Filmmaking with Film: A Still-Viable Option?
I’ve recently done some experiments with film, namely Super-8 film. I got a couple of cartridges, one Tri-X and one Vista 50 negative, and just shot some footage at the Forks. The b&w Tri-X turned out nice but for some reason the colour neg blew out (I know, with a 50 ASA? Hilarious!).
Ah, the joys of shooting with a Nizo…wait, why am I, a devout Video-dude since I started “videomaking”, looking at using film? Why am I looking to buy a 35mm film camera and working out film costs?
I’ve worked primarily with video cameras and started making
films “videos” since I picked up an SD camcorder. Digital is the only girl I have ever known–aside from a couple of experiments in filmmaking with the typical 16mm Bolex during my university days.
However, I’ve always had the desire to do a film project, an actual film project, for a long time now, even though the reasons for doing so are a little obtuse. I mean, why really? Video technology has now progressed to the point that a consumer can pick up a 4K capable DSLR for a thousand bucks and literally have it look cinematic enough and with good enough resolution to make it “cinema-worthy” and screen it in front of a few thousand of his fellow pimply film-nerd friends…(although really, technically, arguably, digital shooters shooting in lowly h.264 1080p could have done that right from the halcyon days of the Nikon D90).
But now there are some reasons I want to try film…
FILM IS BETTER
Film IS better. Wait, Film is Better?? Maybe. It’s analog, it is a photochemical process. It has an infinite curve to its resolution. 35mm film has a resolution that only until recently 8K cameras were beginning to approach. It may be possible that advances in film strip technology can increase that resolution. And because images are recorded on a physical medium, film has 500+ years of longevity as an archival format. Whereas digital is software, digital hard drives do not last very long, at most around 5-10 years. And until them scientists actually invent vector algorithms to replace pixels, video will always fall short in the resolution department. Indeed, 4K is arguably at the point where we cannot discern any more clarity in terms of resolution.
I think even more importantly than resolution, film can render more accurately and more beautifully, color and contrast. Any look at the gorgeous technicolor films showcases this argument most eloquently.
THE PROS AND CONS OF VIDEO
The advantages of video–and why I love video–is that it is cheap, and therefore inherently democratic. Any filmmaker worth his or her salt knows how much work it takes to tell a good story. And video, because of its cheap cost and potential unlimited shooting time, is capable of teaching even the worst filmmaker something about how to make a proper story that people actually want to watch. If you can pick up an SD camcorder and make something with that piece of crap that is watchable–then you have earned the right to pillage Great Uncle Ned’s money that he left to you in his will to make your masterpiece.
The disadvantages of video, however, is that it is flat. No matter the number of pixels or the resolution, no matter how beautiful and sharp the software can render reality, a computer sensor in a video camera is–for lack of a better word–spiky. Video hits you in the forehead with its pixellation, and once you recognize it, you can’t seem to stop seeing it. To me, an improperly “processed” video looks like a grate has been placed over the image. It seems that great lengths are gone to in the post-world to render digital…”filmic”. Maybe it costs as much to just film in the actual medium…?
It is certainly possible that perhaps we as human beings living in a now very-pervasive digital world just have to get “used” to digital. There is certainly very little, if any, difference to the average goer between a good movie shot on video or shot on film. But the one inarguable point is this: an artist should have the freedom to choose his or her tools.
Ultimately though, film is a complex artistic tool because it is so inherently a technology. And technology progresses and evolves. There has to be a strong economic reason to keep film alive, and that reason invariably has to involve some kind of evolution of film in order to compete with video.
THE PROS AND CONS OF FILM
The advantages of film: it has depth, excellent color rendition, and a certain life to it that is hard to convey. The disadvantages of film: it is expensive, and relatedly, non-immediate. It requires three steps before one can even see and work with the footage. That is, film needs to be:
1) Bought ‘n shot (with no live view)
3) Transferred digitally or telecined
Now, this is where things get interesting: while filmmakers who like working with film have watched the transition to digital video with a fair degree of alarm — justified considering that Fuji has stopped making film altogether, and that film camera companies such as Panavision and Arri have stopped making film cameras, and that more and more Hollywood productions are switching over to a digital workflow — this transition is a needed process to actually, in my view, begin a new era of film technology.
That is, film has to die, in order to be reborn anew. The benefits of our new era of digital technology can actually marry with old analog film machinery to create a synthesis — a cyborg, if you will.
