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Film Remains a Viable Choice for Big Budget Movies

Analogue celluloid film has been used to shoot recent blockbuster successes like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Tarantino’s Hateful Eight and the latest James Bond installment, Spectre. Meanwhile, Kodak reports that it’s film division will be profitable again in 2016.

As an analogue film stills photographer (on occasion, and albeit an ordinary one at best) I’m emboldened by the survival of film over time.

Vadim Rizov wrote a compelling article in January 2015 about an incomplete list of 39 movies in 2014 shot on 35mm film that outlined cinematographers’ reasons for choosing analogue film over digital production.

Analogue film remains a superior technology for many situations. Some of those desirable qualities are that film is cheaper to shoot on larger projects (due to the high cost of digital post production) and it’s easier to achieve good results on well understood film stock. The necessary skills persist within the industry to do the work shooting film; even if labs that can develop their negatives have become scarce.

Film also provides a certain realism that makes shooting anything set in the Twentieth Century more believable. Quentin Tarantino has a lovely rant about the nostalgia of our film experience; the magic of rolling 35mm past a light bulb to project moving frames on the wall. We have a relationship with film that can’t easily be ignored.

The reality with digital movie production is that it has the same advantages and disadvantages as exists with stills photography. Digital offers an ability to shoot in low light situations beyond the sensitivity of film stock. Digital technologies can also be viewed in real time by the production team as they rework scripts and dialogue at next to zero production cost (in contrast to wasting valuable film). And digital is the darling of distributors because only an electronic file needs to move around the World instead of large cannisters. Most movie houses have pushed into digital conversion to accommodate this distribution model.

Add to this mix an ability for less cashed-up projects to purchase affordable digital cameras, their ability to utilise contemporary skills at low cost (often within existing friendship networks) and an easier way to learn the craft of making movies. These are incentives for a large part of the industry to opt away from film production. And, because of this upcoming generation of cinematographers, there is a concern that as the old cinematographers retire and die, the new ones may not want any better.

The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was shot almost entirely in natural light using digital technologies. The project had originally been planned to be completely shot on film, but light was a key constraint that tipped the scales. So the best technology isn’t solely about the wishes of the large distribution companies, or the purist versus non-purist factions within the industry; the best technology is the one that fits within the constraints of the given project and resource profile of the cinematographers. In many cases analogue film still offers superior results over more modern alternatives.

Todd Haynes’ latest movie Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara has also gone with film. Ed Lachman, Director of Photography on the movie, cited reasons such as grain, the influence on audience expectations based on the aesthetic of film, emotional engagement, limitation of digital technologies in specific light situations and the “crossover and contamination between warm and cool colors.” There is a “sense of depth in color separation” on film that isn’t there with digital.

In contrast, one of the film makers in the Vadim Risov article used a recent experience as an example. He said running six digital cameras for over 70 days through mud and rain with a production tent on a muddy hillside would have been impossible. So the project opted to shoot analogue film as a practical necessity.

Yes, digital technologies offer great advantages for shooting low light on a cheap budget. There are relatively affordable digital cameras up to the task that can bring low-budget movie makers into local theatres. Digital technologies offer huge advantages in copying and distribution that attract the interest of studio executives.

But on the large projects it is still more cost effective to use analogue technologies to create the better film experience. Albeit ever more difficult to find labs that are capable of processing the negatives. Film is here to stay, at least for now; at least until digital can provide that ambient realism we’re expecting. And probably at least until the technology stops being tethered and restricted by the need for complicated networking solutions in the field.

That Kodak’s film division can become profitable in 2016 and provide me with some security as a stills photographer is just icing on the cake.

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Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark and I live in the Derwent Valley in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a mazer & a yeast farmer (making beer, fruit wine and mead as by-products of continuous improvement in my farming practices). I'm a photographer, although my film cameras are currently silent. I do not tolerate idiots. I do not tolerate bigotry. I do not tolerate excuses. Let's be clear, if you sit with my enemies you my are my enemy for life.

Blogger. Thinker. Brewer. Drinker. Life partner to the amazing and incredible Megan.

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