November 1, 2015

Director Sam Mendes on Going Back to 35mm for 'Spectre'

DIRECTOR SAM MENDES ON SPECTRE
The newest Bond film Spectre is already breaking records, and it hasn't opened in the US yet.

While you can usually expect a bit of nostalgia with the Bond franchise, it's not often that the medium it was shot on is such a large part of the conversation. We got plenty of that with the last film, Skyfall, which was directed by Sam Mendes and shot on the ARRI ALEXA by Roger Deakins. It was the first Bond film to be shot completely digitally, and though it was nominated for a cinematography Academy Award, neither the ALEXA, nor Deakins, returned for the new film, which was shot by Her and Interstellar and DP Hoyte Van Hoytema on 35mm (with some sequences apparently shot on the 6K ARRI ALEXA). 

First, here's Mendes talking about the film itself:

And in a terrific American Cinematographer article, Mendes tries to explain what it is about film that he missed:

With the Alexa, I missed the routine of film and the dailies. Film takes a leap up from your slightly shitty monitor screen to the dailies, where it starts to really have richness. Watching dailies on the big screen for the first time is kind of like Christmas. With film, there’s something to look forward to, whereas with digital, I’ve always felt that the best version of the image is standing alongside the DIT on set, and there’s a step backwards when you watch dailies.

While he says that he's pro film, he also says he's pro digital, and he really loved the way some of the night scenes looked in Skyfall. He also said it felt less textured and less romantic in many of the daylight exteriors, but that going back to film made him feel all of that again:

I loved shooting on film again. Film is difficult, it’s imprecise, but that’s also the glory of it. There’s a magic there; you win big and sometimes you lose big, but the risk is worth it. I was so relieved watching the first day’s dailies on film. It had romance, a slight nostalgia, which was my own imposition, but I had that feeling. And that’s not inappropriate when dealing with a classic Bond movie.

And for a little bit of what he's talking about, check out a trailer for the film:

Here's a comparison to the last film shot digitally (which is difficult since it had different cinematographers, and this clip is only 720p):

At this point obviously digital looks fantastic, and there are plenty of practical reasons why huge blockbuster films have moved on from 35mm. Digitally shot films have won Academy Awards, and 35mm (and to a lesser extent 16mm) was the only game in town for a long time. We've gotten to a point where the choice to shoot on film is more emotional than anything else. When you hear about filmmakers like Tarantino or Scorsese talk about it, it's often a gut feeling or nostalgia. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it does show us how far digital has come, that the conversation has become less and less about the image quality, and more about how it makes us feel when we watch it. 

Some of this might have to do with the way the film image is created, since there are random silver halide crystals that change frame to frame, and some of it might have to do with the fact that most people working in the film industry right now grew up watching 35mm. Either way, we're a long way from conversations just a decade ago regarding digitally shot films as lesser than those shot on film. 

It's good that we've reached this point. Film is all about emotion and conflict. It's not always about getting from A to B as quickly as possible, but about how we feel getting from A to B, and the medium it was shot on can play a part in that. 

Be sure to check out more from the fantastic ASC article as it goes into even more detail.       

Your Comment

32 Comments

I think by this point it's mostly in people's heads. What makes shooting on film a more pleasing experience for the directors is the atmosphere. The worst part about shooting digital is undoubtedly the fact that even your barista production assistant sees what's more or less the final image on the monitor and has an opinion about it. There is definitely a more magical feeling about 'shooting blind', and then seeing the result for the first time in dailies.

November 1, 2015 at 4:25PM

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Tobias N
1114

...and that right there is the meat of the arguments/reasoning. Shooting on the "magic" of "faith", rather than having the literal result sitting on screen at all times.

Some Directors can stand to do both and you can also carry that practice over with digital as well (most do NOT, of course), but that's all subjective. Much like film's usage at this point: a suggestive artistic decision which at this point feels to lean on the side of workflow exercise rather than a necessity today.