I dub thee “Filmeo”. Or maybe…”Vilm”…
THE EVOLUTION OF FILM
If you re-direct your attention back to the above three categories, we can see the costs of film can be brought down with new digital technologies (and I will leave out for now the ancillary costs of working with film, i.e. the weight of the contraption and the way it is designed means having to have a focus-puller, a loader, gaffers, best boys to deal with the light limitations, etc…basically the inefficiency of film necessitates more people, more crew and thus more money to work with, etc.).
For instance, in regards to 1 and 2 above: film is expensive because it needs to be manufactured and chemically processed, which is a far more inefficient, laborious process than simply making a reusable SSD drive to which you can transfer 1’s and 0’s that will eventually, when reconstituted, resemble an “image”. One speculation that could reduce the price of making film is to create a new format of film that eschews the actual need to process it–like an Instamatic or Polaroid. Since I’m not a chemist or anywhere educated in that aspect, this is pure 1920’s sci-fi old-school speculation.
More realistically, the collapse of Kodak has given rise to companies like Ferrania, who in the post-film world are the first example of a cottage or niche-oriented filmstrip production industry that produces film marketed towards a specific niche. This transition is basically a logical outgrowth of a collapse of a hegemony brought on by the introduction of a foreign species–video in this case–to a previous film-dominated ecosystem. In this post-film world, the film market competes with video markets and productions for consumers, and the production and processing of film is now operated by a smaller company with a laser-like focus to eliminate waste, pursue efficiencies, and market directly to its customers.
So for the production of film, there is the potential that film might drop in price if more of these cottage film processing plants spring up, competition springs anew, and new methods of making film are conceived and implemented. This scenario may seem far-fetched, but it may be possible even on the production level that new technologies might introduce new efficiencies that will make it possible to produce that same strip of film cheaper. For example, computer technologies introduced into the craft beer market allow the precise monitoring of beer production–technologies that only the largest beer production companies could afford. The result? Craft beer is easier to make and maintain in terms of consistency, resulting in less costs and waste, and more sustainable craft breweries–with the overall result of more choice on the shelves for beer-lovers. In like manner, it may be possible that in the not-so-distant future, with a market of film-lovers to satisfy, new film production technologies and workflows could be introduced to bring down the cost of actually producing the film.
For the expensive costs of processing film, how can those costs be reduced through the influx of new technologies? In order to reduce cost currently, a filmmaker has the option of processing film at home. Home-processing film however is a complex task, and even if it is done right, the film will inevitably end up scratched, uneven and “grungy”–which is a look some filmmakers like. However, for other filmmakers, the only way to get a “clean” look is to have their film professionally processed–which again adds to the cost. However, again this cost is dependent on the possibility that someone or some company down the road may come up with a different approach to making film, and thus simplify the steps needed to process it. Imagine, for instance, that there is a type of film that loads in the daylight, and then once exposed in camera, you throw it into a bucket of a one-step solution and it perfectly gets processed. It’s like a dream…:)
Overall, imagine a world where a new film technology exists that increases the resolution of film while, at the same time, making it cheaper to buy and process it. Very pie-in-the-sky, but this should be the goal of a viable film industry that needs to compete with digital in order to not only survive but also claim a stake in being a permanent option for the filmmaker.
For 3) or the high cost of transferring film to the digital realm — the telecine — the non-film person has to be aware that the reason why telecining film is an expensive process is because film is fed through a projector-like machine with a digital camera apparatus that snaps a photo of each advanced frame of film–essentially re-creating the film strip digitally. There are various versions of this process, dependent on price and professionalism of the setup–where the price can range from a couple hundred grand to as low as a few grand–but the process itself is inherently the same. That being said, there are more and more companies and technologies that with each iteration are working to bring the cost of telecining down,to the point that one could potentially purchase a system for about $300 and do telecining from the comfort of one’s home.
Finally, the hidden costs of filmmaking: the film camera. There has not been a new film camera made since Aaton went belly-up trying to introduce the digital version of its 35mm Penelope camera, which had the option of being 2 and 3-perf switchable (which means less film is being used because more of the image space is being used per film frame advanced, look it up here.)
A new film camera? That sounds like it would be horrendously expensive, wouldn’t it? And who would buy a film camera anyway if the market has shrunk even more since the heyday of film? Consider this new scenario: could a small craft company, with the advantages of digital technology such as 3D printing, and new financial options for raising funds through crowdsourcing through social media platforms like Kickstarter or even just basic blogs, make a viable attempt towards making an actual new camera?
