The Resurgence of Shooting on Film

There’s a reason why four out of the five Academy Award nominees for Best Cinematography at this year’s Academy Awards were shot on film. While many Hollywood productions continue to opt for film over digital, shooting on film faces complications within the European film industry. Due to the shortage of staff within the film labs, the future of developing film also remains in the balance, as Yves Dujardin, Post-Production Coordinator at Studio l’Equipe explains, “There are very few people coming in to work in the labs and so I think that almost every European lab has a similar problem. Once we retire then there is nobody to follow up our work. Almost all the labs have similar aged people working there and they are all mostly older, but there are no new guys coming in. There aren’t as many people interested in working in the labs, so the knowhow of processing film will eventually disappear. I think young people studying don’t get the knowledge anymore from the courses and especially as lots of projects now shoot digitally.”

Shooting on film is still the preference for SBC cinematographers such as Manu Dacosse, Patricia Lopes and Fiona Braillon. “It’s still more beautiful,” says Dacosse. “When you compare film and digital there is still a huge difference. For me it’s really in the colour and there is a lot more depth on the skin. I think the old film cameras are still working very well. The only difference for me, as I’m getting older, is the weight of the camera. Digital is lighter, but if you are shooting on 16mm, the ARRI 416 is great because it’s very well-balanced, even if it’s a little bit louder you can really move easily with that camera. Also, the viewfinder is really great and the glass is very sharp. I really like that camera, but I prefer to shoot in 35mm. When I shot Inexorable, I spoke with producers about camera costs and there wasn’t a huge difference because the camera was cheaper and we didn’t shoot that many takes and I use less light than in digital. For certain movies, it could be a really good choice.”  

Fiona Braillon agrees that film has depth, where digital is still flat. “To me, film is a palpable medium, silver grain has a palpable feeling, that’s why we can’t get the same with digital which is impalpable” says Braillon. Lopes also takes a similar viewpoint with regards to the organic feel achieved with shooting on film. “It’s a chemical process shaped with light, which still has some of its own life/independence,” says Lopes. “Whereas in digital, we are talking about how a sensor captures and interprets light, which is very logical and mechanical, as opposed to how our eyes process light and colour. The chemical process of film is not exact/perfect, but neither are humans.” says Lopes. “Within the stock choice you make, you are already determining the look of the film, which saves a lot of time during pre-production and in post-production as well. That’s the biggest advantage we can tell the producer. Also, I never worked on an analog set that went overtime due to too many takes, so that’s the cost efficiency you have shooting on film. The entire crew and cast concentration is different, plus the organic feel and the amazing dynamic range. We do talk nowadays about powerful cameras having 17 or even 18 stops of dynamic range, but when you go deep into the grading, you start to see so many different problems on the big screen, while film is so forgiving. You can overexpose or underexpose and still have margin to play, also between the developing until you print/screen. The dynamic range is there and allows you to be more creative and into the story. Stocks like Ektachrome are so hard to recreate in coloring, which requires longer post-production days. So, if you want that look, shoot on film, point.”

For Dujardin, one of the biggest advantages of shooting on film is the discipline that comes with it. “We don’t see a lot of waste on negative. When I see what digital productions are shooting and the waste that they are using, we don’t see that on film. There is much more discipline and structure on set when they are shooting on film because they know that it’s expensive and only have a few rolls per shooting day. When they shoot digitally, they have lots of storage and so they don’t mind, but you have lots to handle in post and there is lots of waste. The image looks much nicer on film in my opinion.”

According to Braillon, the decision to shoot on film is usually always coming from the director. “If you want to shoot on film and the director doesn’t want to, then you end up shooting digitally because there are too many complications and risk. Especially with the time and directors nowadays are used to shooting a lot of material. Shooting on film is really another way of working with actors and technicians.” notes Braillon. “Each film I’ve shot on 16mm is because it was important for the director to use this tool, it is a matter of aesthetic, of texture, of depth as we say. Some producers are chilly about shooting on film.The last short film I did on 16mm, the director really wanted to shoot on film, we had a good budget for a short film but he had to fight to be able to shoot on film. In other cases, film is part of the genesis of the project. In those cases, producers follow directors, even if the budget is not big and everybody is ok with it. It is always the same game when you make a film, you choose where you want to put your money. If you choose to put that into shooting on film, then other things will follow.”  

Lopes argues that producers aren’t the enemy. “It’s more a question of relationship, I believe. In commercials, for example, it’s different. Especially nowadays, if we are doing a fashion commercial or anything high-end brand, then the client is the most difficult person to convince and the producer is actually the person who iterates why we are shooting on film and explains the differences in look, so it really depends.”

