Why 'It Eats You Up' Director Kassim Norris Sold His Digital Equipment to Shoot Super16
Think shooting on film is too expensive or too complicated? This short film will prove you wrong.
Kassim Norris is a filmmaker and D.I. Colorist from Chicago who was recently diagnosed with a rare medical condition with no guaranteed cures. Instead of sinking his money into medical operations that may not work, he decided to spend that money making films. Norris sold off his digital camera equipment in favor of a Super 16 camera package to bring It Eats You Up, a short adaptation of his feature film, to life. We speak with Kassim about the philosophical and pragmatic reasons behind shooting celluloid and why it was one of the best decisions of his life.
"Shooting film made me a better filmmaker."
NFS: Why shoot Super 16?
Kassim: I always felt this really strong guilt that I couldn't call myself a filmmaker without ever really shooting on film. I grew up watching films shot on film. I love what digital has enabled us to accomplish in modern cinema, but film to me just feels like home. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in an analog world, so for me film has the depth of my childhood memories. I always knew I was going to eventually cross over and let go of the digital world.
For me, film is like a window, a subtle reminder that you're just here as a visitor. It's a ticket. It's a time machine. Film creates and holds a separation between the characters and the audience. With digital you don't get that separation — digital places you in the world. I definitely wanted my audience to feel like they are looking at this world through a window. For me there's a beauty to that separation.
My spirit was being attacked, not just my health but my spirit as a filmmaker. I was threatened. I am an optimistic person and I found myself hiding under the sheets for hours and hours of the day. I couldn't get out of this funk. At that moment I realized I could invest in these doctors or I can invest in my spirit. And I chose to invest in my spirit and I can honestly say it's one of the best things I've ever done.
NFS: What were the challenges of shooting film for the first time?
Kassim: I had never shot anything on film. I didn't go to film school. I'm used to doing so many takes; they know me as the "one more" guy. For this I couldn't do that. Film forces you to be intentional. It forces you to commit to your ideas. It forces you to make those executive decisions and to know exactly what you want.
I had a million questions going into it: how do I load the mag? Is my fridge cold enough? I did a lot of research as to what look to go for and decided on shooting everything overexposed 2 stops. In film you can go as far as 6 stops over, it's crazy. So I was nervous, but film is more forgiving than digital, so you should be worry-free shooting film. I wanted to be the example for other filmmakers who think it can't be done. I got a really good deal on my 7213 can for $113 from a factory sealed supplier. I got a 2K DPX scan and I paid, altogether, for stock and scanning like $450.
"We shot on 1 can of film."
NFS: How much went into the production design of this film?
Kassim: The focus on film rolls off a little softer that digital and it does something different with fabrics and textures and plastics. In the film there's a lot of fabrics and plastics. Sometimes the simple stuff is the most complex to accomplish. My good friend Skyler Lawson is a master of detail; he designed the playing cards in the film from scratch. I was trying to pull off a late 70's/early 80's vibe and Skyler was my guy who brought out so much of that. You never saw in her purse but everything in it was legit from that time period — it was that detailed. For everything in the project — including film stock— I paid the most for her glasses. I think as filmmakers we all have those things that seem really small but are very important to us.
NFS: Being your first time lighting for film, how did you choose what fixtures and intensities to use?
Kassim: I pretty much read tons of blogs where cinematographers discussed their process and the effect of using different lights using tungsten/daylight stocks. Brenton and I never really found the answer we were looking for so we pretty much had to stick with what we normally do with digital. After my scans came back I found that the CTB gels over our tungsten setup reacted slightly different with the tungsten stock but it still produced a "look" that was actually more complimentary to tone I was looking for. In short, we were forced to experiment a little, stick with our guts and what we already knew about lighting with digital. I think Brenton is a genius with lighting and the way he assisted me with what I wanted I can say that i was very grateful to have him apart of the project.
"Film forces you to be intentional. It forces you to commit to your ideas. It forces you to make those executive decisions and to know exactly what you want."
NFS: How did working with actors change?
Kassim: We shot on 1 can of film. I went into the project deciding to only shoot on 1 can, to push myself. I didn't do any testing of film. I wanted to debunk this mindset that you can't afford to shoot on film. I wanted to go into it with a disciplined mind saying, "This can be done." My friend Brenton Oechsle helped me so much with the script; he's a master of silence. They had the scripts 3 weeks prior, but I had 5 pages to shoot and a few hours of rehearsal. It went so well that we shot on 400 feet — which is 11 minutes — and the short is about 4 minutes, so we had roughly a 2:1 shooting ratio. So what you're seeing is basically everything we shot. I think I got the best performances from my actors because I had no choice not to. It gave me a whole 'nother tool in the toolbox.
NFS: As we move into our careers we all have projects that we want to make that we haven't yet; they're just sitting there, eating away at us.
Kassim: That's totally another thing this film is all about. It's not just about one specific thing. Its about this huge monster that's hovering over all of us, the human struggle, being able to face our own reflection. For boxers they say your true enemy is yourself. Same with being a filmmaker: you are your worst critic. I always imagined it would cost $3,000 to do what I did. It's just about being open to a new way of creating.
NFS: What's the next step for the feature version of this story?
Kassim: It Eats You Up is a short adaptation from my feature Adore the Wolf. In the feature script, it's a 13-year-old boy who runs away from home to avenge his father's death. He's roaming the streets of Chicago and gets tangled in this criminal world. I made this short to show to investors and I'm shopping for producers right now. So anyone who's reading this who's interested, don't hesitate to get in touch. Or if anyone has any questions, I would be honored to answer any questions about the technical process of shooting on film.