Here’s one example: Logmar-8 is making the first brand-new super-8 camera in 30 years, with the possibility of making a 35mm 2-perf camera down the road. How did Logmar-8 do it? It gets even better when one considers how many people constitute the company — 2. Yes, Logmar-8 is a father-son duo. Two people are making a brand-new, complex film camera. Not only that — it’s a film camera that is augmented with digital components.
Imagine the combination of new digitally-driven microcontrollers and motors, lighter composites and manufacturing materials, and imported digital components such as a digital viewfinder results in a lighter, more agile, and ultimately cheaper movie motion film camera? Why need to imagine — it’s already here.
The question of course, is why new inexpensive film cameras were not introduced before. But they were: they were called Super-8 cameras, or basically the consumer DV camcorder of last mid-century. Whereas film pessimists would look at the proliferation of of camcorders and the rapid increase in the prosumer video market as the death knell of film, consider it this way: in fact, video has created a whole consumer class of people educated in shooting, editing, and distributing films. Rather than signalling the end of an era, digital has in fact created new market possibilities for a low-cost, efficient film ecosystem.
If because of the digital video ecosystem there is suddenly an influx of consumers who want to shoot film, how would that not benefit the entire film ecosystem? Ironically, video, in almost killing off film, has allowed it to arise anew, like the cliche motherfrackin’ Phoenix.
Overall, the story of filmmaking technology and processes is not only an interesting observation on the pitfalls and highlights of the transition from the analog world to the digital world–and the synthesis of the two in some kind of philosophical dialectic wankery I’m sure Hegel would be proud of–but it’s also another example of how technology defines and responds to social, and ultimately, individual pressures–much of which is defined by “the genuine”. For indeed, film connoisseurs have been pressured by a changing ecosystem and have responded by taking the inefficiencies of the once-dominant player–film–and converting them into a form that is more efficient, and thus competitive.
But this call-and-response dynamic would never have gotten off the ground if film connoisseurs felt there was something in film to fight for. That is, if video was superior in every way to film, people would have–just like the horse-and-buggy–let it die, and not looked back. In a way, it’s head-scratching in much the same way that a buggy driver would wail the dawn of the new age of that damnable “electric horse”, or a theory of evolution that somehow involves a higher Deity. But did buggy-driving go out of business completely? No–it simply transitioned to a competitive format where people appreciative of a leisurely drive devoid of the annoying decibels of a gas engine are willing to pay for that “luxury”. Or, for that matter, there are still people who, rather than drive a car around, are perfectly happy to go trotting on a frikkin horse.
This issue is not answered by bringing up the word “retro” or some kind of fetishization of the past where film equated with innocence much like 10 cent malts at the drugstore evokes “happier times”. Horses aside, the film vs. video debate is not a zero-sum debate. That is, video isn’t going to “conquer” film, much as the cd, or now downloadable music files in whatever file codec, eliminated the lowly record. The more interesting question is why some people gravitate towards the old technology of making and consuming content; i.e., listening to records, making films. I think the answer, aside from the obvious advantages and disadvantages of analog media, lies in the very inefficiencies of the media: their physicality, their impracticality. In fact, it is these very things that give the content that is encapsulated within this media its value. In this digital age, what we define as “value” has taken on a richer meaning: in some respects, “value” is equated with permanence, with memory.
I remember growing up when I first heard the song “Tom Sawyer” by Rush. “Moving Pictures” was in fact the first audio tape I bought, the first album. I played it over and over and over until the tape actually wore out. Can .mp3’s “wear out”? Of course not. It was the first time, in my adolescent youth, that I found something that spoke to me. How could that song, in this present day and age of infinite choice, have made the same impact?
In other words, physical media like film and records have a value because they are archival: they can be physically touched, stored, played, enjoyed–and they can die. The process of consuming this media content takes effort…and because it takes effort, it takes work to enjoy, and that enjoyment, because it took energy to happen, itself becomes…physical. Physical media do last a long time, but they are in fact transitory–they will end, they will die, if they are destroyed, so too is the content. Whereas the 1’s and 0’s of .mp3’s or .movs are immortal, because they are genetic code that are not dependent on their media for survival, but can only exist by moving from one body to another–much like sperm. Physical media do eventually die–because they cannot be transferred–and that is why they have much more value, and thus meaning.
We live in a world now of endless options, and now we are actively looking for ways to limit our choice so that the things we do enjoy, have meaning. So Film: the news of your death has been vastly exaggerated.