Almost like black and white dark room developing.

November 1, 2015 at 5:44PM

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Yeah, I think it was in Keanu Reeve's documentary "Side by Side" that someone said that with film, the cinematographer was like a wizard. There was almost something mystical about what they did.People would see them do all these things with lighting and the camera but they had no idea what the final image would look like... only the cinematographer knew... When they finally saw it and how great it looked it was very magical... That has been lost a bit in the digital age, however each approach has it's advantages and disadvantages... I am not sure anyone can say that one is better than the other these days, it's more of a creative choice than quality choice... Digital has gotten very good

November 2, 2015 at 9:55AM

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guess you guys never heard of a video tap then...

November 30, 2015 at 5:07PM

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the thing is that even though its shot on 35mm they will digitalize it.

November 1, 2015 at 5:18PM

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You make a great point. Even QT's Hateful Eight trailer looks so digital.

November 2, 2015 at 7:36AM

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Franky Hill
Director - Writer - Producer
102

At this stage the difference between film and digital is so close that it's going have the most minor effect on the quality of your film (if any). Any director hoping to squeeze a bit more enjoyment out of the audience by shooting film is likely to be disappointed.

November 1, 2015 at 6:28PM

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film has a unique beauty

it' looks richer...worth looking for short ends.. and using my student id for a discount at kodak that's for sure

November 1, 2015 at 6:31PM

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Stephanie Mahalis
graduate film student
171

Finally someone who gets it.

November 1, 2015 at 10:16PM

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I have a sneaking suspicion that some DPs are choosing film because of it's lower resolution compared to digital formats. This helps to hide the "seams" in your shots that might be visible in 6K or 8K digital footage. ( any time I see grain on the big screen I know that the movie was shot using film )

November 1, 2015 at 8:20PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32136

Grain is added to digital all the time

November 1, 2015 at 9:13PM

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Peter Staubs
Camera Assistant
493

Not ALL the time. I wish they would do that more often though. Textured picture is now a choice.

November 2, 2015 at 4:31AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1008

...But not "ugly" looking grain. I saw a 70mm print of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (2014) and all of the night shots had this absolutely horrible looking grain. I know that this film was shot on KODAK VISION3 200T and 500T film stock, which was supposed to give it this 60's Retro look, but overall I thought the color and the look was just bad.

November 3, 2015 at 12:45PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32136

Really funny how you just don't get it Guy. That's why every major director, actor and DP is moving back to film after being disappointed with their results from digital capture. You cannot do any of the tricks DP's and directors have done for years like flashing, overexposing, under exposing, shooting with or without an 85, removing layers of film and more.

Film is an artistic medium, while digital is a fixed technology. I'm glad so few people get it/ are scared of film, so I'll be shooting some cool stuff in a few years.

The quality cannot be matched especially for archival. Film can be rescanned in the future when they come up with 12K or more scanners, digital is what you shot it. It can never be upresed without major degradation or a mathamtical formula.

That's why episodes Star Wars 4,5,6 look amazing 30 years later, they rescanned the film. Goodluck making 2,3 look good in 4K, they already look worse than films shot 30 years before.

November 2, 2015 at 7:07AM

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>>>Really funny how you just don't get it Guy.

Film might be the better way to go in terms of longevity, as I don't know if we have reliable digital archiving methods for large amounts of data.

But in terms of look, state-of-the-art digital can do everything film ever could and a heck of a lot more.

High end digital has a much larger color gamut, so it can record colors that are not possible to record with film.

High end digital cameras can record up to 18 F-stops of dynamic range, where film has about 14 F-stops. And digital is still getting better. ( Panasonic is working on a 29 F-stop digital sensor )

3D film-making is a LOT easier when shooting digital, where film is a nightmare, or you end up creating fake 3D via digital manipulation of the scanned film image.

