Who shot film?
A day in the death of 35mm ☛
Last month Fujifilm, one of the last two manufacturers of 35mm negative for motion pictures, announced that it would cease production of its film stocks. The move was widely heralded as one of the final nails in the coffin for movies being shot on film.
Purists greeted the news fearfully: for some filmmakers 35mm is a standard, not just in the respect of being a default format, but also in the respect of being a flag around which the faithful rally. Earlier in the year Christopher Nolan arranged a preview screening of The Dark Knight Rises for his fellow directors. He used the event to exhort them to stand by celluloid, and to demand the right to shoot on that format (indeed the end roller includes a line telling the audience that the movie was shot on film). You might imagine this to be a hopeless rear-guard action but, when you consider that the majority of Hollywood movies and a great many US TV shows are still shot on 35mm, Nolan’s campaign doesn’t look so desperate. With such loyalty to the format, have rumours of the death of film been exaggerated? No. The past year has seen not just the end of Fujifilm, but Aaton, Arri and Panavision have all ceased production of 35mm cameras. Kodak is having a tough time economically and the bowing out of its last remaining rival is hardly likely to encourage it to keep prices down. Nolan is right that the format is under serious threat.
How did we get here? Who or what is responsible? Allow me to play Poirot, and list the possible suspects.
Most people think that digital cameras are muscling out film cameras because they are so much cheaper. It’s certainly true that shooting digitally is much less expensive than shooting on film. While high-end digital cameras themselves are only slightly cheaper to hire, when shooting on 35mm the cost of film stock and processing are hefty. By contrast, digital cameras shoot onto data cards, which come with the kit and are reusable. To give you a sense of how much cheaper, let me offer this comparison. Studio rom-com Crazy, Stupid Love was shot on Fuji’s 35mm in the same year as indy romance Like Crazy was shot on a Canon 7D. Two 1000 foot rolls of 35mm film, plus processing and transfer, costs about the same as a 7D camera. So, you could buy a camera capable of producing big screen images for the cost of shooting 23 mins of unedited film, about a third of what a unit might be expect to shoot in a single day (and that’s not counting the 35mm camera hire). To put it another way, you could buy about eighty 7Ds for the cost of shooting on film. Of course, the 35mm will look a whole lot better, but it really ought to for that money.
However, for Hollywood movies with budgets over about $50m, filmstock and processing charges are a small percentage of the total spend, so why stint? Aesthetic concerns aside, 35mm is still recognised as being technically the best format on which to shoot: it captures more details in shadows and highlights than any digital camera and offers richer colours. What’s more, the saving in processing costs is replaced with other charges. Shooting on high-end digital cameras means you need another crew member: a DIT, who manages the camera data, and that person must be paid. Some cameras also require the rushes to be converted overnight, if they are to be edited the next day. While the charges for this don’t counterbalance the cost of stock and processing, they certainly take the shine off the savings. While a few established directors have been seduced by the digital revolution – notably Steven Soderbergh and Michael Mann – most have stayed true to a standard that has been in use for over 120 years. No, mes amis, digital cameras could not have been responsible for the death of film.
Many industry-watchers have named 3D as the prime suspect. It’s pretty much impossible to shoot the new 3D with 35mm cameras, nor can it be projected off celluloid. In the last two years most of the Hollywood studios’ blockbusters have been produced in 3D, due to the higher ticket prices that can be charged for 3D screenings, resulting in a reduced demand for 35mm.
But, even though you can’t shoot 3D with 35mm, many of those movies were in fact shot on film and in 2D; they were converted to 3D in post-production. It is not even certain that 3D is here to stay: audience’s enthusiasm for the technology is waning. Even if the studios are still keen on 3D, the writing is a long way from being on the wall for 2D movies. Yes, 3D was certainly present when film received its fatal blow, but it did not have the strength to deliver that blow unaided.
While everyone has been looking on movie sets for film’s murderer, the guilty party was safe and warm the other side of town. Arguments still rage about the advantage of film and digital cameras, but another digital debate was resolved a year or two back. Most audiences and filmmakers would agree that the advantages of digital projection outweigh those of 35mm projection. Film projectors have never been the most lovable of machines. They drag the film through their guts using sharp metal teeth: these scratch and tear at any film print that wanders off the straight and narrow. Only one of my short films has a 35mm print, and that was a thing of beauty. It lasted for three screenings before a poorly aligned projector left a line of shark-like bite marks across its delicate surface. Few people mourn the passing of these beasts.
Digital projection provides a steadier image, without dirt or scratches. Even a film print that has escaped the ravages of a projector fails to match up to its digital counterpart. I use to attend grading sessions at the film labs: a first generation print would be run off the cut negative and screened for the cameraman and director. This print would present a beautifully crisp image. The next time I’d see the film would be at a cast and crew screening, near the time of the film’s general release. Sometimes the release print would be as many as five generations away from the original negative, and the resulting image was, by comparison, soft and a little muddy. The first time I saw the current generation of 2k digital projectors in action, I was reminded of those grading sessions in Technicolor and Deluxe: the digital image is just one step away from the film that went through the camera.
However this step forward in cinema technology has come at a heavy price. The take up of digital projectors has been extensive, boosted by the growth of 3D. While 35mm prints are still doing the rounds, the DCP drives (Digital Cinema Package) are well on the way to taking over. These drives are reusable and writing a movie to one cost a fraction of the price of striking a 35mm print. The distributors win, the audience wins, but the companies who produced the release prints lose. Who are they? Technicolor, Deluxe, Kodak and Fuji. A feature film shoots on average 200,000′ of camera negative but, if it gets a good cinema release, it could take another million feet of film to get it in front of the audiences. The loss of this business is what’s really killing the companies that make and process film. Christopher Nolan can campaign as hard as he likes, but if Kodak can’t afford to produce film at a price the studios are willing to pay, celluloid’s fate will be sealed.
While 35mm film has been deeply wounded by digital projection, aided and abetted by 3D, it is not yet dead; in fact its final demise may yet be a way off. Once a dedicated audience has taken a technology to their hearts, it proves very difficult to kill completely: just look at vinyl records. Back in the 1980s who would have predicted that 12” albums would still be going at a time when CDs were on the way out? Have the audience taken film to their heart? The very existence of apps like Hipstamatic and Instagram prove that the film aesthetic (albeit photographic rather than cinematic in these cases) has an enduring appeal. Find me an editing system that does not have film grain or projector scratches as visual effect options. It’s likely that the balance will swing, and swing fast. I believe most movies will be shot digitally within the next couple of years. However I believe that 35mm will come to be seen as the Rolls Royce of shooting formats, not just in the respect of being the best but also in conveying an old-world luxury. Who knows, one day very soon Christopher Nolan’s ‘Shot on film’ might even become a hallmark-brand like Fairtrade or Organic, assuring you that what follows is, in the purest sense of the term, a film.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012
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