While shooting on film offers many advantages, there are a few disadvantages. “I had a big problem on the last movie I did with the focus puller. They don’t have the same way of thinking when it comes to film and it was really difficult. It’s also difficult finding the right technician to work with. It’s more difficult to do the focusing in digital, but they don’t do it the same way. I’m always afraid of the focus puller now. You don’t see the focus in 16mm in the viewfinder,” says Braillon.

Dacosse also notes the lack of people being a key issue with making the decision to shoot on film. “Not only focus pullers, but we are also missing people in the post-production which is the main problem,” adds Dacosse. “You really discover the problem when you are doing the grading at the end. For me, the big problem is in the lab. When I started making movies there were great people working there and we saw really good dailies. If focus pullers aren’t doing the job well then you also see the problem really later on. That can be dangerous sometimes.”

Lopes believes there should be more film initiatives within Belgium. “I have mostly been lucky and I can’t complain. I usually surrounded myself with professionals and truly amazing people in the camera department and also the light department,” explains Lopes. “I recently went to London to give a workshop in 16mm sponsored by ARRI. We made the connection between ARRI and Kodak to do this workshop. When I was doing the programme, I was speaking with Philippe Piron from Vantage and I invited him to speak with me and to talk about his experience as 1AC and how to do a camera test. I wanted to let this encyclopedia give his insights and motivate people because nowadays we don’t treat gear the same way. I feel that when we learned with film, you had to be careful because we were so afraid to load the magazines, for example. I was a loader in Italy a few years back and I had Ed Lachman behind me checking. I was so afraid to get anything dirty or make mistakes. I wish we can keep talking about it because at the end of the day film is a collaboration and teamwork. It’s artmaking and without a good focus puller we cannot do that. Film really teaches us how vulnerable we are. I feel people are more serious when we are shooting on film and also more aware of time because there is no time for messing around. You have the same risks when shooting on either film or digital, but they are just differently measured. A lot of big productions are now coming back to 16mm.”

Lopes also stresses the importance of more partnerships with the labs. “I feel the communication with the labs could be better in the sense that they could have open communication and ensure us why we are still shooting on film because sometimes it’s very short communication and not very open which is a pity because there aren’t enough people working in the labs and knowing the process. If they are more open to supporting initiatives and teaching in schools, then we can do something about it. It’s a dying profession, so if there are no more people to work in the labs then it’s going to be very difficult,” notes Lopes.

Dujardin believes the communication between labs and cinematographers has always been there but agrees that the lack of lab technicians is a major issue. “All the films we are doing, we always have discussions with the DOPs. What we used to do in the past is we used to visit where they were shooting and would visit a lot of sets or stages, but we don’t do that anymore because there aren’t enough of us to do that. I used to do that because we had technicians that were scanning and there were 17 people working in the lab and now there are only 3. If one goes out, then the lab doesn’t turn anymore.”  

“The future of film depends on whether or not Kodak will be producing film or not,” Dujardin continues. “If they will still be producing film, then you will still have people who will shoot on film. If they will then I think there will always be people who want to shoot on film. Last summer we had four feature films shooting on film, which was a lot for the summer. Basically, most of our clients, not for features but everything else such as music videos and commercials, art projects are mainly from outside of Belgium. Most of our customers for smaller projects aren’t from Belgium. We have a lot of German, French, Dutch and Spanish customers. When it’s a feature film it’s always a co-production with either a Belgian production, or co-production for tax shelter. We sometimes also have totally foreign feature films who are coming to the lab. At the Berlinale this year we had two German films that were treated at our place, but there was no co-production in it at all. They came to the lab to do the processing and the scanning.”

There are now new technologies on the market that have made processing film more accessible. “A couple of years ago when you were shooting on film you would shoot the rolls, bring them to the lab and we would make the first HD transfer for the edit. Once the edit was finished, they’d send us and EDL so that we could scan only the selected takes. That’s a workflow that we do less and less because there are new scanners on the market where you can directly scan everything in 2K or 4K, so you have all the dailies that you shoot on film, you have them digitally in 2K or 4K, so in post you never have to go back to the negative to rescan that. That’s a much easier workflow and it’s much more familiar like digital. You shoot digitally, you have your digital files and you go to the post, but it’s exactly the same with film. Now everything is digital, you can choose whatever you want and re-edit whenever you want because you have all files digitally. The workflow is much easier now than it was a couple of years ago. The projects we’ve done with the new scanners, our clients are really satisfied with what we are doing,” concludes Dujardin.  

By Oliver Webb

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