I shot large format film photography ( 35mm, 6x7cm, 4x5 inch, 8x10 inch formats ) for more than 10 years, so I am very familiar with what film can do and can't do, and right now digital is starting to leave film in the dust.

There is no usable 5,000 ISO film stock, but several digital cameras can shoot at this speed or much higher and still produce a great looking image. And this will only increase in the future.

Other than people's "psychological comfort level" or desire for a simple workflow ( digital can be as complicated as you want to make it ), I see no real advantage to shooting on film, and an absolute TON of drawbacks compared to what state-of-the-art digital can do.

November 3, 2015 at 12:58PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32136

I agree with what you have to say, Guy and with what Coppola had to say "Suddenly, one day some little fat girl in Ohio is gonna be the new Mozart…and make a beautiful film with her father’s little camera-corder, and for once this whole professionalism about movies will be destroyed, forever, and it will really become an art form.”

November 4, 2015 at 9:53AM

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Julian Richards
Film Warlord
1044

There is a distinct look to film, filming on film is easy in that you don't have to 'try' at all to make it look like film because it is film! Even with the latest digital cameras it can look like video, like Birdman in the rooftop scenes and such. I would say the Alexa has its own 'look' as well as the 'Red', now I can tell when something is shot on the alexa or red just based on the image! I would say that the 35mm image is just another look compared with the Red and Alexa and its up to the filmmakers to to choose which they like best! 35mm should always be available in my opinion not because of the quality as it will surpassed soon but because of its distinct look.

November 1, 2015 at 9:41PM

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Matt Nunn
Amateur
523

This is the case of pure nostalgia, which is understandable.

November 2, 2015 at 4:28AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1008

Total agreement on my part. This is people looking at film with rose colored glasses.

I am absolutely certain that nobody would be able to pick out film-stock from digitally shot films, if the digital post process tried to emulate the "film look". The colors would match, the grain would match, and even the highlights and shadows could be made to match.

November 3, 2015 at 1:05PM, Edited November 3, 1:05PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32136

now if only there were digital projectors then you could have that 'dailies' experience. oh wait...

November 2, 2015 at 8:38AM

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keith
333

Stupid, luckely it Is a dying breed. Digital is the future, why goback to something only a few can affort.
The few like to hold on, because it separates them from us who can do an good story even with an iphone. If the use of digital makes things cheaper and most of the time better, why go back?
Snobistisch i.m.o.

November 2, 2015 at 8:43AM

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you do realise that an alexa package costs over 60,000, right?

November 30, 2015 at 5:11PM

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Loved the film. Didn't notice for a second if it was shot on film or digital.
What I did notice is the horrible colour grade on the opening Mexico scenes. Terrible, bleachy, yellow tones that bleaches all colour from the scene.

November 2, 2015 at 9:20AM

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Chris Johnson-Standley
Owner - Rogue Robot Visual Industries
89

I think - at this point in time - the argument is purely academic if one is arguing "looks." Most filmmakers will go with digital acquisition, purely because it's more cost effective.

November 2, 2015 at 11:35AM

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I recently saw an original 70mm print of Lawrence, and honestly, thats bullshit. Digital cant ever reach that. Digital will never carry that organic color and grain. Digital is beautiful and totally appropriate in a lot of places, most places, but a crisp image will never stand up to an organic one, especially in a film that really calls for it.

November 2, 2015 at 3:33PM

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But digital has a greater color gamut than film-stock does, so for every color or shade that film can reproduce, high-end digital can do the same. ( and digital can reproduce many colors that film-stock can't )

Last year I saw a 70mm print of Paul Thomas Anderson's "Inherent Vice" (2014) and all of the night shots had this absolutely horrible looking grain. I know that this film was shot on KODAK VISION3 200T and 500T film stock, which was supposed to give it this 60's Retro look, but overall I thought the color and the look was just bad.

November 3, 2015 at 1:08PM, Edited November 3, 1:08PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
32136

Organic is a relative term. Some might say higher K's are making things more organic.

