Making the Last Fuji Super 16 Feature: Leah Meyerhoff on 'I Believe In Unicorns'
Shooting a film on Super 16 is about as rare these days as, I don't know, spotting a unicorn. So when Fuji shipped out some of the last of their stocks for production of her first film, Leah Meyerhoff didn't know it would be one of the last features shot on Super 16. Just after the SXSW Film Festival premiere of I Believe in Unicorns, Meyerhoff sat down along with her two lead actors, Natalia Dyer and Peter Vack, to talk to No Film School about anything from intentionally fogging film green, to the surprising freedom that using a restrictive medium like 16mm can offer. Check out the full interview, as well as a behind-the-scenes clip, below.
By the way, if you'd like to get a copy of this film to check it out for yourself, Leah Meyerhoff has a few days left on a Kickstarter campaign where you can preorder a copy of the DVD or a download. Take a look at the I Believe in Unicorns trailer to pique your interest:
NFS: It’s been awhile since I've interviewed anyone who actually shot a feature on film. Why did you decide to shoot on 16mm?
Leah Meyerhoff: The story I wanted to tell was imaginative and colorful & Super 16 is just a natural medium for that. I also incorporated some Super 8 as well, because the film crosses over from her reality situation into more of her internal emotional landscape, and I wanted to represent what was going on in her mind differently in terms of the aesthetics -- and Super 8 has a vibrant, nostalgic, grainy quality that worked for that. So, we shot multiple formats, but all on film and her character in the film also is a photographer who uses analog and analog cameras and shoots Polaroids and the whole film has this really handcrafted analog aesthetic.
NFS: Plus, Super 16 looks awesome.
Leah Meyerhoff: And nobody shoots it anymore. Fuji donated a bunch of film to us. We shot on Fuji and Kodak -- but mostly Fuji -- right before they basically stopped making 16mm film. We were one of the last few films to shoot Super 16.
NFS: What stocks did you shoot on?
Leah Meyerhoff: We shot on over a dozen different stocks. What we did that was interesting -- in addition to the regular Super 16 tungsten/daylight regular stocks -- was we ordered a bunch of expired film online on eBay for an old Bolex camera that I brought along, and we got a few dozen rolls of outdated film as an experiment really. And we shot the underwater scene with some of that, purely as what’s this going to turn out like.
Peter Vack: Didn't you have a casing for your hand-cranked Bolex, for underwater?
Leah Meyerhoff: We did a hand-cranked Bolex underwater with expired film stock that could have come out black for all we knew. But it came out beautifully, and it's some of my favorite visuals in the film. Similarly we did some other experiments, like where we pre-fogged the film, where we would shoot a color like green for example and then roll it back and then double expose it so that everything would just have greens in the shadows or a different texture in the highlights.
For principal photography, we shot mostly on the ARRI SR3. We also had an Aaton, we had the Bolex, we had a Canon Super 8 -- so we had multiple cameras at all times. Plus we had an intervalometer that we used for the Super 16 cameras to do time-lapse photography as well as the stop motion animation.
NFS: Animating, like one Super 16 frame at a time?
Leah Meyerhoff: I think one of the most ambitious parts in terms of the processes of making this film was animating on 16mm -- which no one does -- it's basically animating blind! We created a miniature world; we basically built a forest 3 feet high in a room, a giant forest set with real trees and dirt. I had to water the set every morning so they wouldn't wilt! We had these puppets in there, and a Super 16 camera set up and we would shoot one frame of film and then move a puppet, finick with it for half an hour, and then another frame of film.
We shot like that for months and months, and when we got to the end of a roll of film, we'd ship it off to the lab, get it back, and then actually see what we had. The process of making this film mimics what ends up on-screen. I think the process was just as important as the product, if not more so, and it was such an adventure creatively to make this film. It was wonderful.
NFS: So how would you say shooting on film influenced the process, creatively?
Leah Meyerhoff: I think shooting on film provided a structure that we could then work within and push up against in a really wonderfully way. We knew that we weren't going to be doing millions of takes, and I think that was a good thing because I think we just nailed it. We wouldn't rehearse too much, we would just shoot. And those first takes, those first and second takes, were often my selects in the editing room later. I think both actors just brought this immediacy and this truth to the moment, that we didn't need to shoot a lot of takes.
