Shooting on Film

Some notes on my experieces (circa 2004) on the pros and cons of shooting on celluloid instead of digitally or on tape.


It is important to note that while I had made a lot of short films up until ‘cogito’, literally dozens of them, as well as music videos and documentaries and all manner of productions—I had only ever worked on video tape.

I had started with VHS, after which was a format called Super-VHS (SVHS) at South Seas Film and TV School back in 1994. Then later, when I worked in the film industry, I commandeered a Beta SP Camera and shot professional broadcast quality video with a professional TV crew (a big step in quality, kudos and professionalism) making more short films.

Later yet, as the digital age dawned, I did a lot of work on DVC Pro—another high-end, professional, digital format—which was still a kind of video tape. But, for all this, I had never shot on filmActual celluloid film. Alchemical Gold.

Generally speaking, only TV adverts, fully funded short films and big movies are shot on film, for numerous reasons. The least of these reasons is the promise of a high quality product that could be transferred to any other media without degrading the picture quality. It can also facilitate the capacity to play in cinemas, having the right aspect ratio and other technical requirements which distributors require.

My last film, prior to cogito—NOVA—had received a grant for $3600 to be transferred to 16mm film by a reverse telecine process. That had been accomplished through ATLAB Australia (this was my first grant from The Screen Innovation Production Fund). This had led into a second grant. $25,000 for cogito.

Film was the medium of professionals. It largely still is. Tape was for amateurs and for TV. If you wanted to be taken seriously as ‘real’ a director, you had to have worked with film.

Personally, up till shooting cogito, I had always taken Robert Rodriguez’s advice. He suggests in his book ‘Rebel Without a Crew’ that if you are one of these Cinephiles that needs to shoot on film, then you should buy yourself a roll, sleep with it, get it out of your system and then go and shoot on tape – because it’s cheaper.

What Rodriguez doesn’t mention is the acute change in perception you are given as a director who has shot on film by other industry professionals. Suddenly you have their serious attention. Prior to my initiation I thought it was all baloney. A scheme to keep us students and noobs in our place. A kind of false demarkation designed to maintain the nepitistic status quo. It is. But it also has some actual reality to it. Shooting film, really is hard. It requires a discipline which is simply not experienced when you have oodles of video tape and time.

This almost last minute decision to shoot on Super 16mm film made me very happy on the one hand because I knew I was about to enter the ranks of “real filmmakers”. On the other, it meant that most of my post production budget was about to be absorbed by new costs. Unlike video tape, film stock cannot be recorded over if you mess up, It also comes in expensive rolls of 400 feet that cost around $200 dollars each–minimum (and only if you convince Kodak or Fuji you are a first time director). They also only have a duration of about ten minutes of recording time (unlike tape which you can leave rolling for 60 mins if need be).

After exposure, film stock has to be processed in chemicals at a laboratory. This is expensive.  Before you can even do that, it has to be couriered to the lab. In our case the lab was in another city because of the deal we struck with Peter Jacksons ‘Film Unit’. Further to this, ‘shooting stock’ doesn’t carry sound. Sound has to be recorded separately (another cost) on a digital audio tape (or directly to a hard drive these days)  Then it is synchronized by a sound technician at an audio processing facility. Once the sound is “sunk” it has to be transferred to video and then to Hard Drives by way of Digitizing known as Video Capture (or more recently recorded directly to a hard drive) for digital editing to occur. These processes cost money and are not cheap.

Film transfers made to digital formats result in very high resolution video images (much higher than anything you would play on your computer—each image has to be big enough to fill a cinema screen without degrading the picture – not just a computer screen or even a big tv) and hard drives cost money. The extremely high resolution of this resulting video produces lots and lots of data. This means hard drive costs and backup costs. (I lost a media drive with the cogito hi-res HD raw footage on it once. The power supply just blew. It cost $4000 for ‘Forensic recovery’ which I had to beg from my family. BIG mistake not backing up your media drives!) 