November 7, 2015 at 8:47AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
964

Hey Joe
I'm happy you like my Mendes interview. Thank you for the link to my blog on theasc.com
Benjamin
thefilmbook blog

November 6, 2015 at 7:41PM

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Benjamin B
blogger & journalist
88

To me the choice now is between looks (cameras) like it has been with lenses and emulsions. I don´t support film vs digital discussions. If the look people are looking for it is film then go ahead. I don´t really have nothing to say about it. If s director wants to shoot with a gopro because that´s the look he wants for is narrative by all menas do it. I am tired of discussing of what is better or not. Even shooting film there is a digital processing somewhere so please shoot and have fun. A masterpiece is a masterpiece by the hands of the artist.

November 7, 2015 at 6:58AM

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Augusto Alves da Silva
Director/DOP
74

If it works for them they need to keep using it. There is no argument. If using film makes you feel more comfortable you MUST use it. Who cares what the digital crowd says!

True, digital is easier to use. And digital really has taken over. There is no going back, and no use arguing we should go back--save your energy for something worthwhile. If you like film then just use it.

I'm still looking forward to seeing video and/or frame grabs from the Red 8K. There are samples circulating for months now. But they are being highly guarded--not even a single frame grab to be seen. Red probably wants it to be an explosive debut. Mark Toia, apparently (and I say apparently), already has some work out in Red 8K. Red 4K, really, was where the game shifted. 8K may turn the tables, definitively, toward Red.

The yellow that you can see in Arri is 'warmth' added. I don't like yellow added. It seems like a parlor trick to me. When I first saw Arri 6K I was expecting a paradigm shift. But I was let down. Nothing really different of note about it than 4K.

I'm REALLY looking forward to when 8K is affordable in the mainstream! Remember when 4K made its big splash, like a year and a half ago?

November 7, 2015 at 8:42AM

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Gene Nemetz
live streaming
964

anyone who says digital is easier to use has never used film. there are 2 settings on my camera and thats IT. frame rate and shutter angle. load a roll, plug it in, press the run switch, and its rolling.

November 30, 2015 at 5:14PM

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Anyone who likes making movies does not care to waste time talking about this.

November 9, 2015 at 8:15PM, Edited November 9, 8:16PM

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Adam Wright
Filmmaker
92

They could have shot this on super duper future resolution and it would have still been a completely horrible, predictable, exhausted, outrageously implausible and over the top film. I must have missed something because it was quite annoying to just sit in the theater and hear the people laughing the whole time. I mean really? I think they finally killed the james bond franchise with this one. That opening helicopter scene paved the way to what probably was the worst james bond movie I've ever sat through. And who the hell wrote that screenplay and said "yep this reads good, it's ready" Freaking ridiculous. Bond makes bad decision after bad decision putting himself and everyone around him in danger, gets beaten to a pulp, tortured (they drill his brain), in a car crash, and he still gets up without a limp, scratch or bruise and exits every goddamn scene guns blazing in every kind of vehicle created by man. That said if you like mindless action, explosions, car crashes, bad dialog and storyline then this film is for you. You want to make a good film? Here is my advice: shoot it on anything that you have! The process starts at the story level. The narrative, the dramatic storytelling structure, the curve...Study screenwriting and storytelling....The gear and medium are simply tools. Not all the millions in the world can save a poorly written screenplay. My two cents.

November 10, 2015 at 10:44PM, Edited November 10, 10:47PM

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Arturo Dickson
WEAR ALL HATS
67

I agree. I was excited when I saw the trailer because I liked the slow build up, but the movie is just as slow as the trailer. I expected it to pick up speed but even the action wasn't memorable. I like the idea of going back to the original formula but this one didn't pop like some of the great Bond films.

November 15, 2015 at 1:22AM

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Ryan Gudmunson
Recreational Filmmaker
268