The Return of the Reel

In Which the Writer has a Kodak Moment

Film is dead.

It was coming for a time: when I left film school I got a lot of work as a 1st assistant editor because I was good at hand-holding editors who were being forced to stop cutting on 35mm. That was the late 90s. The last major films in the UK to be printed from cut negative were in 2005 and the last to get a photo-chemical finish was in 2015. Meanwhile film projectors had been hitting skips across the world.

And it was inevitable: film was costly, fiddly, slow (both in terms of the working practice and the light sensitivity), it would get scratched, it would break, hair would enter the camera gate… Compared to the clean luxury of shooting on an Alexa, why would you do that to yourself? Even Roger Deakins, the cinematographers’ cameraman, pronounced film dead a couple of years back. Before long pub quizzes will ask: “Why do we call movies ‘films’?”

…At least that’s what we all thought.

The reality is, however, that some time after its supposed death, the eyes of film flicked open, turned a strange colour and it rose from the grave, like something from The Walking Dead (which is shot on 16mm).  As testament to this, Kodak, manufacturers of motion picture film since 1916, have recently expanded beyond simply making the film and now process it too. I took a trip to their lab in Pinewood Studios, London, to find out why.

I’d visited labs a great many times as an assistant editor, but producer Christine Hartland and myself decided to take the full tour for old times’ sake. The last time I took such a tour was as a student back in 1996: the Technicolor site had been a vast factory of a place with sprawling car parks, its walls covered with peeling paint on the outside and faded posters within.  Kodak’s new site is modest by comparison, if a lot more spruce. Lab manager Jason Doyle showed us around.

Despite their modest size, Kodak don’t want for capacity, having serviced the latest Star Wars film. In fact the lab saw a million more feet come through the door last year than it had the year before. Passing through rooms where elaborate spider webs of clear leader film pass through rollers and chemical baths, Jason takes us to the dark room, where a movie’s rushes rolls are taped together into longer rolls in complete darkness. Lab staff, he tells me, get so used to working in these conditions that they can locate the scissors in the darkness from memory, they even instinctively reach for the handle of the winder at the exact position they left it the previous day.

IMGL8822We move on to the room where the used chemicals are dealt with. Film is still coated with silver and that silver comes off in the bath. The spent chemicals can’t simply be flushed away, nor would Kodak want to waste them: they recover up to 10 kilos of silver in a week. This is sold on to the jewelers of Hatton Gardens.

Jason hands us over to Sam Clark, an acquaintance from way back, who works on the film stock side of things. He gives us his business card: it’s printed on film. We think this is very cool. He also gives us Kodak’s recent CV, also printed on film, showing them to have provided stock for a dozen or more Oscar-worthy films.

The turnaround was about 2-3 years ago, Sam tells us. It was gradual, but there’s been a steady return to film. This after a concerted campaign by noted directors like Martin Scorsese, Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino and Steven Spielberg. And not just for movies / TV: commercials are returning to film. One major fashion label is now insisting that all its advertising, whether moving or still, be originated on film where possible. Artist filmmakers like Tacita Dean and Daria Martin are also sticking with celluloid.

The surprise is that 35mm has not been saved by the relatively affordable 16mm stocks, although that format is still popular. The real saviour has been the resurgence of interest in 65/70mm. This format, requiring massive cameras and even bigger budgets, was developed in the 1950s to shoot biblical epics like Ben-Hur. And yet almost 60 years later it’s being used for films as different as Dunkirk, Jurassic World and Murder on the Orient Express.

But why? Given the cost and inconveniences of the format, why is film coming back?

Sam’s theory is that digital cinematography has lead to a sameness of look across productions, and that people are returning to film in the hope of lending the films greater individuality. For him it’s all about ‘look’, aesthetics – the depth of colour, the beauty of film – rather than technical spec. That said, film does still outperform digital cameras when it comes to exposure latitude: the range of light level it can capture without crushing details in the blacks and in the highlights. Given the speed at which digital technology advances, that technical lead may not last, but the film ‘look’ is likely to distinguish the format for some time to come.

But Kodak is advancing too. They’re soon to be re-releasing one of their classic filmstocks: Ektachrome. This stock was originally developed as slide film for photographers, but was occasionally used in movies, most notably Three Kings, where it captured the blinding intensity of light and colour in the desert of Iraq. Traditionally it was not an easy stock to use – get the exposure wrong and it wouldn’t thank you – but the results were always eye-popping.

They’re also working on a new super8 camera. This sees a return to the ‘process paid’ model familiar to anyone who had been shooting on Kodachrome up to about 10 years ago. The difference this time is that a digital version of your rushes will be made available to you online.

Will these developments be enough to keep alive in a digital age a technology that dates back to the 19th century? Why not? The digital watch has not replaced analogue timepieces, the vinyl record is looking set to have outlasted 8-track, cassettes and CDs. The new does not always replace the old. As long as filmmakers keep loving the look of film, the format will survive.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2018

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge


3 thoughts on “The Return of the Reel

  1. A terrific piece; thank you so much. Let’s cling on to the analogue world for as long as possible – digital isn’t always better. And it is about time that Kodak’s long-promised new Super 8mm camera actually came out.

  2. Interesting comparing the quality and feel of film to vinyl records – there is just something about the warmth, depth and feel that gives these media the edge…..

  3. Definitely glad I stopped by. This was a really enjoyable read! In addition to the positives pointed out in the article, one surefire indicator that film acquisition is on the rise around the globe is the surprising number of DPs suddenly posting want ads for Super 8/16/35mm cams and peripherals on such sites as BB List and the like. Equipment that many of these same professionals owned only a few years ago, but shortsightedly made the mistake of liquidating it under the false flag of the digital revolution. The sobering fact that much of it was let go for literally pennies on the dollar must only add salt to the wound.

    Fortunately, this foolhardy sell-off allowed a cavalcade of still-viable cameras to fall into the hands of many an eager filmmaker. Creative souls, many no doubt of modest means, who could have scarcely dreamed of wielding such high-caliber cams only a decade ago.

    For this turn of events alone, I and a great many others owe the corporate high-tech chiselers and their relentless digital ballyhoo a real debt of gratitude!

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