In some processesafter editing the film in the computer—the time code from the video (Hours : minutes : seconds and frames) is then converted to ‘edge numbers’ and a negative cutter is employed to cut a print of the original film negative in order to produce a matching version of the film called a ‘Neg Match’, which should be identical to the “Off-Line Edit”.

The process we opted for, however, was to shoot on film, transfer to high resolution 2K (per frame) video files, edit those files into an ‘off-line’ of the film using low resolution versions of the raw footage, and then perform an ‘online edit’ where only the sections of footage that were included in the final cut would need to be re-digitized at high resolution for the final cut of the film. Finally, this would then be transferred back out to film. This is a way of producing extremely high quality video but without finishing back to film with an actual negative cut process.

The other complexity of shooting film over tape is that film cameras, unlike video cameras, use “fixed lenses”. This means they have lenses that literally come off the camera and are replaced by another lens for a different sized shot. You have tight lenses and wide lenses, zoom lenses and long lenses. Each has a different “angle” and different focal characteristics. You “swing” lenses between shots which takes time (which is money).

By comparison Video/TV cameras only have medium quality zoom lenses that can easily be adjusted for any shot. Not being ground for a specific focal length, they do not produce the highest optimal quality images at any length.

One does not change lenses on a video camera. Fixed lenses, by contrast are of the highest possible quality and are “fixed” at whatever length they are ground to and cannot be zoomed (with the exception of actual zoom lenses which lack other characteristics – making them unsuitable for general use).

This means not only do you now have to hire a film camera (more expensive than a video camera by an order of magnitude), but also a bunch more camera crew members and much higher insurance costs too. Film and video cameras are rented out by studios and facilities such as Panovision who require their equipment to be insured before you take it out. In order to obtain Insurance your Director of Photography must be someone of experience that is known to them or they simply wont trust you with their $400,000 state of the art film camera.

A video camera can be operated by one person if need be. A film Camera typically requires three people minimum. A TV video camera would be about $400/day. A 16mm film camera (with a good deal) might cost $1500/day by itself.

Additional costs include Film Stock ($200 + per 10 minute long reel i.e about 400 feet of 16mm compared to $60/hour of Digital Beta TV quality video tape which is reusable and can be re-recorded on if necessary). Then there are the cost of lenses – Several hundred dollars a day for a box of lenses when shooting on film.

Video tapes are of course reasonably self contained and any one with experience of a VCR can change a tape. Not so with a roll of film. It has to be expertly handled by a professional Clapper Loader who uses a special black bag to change the rolls of film without being able to see what he or she is doing. This is high risk, and failure is not an option. Film negatives obviously must not be exposed to light except during shooting. Add another $300-700/day. Depending on the deal you broker with the clapper/loader.

Fixed lenses also require an expert focus puller. Someone versed in the use of all these lenses and their maintenance. The focus puller is a professional who deals almost exclusively with lenses and is responsible for keeping the camera in correct focus, at all times. The focus puller uses a tape measure to check the distance from the camera to every object or person who is going to need to be in focus in each shot and then marks the focus ring on the lens with notches of tape, hitting those precise distances at precise times during the shot. This is fairly easy when the camera is not moving. In a movie like cogito however, the camera is almost always moving. Add another $400-1000/day.

One needs to also bare in mind that shooting with fixed lenses and film also impacts your schedule. With three people operating camera equipment (at least) everything is slower. Also, changing shots/setups is suddenly far more complex. Instead of punching in on azoom lens, you know have to change lenses and/or move the camera. Between the changes in camera position and the greater sensitivity to light, you suddenly find yourself with much higher demands in lighting, also effecting your schedule and consequently, your budget.

At theend of myfirst hour of shooting on cogito, I recalk turning to my 1st Assistant Director, Tony Forster, and asking, “How are we for time?” He looked at me and said, “We’re behind.” I turned to the DoP, Neil Cervin, and asked, “How are we for stock?” After consulting the loader he turned back, “We’re low” he said.

It took me a good day and a half to come to grips with the new pave of shooting film. A discipline I hope to never lose.

So, as you can see, shooting on film is a major decision which in the case of my film cogito, literally added years to the production schedule.


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