Generation Film

The rise of digital technology has meant tough times for people shooting on film, but against the odds, a new wave of filmmakers are turning to celluloid…

By: Oliver Berry,   8 minutes

Film is over. The future is digital.

It’s a statement that’s become so commonplace, it’s almost a cliché. And there’s certainly no denying that the rise of digital has seemed almost unstoppable in recent years. Of the top 100 grossing films released in the US in 2015, more than 85% were shot on digital formats. With the advent of high-definition 4K cameras like the Red Epic and the Alexa that can approximate the resolution of film – coupled with the almost total disappearance of 35mm projection in movie theatres – it would seem that the golden age of celluloid is well and truly over.

But against the odds, film is staging a comeback. High-profile directors from Christopher Nolan to JJ Abrams have announced their commitment to shooting on film. Major advertising agencies are returning to the medium for its unique aesthetic. And since it was saved from closure in 2012, Kodak’s film factory in Rochester, New York, has announced its busiest year in a decade – something that’s been mirrored at other film facilities across the globe, from Rome’s Film Ferrania to London’s CineLab.

However, what’s most surprising about film’s recent resurgence is its growing popularity with emerging directors and cinematographers. When budget’s no object, it’s an easy call to choose film over digital – but at the lower end of the scale, where every penny counts, digital’s lower costs and streamlined workflow should surely make it the no.1 choice for any young director? Well, not always…

“There’s only one way to make something look like film, and that’s to shoot on film.”

Look like film

“After undergrad, I embraced the DSLR movement as an inexpensive way to get my first indie feature project off the ground,” explains Jeremy Teicher, an Oregon-based director who has shot several recent projects on film, including Speed Goggles, a 5-part series about the psychology of runners made for the New York Times. “But I always loved the way working with film made me feel; the intensity it brought to the creative process and, more than anything, the look and feel of the footage. I’ve found there’s just no way to reproduce that filmic look in post, even now. Trust me, I’ve tried. There’s only one way to make something look like film, and that’s to shoot on film.”

“Nowadays, the digital look is ubiquitous, so if you want your film to stand out, film is one way of doing that,” adds Ian Mantgani, a London-based filmmaker, producer and writer who shot his most recent short, Corinna’s Hair, on Super 8, and is currently developing a feature film on 16mm. “With celluloid, each frame is a unique collection of grains, with a color and contrast range that’s still not replicable in digital. Digital is a flat, static grid, and usually some kind of texture is required in post-production to prevent it looking sterile. The sensation of light and shadow emblazoned onto silver crystals, rather than a video sensor, just gives it a uniquely satisfying quality.”

“While the filmic aesthetic is undoubtedly a major draw, for some filmmakers, it’s the challenges of working on celluloid that, ironically, make it attractive.”

The look of film is something that still resonates profoundly with many directors, artists and cinematographers, even those who began their careers in a post-film age – like 25 year-old Portuguese director Leonor Teles, whose Super-8 short Batrachian’s Ballad took the top prize at 2016’s Berlin International Film Festival, and Czech director Ondrej Hudecek, who has shot a string of award-winning shorts on film, including 2015’s Peacock, which was filmed

Bronco’s House, Mark Jenkin

Tougher is Better

But while the filmic aesthetic undoubtedly remains a major draw, for some filmmakers, it’s the physical challenges of working on celluloid that, ironically, make it attractive.

“Shooting on film creates a unique atmosphere on set,” says Noam Kroll, an LA-based director who works on film whenever possible, and runs a blog and online network, Creative Rebellion, encouraging other filmmakers to do the same. “Everyone – the director, the cast and the crew – knows they only have so many takes to get it right, and that positive pressure is a fantastic motivator. Projects shot on film have a special energy to them, and audiences can pick up on that.”

“Projects shot on film have a special edge and energy to them, and audiences can pick up on that.”

“When you’re working with film, every step of the creative process has a bit more urgency,” adds Jeremy Teicher. “It’s really inspiring. You think through your script more carefully, you plan your shots with greater care, you visualize every moment in detail. There’s a feeling of adrenaline like you’re doing something different and dangerous.”

Although many filmmakers may still aspire to shoot film, there’s one factor that’s hard to ignore, and that’s the cost. On paper at least, film remains a much more expensive format than digital: a standard 400-foot roll of 16mm film (enough to shoot around 11 minutes of footage) costs around $220 including processing, whereas for roughly the same cost you can pick up enough memory cards to shoot a feature-length movie.

Dispelling the myth

But while film undoubtedly carries a considerable upfront cost, there are some areas where it actually proves more economical than digital – as Adrian Bull, chief technical officer for CineLab, one of London’s leading processing laboratories, explains.

“There’s a big myth about the cost of shooting on film,” he says. “But if you’ve planned well, have a good script, and keep to a tight shooting ratio, it’s actually very affordable. And where film really comes into its own is in post-production. The massive resolution and color gamut of film means you don’t require anything like the same amount of post-production time to get it cinema-ready as you would on a digital project, and that actually represents a huge cost saving. So yes, the upfront cost is higher, but in the long run, shooting film can actually be more cost-effective.”

“When you’re starting out, film can seem very daunting, but as long as you understand the basic parameters and you light a scene properly, film is actually an incredibly forgiving medium.”

