Are the Coen Brothers Finished Shooting on Celluloid?
We know that motion picture film is going to stick around for a while on a large scale thanks to Kodak, but what happens when the biggest directors and DPs choose not to use it anymore? Is that when we'll stop seeing it in theaters? In a recent interview with the New York Times, Joel and Ethan Coen discussed not only their newest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, but how technology and the industry have changed since they started making films.
Here Joel and Ethan talk about how things have changed and whether this is the last movie they shoot on actual film:
Joel Well, the craft of it’s changed a lot, just because of digital technology. That’s the thing that’s been the most radical. I mean, outside of that, it’s still the same as when we were making Super 8 movies, basically. This movie was not shot digitally. We shot it on film. It’s probably ——
Ethan Probably the last one.
Joel It might be the last one we ever do on film.
Ethan “True Grit” was the last film that Roger Deakins shot on film.
Joel We were one of the last people to stop cutting on film. And when we stopped, people would say, “Why?” Honestly, the answer was because we couldn’t find assistants who knew how to work on film. They didn’t exist anymore. I mean, it was — I remember being in Ken Loach’s cutting room around then, and I said — he was cutting on a Steenbeck back then — and I said, “How do you do this?” And he pointed like that [points] and there was this, like, 96-year-old guy on the rewinds.
Shooting on film and all of the processes associated with it are literally becoming lost arts. I never worked with a Steenbeck (though we had one at school), but I was fortunate enough to cut and splice a 16mm short by hand -- which I would highly recommend if you get the chance. It's not an exercise that will produce better films, but it does make you appreciate what has been simplified by digital technologies. Every cut is precious and calculated because it's a painstaking process. Large format photography, another seemingly lost art, places an even greater emphasis on images, as the medium is not only very expensive, but the patience required to shoot it forces you to evaluate everything that does, and does not, matter in the frame (and even if you don't get anything out of it, being able to develop each 4 x 5 negative by hand is as fun as it is nerve-wracking).
Later on they were asked whether they'd tried any digital cameras yet:
Ethan We’ve seen Roger’s tests of the Alexa, which are pretty remarkable, which is the eerie thing.
Joel I think both of us — and T Bone I would throw in here, too — are very sort of analog. I’d rather listen to vinyl than to a CD. I’d rather see a movie shot on film. I don’t think they look the same. I think you can duplicate things with digital technology, but what you end up doing is trying to recapture elements of photochemical technology that aren’t there, and they always look a little screwy.
Ethan The analog texture feels so good.
Joel There was a period of time when you could choose whether you were shooting in black and white or in color, and depending on the subject matter — and usually it’s sort of genre-driven and all the rest. It would be great if you could say, “This movie lends itself to digital shooting, this one, black and white,” without there being any kind of arty stigma put on it. It’s just another thing you can try.
I think there is a lot of truth to that last bit from Joel about experimenting and shooting a particular movie in black and white if that's what felt right. It's almost impossible to get away with something like that in a mainstream film these days, especially as there are people going into theaters who may never have seen an entire film that way. What I do think is happening with digital technology is that we are getting further away from what we used to associate with digital images. As sensors get more advanced, they are able to control pixel readout in a way that is more pleasing to the eye. Having the cleanest possible images to work with also lends itself to feeling more like an analog medium -- something that was nearly impossible before hard drives and memory advanced enough.
It will be interesting if this is actually the last movie they shoot on film. The Coens were sort of the underdogs in the post world when they decided to edit on Final Cut instead of Avid, but they haven't done anything quite like that with the shooting of their films (even though it would open up more creative options just as the digital intermediate did when they first used it on O' Brother, Where Art Thou?).
Film won't go away just because Ethan and Joel stop using it, but every filmmaker that permanently moves to digital will mean less and less film is being shot and processed. Celluloid is going to stick around for some time, but labs are continuing to close. When the economics no longer make sense, it won't be a question of where you'll buy film stock -- but where you'll actually get that stock developed.
You can read more of the interview over at the New York Times.