And in terms as my style as a director, I've always shot everything I have ever done on film. It's what I know, and I think if somebody gave me a digital camera I would probably still shoot the same way, and I wouldn't keep shooting and shooting and shooting. I think you can kill the moment, and kill a scene by doing it too many times. Maybe Peter and Natalia could speak a little about the process.
Peter Vack: As an actor, that is a very rare experience. I sort of see it like capturing lightning bugs. You know what I mean? I think there is also something about film acting that is always like capturing a bit of magic and when you know that it's analog. It's almost unconscious, but you can sort of hear the purr of the camera, it's electric, bogey woogey woogey, but it is electric! And film does something to ground you in the moment, and it feels special, and I think it was intentional on Leah’s part. Film is her medium. It’s a gift actually as an actor to work with film. It does bring a discipline to the set that you don't always see.
Natalia Dyer: There’s a change in the mindset when you know that you're not going to keep doing it and doing it, and you do really feel like you are honoring the honesty of the scene. And being in the moment.
Leah Meyerhoff: Film is so forgiving with light, so we used a lot of natural light. We did one scene that was entirely lit with fireworks and sparklers, shot at night. You can’t get do that with digital. So, on a technical level as well, film allowed us freedom in terms of the performance. We could spend more time finding truth to the scene, rather having to relight and re-rig everything.
Peter Vack: I do like certain digital movies as well, and I think to tell a certain kind of story it really does work well, but I can't imagine this movie being made on digital. Film feels like it’s a human medium, and the emotional component it’s almost inseparable from the visual component.
NFS: What do you see as the value of being an independent filmmaker?
Leah Meyerhoff: That's a great question. I think making this film as an independent film allowed us to create a story completely on our own terms. It allowed us to tell a story about a real 16-year-old girl, and her creative mind and her emotional truth, in a way that you often can't find in Hollywood. That's important to me personally as a filmmaker.
One of the main reasons I became a filmmaker was that when I was growing up, I didn't see a lot of female characters on-screen that I related to. I think there needs to be more stories by and about strong female leads. In making this film independently we were really able to go for that. We were able to tell a story we wanted to tell and create the character that we wanted to create and at the same time bring to life this creative vision in a way that we might not have been allowed to if we were working in a Hollywood structure where it's like “Go, go, go!”
We were able to take our time with it and really find the beauty in the story. You can really allow yourself the freedom to try new things and this film hopefully has a unique voice and a unique vision and portrays this unique character in a way that people haven't seen before.
Peter Vack: I feel like people want and crave independent voices and they don't always get it. I was having this conversation with my dad who is also a filmmaker. We were saying it was too bad because if unicorns opened in 1,000 theaters it would be a hit, but the people who sell movies are scared. We have an industry that is a little bit fear based -- certain stories get pushed through, because there’s already some sort of algorithm that tells everyone that it will work.
This is something that Leah often says and it's part of the reason that I am so proud to be in the film This is kind of a story that our society needs right now -- we need filmmakers like Leah and movies like this and yet they are so damn hard to make and get out there.
Leah Meyerhoff: Like Peter said, I think there are audiences out there hungry for stories about real teenage girls and boys and for an aesthetic that captures the turbulence and volatility and the emotional confusion of being young in a way that you don't always see on screen.
NFS: You have any advice you would give to filmmakers looking to make films with their own unique visions?
Leah Meyerhoff: I think the best advice that I ever got, was to write what you know, to tell a story that you know in and out. And to hold yourself accountable to that -- to actually set a date and say, "I’m gonna make this movie." I’m surrounded by filmmakers trapped in development. You’re writing and rewriting and rewriting -- at some point you need to say, "I’m going for this. I’m just gonna do it." Once you start that momentum forward, it keeps going -- and from there you just figure it out.
Thank you, Leah, Peter, and Natalia!
Are you curious to see one of the last features shot on Fuji Super 16? You can get a DVD or download from the I Believe in Unicorns Kickstarter that's going on right now, not to mention support a fellow filmmaker in the process. There's only a few days left on this crowdfunding campaign, and they are over half way to their goal, so take a peak here.
Any filmmakers out there who learned on 16mm? Do you have thoughts on the limitations and/or freedom of shooting on film? Are advances in digital cinematography allowing for new takes on that kind of creativity?