Furthermore, enterprising young filmmakers are discovering creative ways of bringing the cost of film down, from buying up discounted ‘re-cans’ (film reels that have been loaded into a camera but not exposed) to shooting on ‘short ends’ (discarded sections of film) – a strategy employed by Chlöe Sevigny (pXX) on her debut short, Kitty. And for the right project, crowdsourcing initiatives and sponsorship programmes can even negate the extra cost: Kodak recently launched a Kickstarter project which pledged free stock to anyone shooting on film, up to the value of 15% of the total budget for 16mm projects, or 20% for 35mm.


The Sky Trembles, Ben Rivers

In expert hands

For many filmmakers, however, the barrier to working with film has less to do with hard cash, and more to do with the expertise needed to work on celluloid – from exposure, lighting and handling to the lack of live review on set. But often these fears are rooted more in reputation than reality, as Lyn Turner, technical director at Four Corners Film, a creative hub in London that provides equipment hire, studio and workspaces, explains.

“When you’re starting out, film can seem very daunting, but as long as you understand the basic parameters – aperture, shutter speed and ISO – and you light a scene properly, film is actually an incredibly forgiving medium. In my experience, once people actually start working with film and they realize how easy it is to use, they just fall in love it. Our two Bolex 16mm cameras are by far the most popular pieces of kit we have.”

The rise of creative workspaces like Four Corners has played an important role in encouraging young directors and cinematographers to experiment, with similar projects springing up around the world, from Mono No Aware in Brooklyn, or the Artist Film Workshop in Melbourne, to CineWorks in Vancouver and the Super16 film school in Copenhagen.

But they’re far from the only source of knowledge available. The explosion in online film forums and the growth of social media has provided access to a wealth of resources that simply weren’t available to previous generations – not to mention an endless online library of shorts, documentaries and feature films from which to draw inspiration.

“Blogs and online forums offer an invaluable resource for filmmakers which allow us all to share the knowledge we’ve learned along the way,” continues Noam Kroll. “By its nature, film is inherently a collaborative medium, which is why I love it so much – and now, thanks to the internet, we can stay connected with a bigger community of indie filmmakers than ever before.”

How film feels

For some filmmakers, however, the decision to return to film is fuelled by its physicality – the alchemy of exposure, the chemistry of development, the clack and whirr of a film magazine. One such director is Mark Jenkin, who now works exclusively on Super 8 and 16mm, processing all his films using homemade developing solutions (made with everything from coffee to hand-mixed D76 and D19), before cutting and splicing them back together by hand.

“Film is a physical object, not just a string of ones and zeroes on a hard drive.”

“Everyone pours massive amounts of time, effort and money into trying to make digital look like film,” he explains in his studio at the famous Newlyn School of Art, in Cornwall, UK. “But there’s actually a much simpler solution, and that’s to just shoot on film in the first place. Film is a physical object, a real thing that you can see, feel and touch, not just a string of ones and zeroes on a hard drive. Once you start seeing it that way, it makes you work differently as a filmmaker, and it makes audiences respond to it in a completely different way, too.”

Bronco’s House, Mark Jenkin

“To me the choice of medium is an integral part of the film,” adds Lina Helvik, a Norwegian filmmaker who shot her graduation short on 16mm, and is currently in production on her first 35mm project. “I started out working with black-and-white film in a dark-room, so for me, the whole process – shooting, developing and cutting – is part of my artistic expression. Film is so much more personal, and gave me a much better understanding for the process behind the visuals I was producing, as well as for the heritage of film.”

Film’s sensory qualities are another important factor underpinning the format’s renaissance, and ties in with the wider revitalization of analog. In a digital world, being able to feel, touch and hold something in your hands becomes an increasingly valuable experience – not just on set and in the cutting room, but in the cinema, too.

"There is something magical about the spectacle of light as it passes through film"

“There is something magical about the spectacle of light as it passes through film,” explains Ben Rivers, a moving image artist whose work often explores the sensory aspects of film. “There’s a life to it, a movement. Every frame is different: the colors, the grain and the exposure vary subtly from frame to frame, which gives film this organic quality that you just don’t get with digital.”

“A projectionist once said to me that 35mm looks like something you could jump into, whereas digital looks like it’s being shone onto something,” continues Ian Mantgani, who hosts regular film screenings under the banner of The Badlands Collective, a nod to Terence Malick’s seminal ‘70s road movie. “Film’s photochemical nature brings it to life, while digital can feel flatter and computerized. It has this three-dimensional quality that’s completely unique.”

So, despite predictions and thanks to growing numbers of enthusiasts, film is fighting back. But will it ever again top the charts as a mainstream image-making medium? For filmmakers like Ben Rivers, that’s missing the point.

“To be honest, I’ve never understood this binary argument about film versus digital,” he says. “I shoot my projects on film, but I edit digitally. That’s just the way I prefer to work, but it doesn’t mean one format is any better than the other. As artists and filmmakers, we should be free to choose whatever format we want. For some people, that will be film, and for other people it’ll be digital. And that’s absolutely fine. As far as I’m concerned, the more formats we have to work with, the better.”

+ / @JeremyTeicher / @FourCornersE2 / @NoamKroll / @Mark_Jenkin / @mant_a_tangi / @CinelabLondon

‘Generation Film’ first appeared in Kodachrome Issue 1, Kodak’s journal of art, creativity and analogue culture.

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