (myself included) who prefer film. Why is that? Well, I’ve compiled a list of all the reasons people choose to shoot film instead of video, some of them good, some of them bad:

  1. Film is established/legitimate (Stanley Kubrick shot on film and I wanna be like Stanley Kubrick!) – This is a bad reason. The acquisition format of the movie, as long as it’s viable and people can actually watch it, has nothing to do with legitimacy, except to the extent that poor people can’t afford to shoot on film. What are you, an elitist?
  2. Film will make my movie look good – No. Just… no.
  3. Film is art. Video isn’t. – Here’s another bad reason. Incidentally, the world of photography went through this phase a couple years ago. The argument is that for some reason when light hardens a bunch of chemicals smeared on a piece of plastic, that’s art, but when light triggers a bunch of little circuits on a piece of silicon, that isn’t art. What the fuck?
  4. Film is expensive – This may seem counter intuitive, but this is one of the reasons why I love shooting film. It’s not that I love spending money (or that I have any money to spend), but when everyone on set knows that every minute of film that runs through the camera is costing you $25, there is a great impetus to do a kick-ass job on every single take, even the first one.
  5. Film is tactile and archival – When you get the film back from the lab, it is as a real, physical object. You can (but shouldn’t unless you want to get the negative all dusty) unspool it and look at each individual frame. It’s an immensely rewarding experience to be able to hold your entire movie in your hands, and it changes the way you approach making films. Also, film lasts forever. Most magnetic and solid-state media are rated with an archival life of 20-30 years, and even that isn’t a sure thing because the tapes of, for instance, the moon landing in 1969 are now nothing but chalky dust in a NASA vault. Film, on the other hand, we know from experience can easily last 150 years before showing any signs of aging. As one motion picture archivist says, “put it on silver or let it rust.”
  6. Reliable equipment – Film cameras were built to last. Has anyone out there ever held an Arri SB? It’s solid metal! You could kill somebody with that thing and not even dent it! MCAD’s arsenal of film cameras is made up primarily of Arriflexes that were built in the early 1960s and still run like a dream. Where is your precious HVX200 going to be in 40 years? Probably inside a whale, or something equally lame.
  7. Film is the technically superior medium – This is the main reason why I cling to film. It’s easier to shoot, is more reliable, and produces higher-quality images than digital. TECHNICAL JARGON TIME: The transfer guy at Delden Film Lab showed me an example of what a good film-to-video transfer is capable of accomplishing. He had a test roll of color negative film that had the same shot on it, once exposed correctly and then over- and under-exposed by several stops in each direction. While transferring the footage, the colorist is able to compensate for different film densities, so that the balance of lights and darks is correct. While the underexposed footage looks quite grainy when corrected, the overexposed footage looks just great! He ran the film all the way to the end, where it was five stops overexposed (that’s thirty-two times as much light as it should have been exposed to for a technically correct exposure), and it looked beautiful. No loss of detail anywhere in the frame. In fact, it is very common practice for cinematographers to “rate down” their film (intentionally overexpose it) by a stop or more in order to “tighten up” the grain. Try that on a RED ONE, I dare you.

So why would anyone shoot video? Well, it’s cheap. And it’s… cheap. And that, granted, can be a very good thing. I wouldn’t dream of shooting a feature on film at this point in my life because I just wouldn’t be able to afford it. Digital gives me an opportunity to try my hand at something that otherwise would be impossible for me.

Sometimes, video is the look you want. I, for one, am in love with the look of analog video, and I recently eBayed myself one of those big old VHS camcorders (it was ‘C’ camera in Higher Source—see this teaser for an example). It’s a creative decision, that’s all, and also a practical monetary one. Still, I love film and I’m going to keep shooting it as often as I can. And please, PLEASE spare me the sermon on how film is going the way of the dinosaur, because I will unload on your ass about dynamic range and how many freakin’ lines per millimeter contemporary camera negative stock is rated at until you get dizzy and fall down.

13 thoughts on “WTFilm? Why do people shoot film?

  1. You’re probably thinking of me, or possibly Parker (he’s definitely a film-centric bigot, but really only in regards to photography).

    I used to hate digital video, but I like to think my tastes have matured. To be truthful, the look of a film has far more to do with lighting and art direction than it does with the format you acquire in. Still, I think it’s easier to make film look nice, and digital video has a propensity to look bare-ass ugly, even sometimes when it is lit very nicely.

    Analog video (as captured by consumer-level cameras) is another story entirely. I think it has a very strong aesthetic similar to Super 8mm color reversal, and now that most people have forgotten how unruly their VCRs were they can finally appreciate how cool it looks.

    VHS is dead! Long live VHS!

  2. I have no real opinion on the subject, myself. I like the way film looks in most cases and I like that it is something I can hold in my hands and know it is real and not ever to be lost. However I also like the accessibility of digital and hdv, so we’ll see. I think they will both be around and help to evolve the film industry through their differences. Maybe. We’ll see. Also, hooray for VHS. It was fun to shoot on that.

  3. Also, I think that kid I bought from you is dead, andrew. I want a refund. I didn’t kill him how could you even say that? I don’t know where he went, just don’t look inside my walls. Stop looking at me like that.

  4. I’m sorry, that was uncalled for. It’s just, I’ve been having a rough couple of weeks, I just buried my kid. I’m just really upset. He wouldn’t shut up.

  5. I know how it is, Ethan. But you just have to stick it through, and imapale that little suckers’ head on that pike.

    Furthermore, in terms of quality of video and related forms: My job this semester was to transfer VHS and 3/4″ and Beta tapes onto the DVD format. I expected to see some fairly poor quality out of each, but they were pretty clear and certainly better than some of the things I’ve seen. I think that’s relevant. Is it? Discuss.

    Also, I haven’t yet had the glory of holding a film I’ve actaully made in my hands as a tangible piece of matter, but in terms of music I’m currently refusing to purchase whole albums off of the internet due to the fact that I like to have something in the physical realm to hold onto. With these hip new digital albums you don’t have that.

    Anyhoo, I have to go stare at my e-mail inbox waiting for someone to show interest in me.

    Jack the Ripper

  6. Vvinni, let me belittle your concerns:

    First, no, your observations on the picture quality of VHS and Beta tapes are not relevant. Anecdotally, yes, VHS can look good. But let’s run the numbers, shall we?

    VHS tape has an effective vertical resolution of 220-230 lines, while Beta tests to 240 lines. MiniDV has double that, and HDTV goes to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,000-1,100. Plus, analog tapes are… well… analog, and they have to deal with signal-to-noise ratio in terms of storage as well as acquisition. And they only have an archival life of 15-20 years before they start to deteriorate. Analog tape has its charms, but a high-quality format it ain’t. Granted, tapes that have been well-archived and not played too often will look significantly better than that bootleg of the Star Wars Christmas Special that you’ve watched 200 times, but it still doesn’t change the fact that ANALOG IS LOSSY. Besides, analog and digital video are very different beasts, and the picture quality of VHS and Beta has very little relevance to the picture quality of modern, solid-state video formats.

    Now let’s talk SelectaVision. Movies on vinyl? THERE’S a format!

  7. Film is beautiful.
    It makes me poor(er).
    There’s a reason I’m avoiding film classes.

    Also, I concur about the Arriflexes, they could kill a man and film it beautifully at the same time.

  8. This is probably the geekiest thing I’ve read in a LONG time, and I love it. If you recall, Andrew, during the shooting of Wholesale, I remember you walking in circles smacking yourself on the head denouncing video. It was hilarious.

    Does unintentional burning count or do I have to follow the normal ritual paperwork?

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