March 22, 2014

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a bunch of expired film online on eBay for an old Bolex camera that I brought along, and we got a few dozen rolls of outdated film as an experiment really.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?

Links:

Your Comment

26 Comments

Sorry, but the headline of this story is completely misleading. Super 16 is still a popular format for TV movie and series production (including "The Walking Dead"). The BBC just recently decided to readmit it for fiction productions. Hollywood directors like Darren Aranofsky and Kathryn Bigelow shoot feature films on it. Arthouse director Ulrich Seidl shot his entire famous "Paradise" trilogy, featuring beautiful cinematography, on Super 16.

It's also simply untrue that Kodak stopped making 16mm film. You can still buy all Kodak Vision cine negative stocks (and b/w Tri-X!) in 16mm, from Kodak itself.

March 22, 2014 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Florian

They're talking about FujiFilm not making motion picture film anymore. Yes some productions use 16mm, but compared to the past, very few people use it.

March 22, 2014 at 12:59PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

3
Reply
Gareth

Quote from the article: "We shot on Fuji and Kodak — but mostly Fuji — right before they basically stopped making 16mm film. " This is what I referred to. And even the claim that this is the last Super 16 film shot on Fuji is highly dubious because you can still buy 16mm Fuji stock leftovers.

March 22, 2014 at 1:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

4
Reply
Florian

That quote is saying that Fuji stopped making 16mm film, not that kodak had quit. What's with the tone of your comments? It's unnecessarily ugly.

Shooting leftovers and short ends? That's a pretty weak argument to say that you could still technically shoot on Fujifilm.

April 9, 2014 at 8:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

11
Reply
Daniel Mimura

Dang, Fuji makes a great image.

I've seen footage from their mirrorless cameras. It is very nice. But not competitive with the big boys. It needs improvement. Their still photography is the best in the world, especially their black and white. I'm wondering since film is being phased out if their working hard now on improving their digital video. I would be very happy if I could get a Fuji mirrorless with its excellent stills and ALSO excellent video. :-) !!

March 22, 2014 at 11:51AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

3
Reply
Gene

they're

March 22, 2014 at 11:53AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

6
Reply
Gene

"Write what you know" is a lame excuse to make narrative films with poor stories. When you are told to "write what you know," and you're interested in the Cold War, that means you bust your butt to learn about the Cold War.

Research seems to be a dying art nowadays, and we end up with stuff like this: a psychedelic ride through someone's mind.

March 22, 2014 at 12:00PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

6
Reply
Critical Analyst

Somewhat concur , not a response to this particular film but because if DSLR boom , amatuers are even more lazier in all aspects of film making

March 22, 2014 at 12:42PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

4
Reply
jaye

"Write what you know" helps people tell a story with their own unique perspective, I don't take it as a blanket statement that allows people to be lazy storytellers. Filmmakers aspiring to be like Tarantino or Spielberg end up aping a style and rehashing movies we've seen a million times instead of "writing what they know".

March 22, 2014 at 1:55PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
SergARod

It's not about being lazy, it's about learning something.

March 22, 2014 at 4:11PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

1
Reply
Critical Analyst

To me, "write what you know" simply means writing a subject in a way that speaks to you, writing your perspective on it, which helps to give a story a unique, distinct and personal voice. It doesn't necessarily mean to not do any research. Even with research and learning proper facts about a subject, you'll still have your own view of that subject, so maybe it's just about keeping that view in order to tell a story with more character.

March 22, 2014 at 6:01PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply

Whether it's because you experienced it or because you researched the hell out of it, telling a story that you know inside and out is good advice to me. The premise of "Unicorns" is about a teenage girl who runs away with a troubled dude to escape her disabled mom. I understand that Leah Meyerhoff grew up with her mom having Multiple Sclerosis, and she cast her own mother in this film. I think that research, personal experience are both important aspects that you can bring to the table for a film's authenticity.

March 25, 2014 at 2:23PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
avatar
Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

That fireworks scene was literally taken from beasts of the southern wild

do filmmakers even try anymore?

March 22, 2014 at 9:40PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
john jeffries

I can't tell if this is a parody of indie films or if they sincerely think these images are "fresh."

March 26, 2014 at 6:27PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Tim McC

"Kill a moment and kill the scene if you do it too many times".... say that to David Fincher.

March 23, 2014 at 1:31AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

4
Reply
Nick

Everyone's got his or her own style and aesthetic and everything anyone says needs to be filtered through that. For Fincher's style, yeah, he needs multiple takes to even approach nailing what he wants...but for a loose and free, often handheld style, maybe it's right for that particular filmmaker. That's ignoring the technical and budgetary restrictions people like these filmmakers face that Fincher doesn't have to.

April 9, 2014 at 9:02PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Daniel Mimura

Another thing is if you do this for months, how do you eat?

March 23, 2014 at 1:33AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

5
Reply
Nick

freelance, have a part time job, there are options

March 23, 2014 at 12:49PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Mikey

>We did one scene that was entirely lit with fireworks and sparklers, shot at night. You can’t get do that with digital.

Excuse me?

March 23, 2014 at 4:18AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

1
Reply
Natt

Animating on super 16 sounds awesome! Can't wait to see what it looks like.

March 23, 2014 at 12:52PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Mikey

One of my life/filmmaking goals is to shoot a S16mm Feature and the bandwagon of misleading articles like this will NOT stand in my way!

March 23, 2014 at 9:24PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Zachariel J Shanahan

Not sure how this is bandwagoning -- this person actually shot a film on 16mm. Not just talking about it, like most people.

March 24, 2014 at 1:17PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Mikey

Go for it! The times I've been able to shoot on 16mm have been really rewarding, and as the director says above, the medium can be really fun to experiment with creatively. For those who prefer the character and color profile of Fuji, you'll be hard pressed to get your hands on it as the years go by and the ebay stocks dwindle. However, there's certainly other Super 16 still being made so good luck on your goal!

March 25, 2014 at 2:28PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

6
Reply
avatar
Oakley Anderson-Moore
Writer
Director/Shooter/Editor

March 25, 2014 at 9:14AM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply

I STILL don't think any digital I've seen really nail the color range of Super 16. Everything pops in a way that RED, Alexxa, DSLR doesn't seem to.

I read in an interview these guys used Fuji short ends, not sure if it was all of it.

[vimeo 8214456 w=500 h=281] "Tiger" - Feature Film Trailer from Beaufort on Vimeo.

March 26, 2014 at 6:21PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Timson

I'm shooting a wedding in 16mm this weekend so I would say it's not quite dead yet. A magical format when you have a good colorist.

March 27, 2014 at 5:13PM, Edited September 4, 11:56AM

0
Reply
Will Montgomery