September 26, 2016
IFP FILM WEEK

Should You Shoot on 16mm?

Panelists on Kodak's IFP Film Week panel weighed the pros and cons of using a legacy medium in a digital age.

A few months back, we published what proved to be a controversial interview with a Kodak executive, detailing some of the renewed strategies his company has employed in order to make shooting on film a more accessible process for anyone looking to experiment with the format. During IFP Film Week, the film stock company hosted a panel emphatically titled "The Power of 16" featuring director Eliza Hittman, producer Lucas Joaquin and Cinematographer Naiti Gamez.

Prior to the discussion, an announcement was made heralding the upcoming opening of a new Kodak film lab in New York City as part of an initiative to make the transfer of dailies and other stock items easier for filmmakers on the East Coast. While the panelists remained enthusiastic about the visual aesthetic and even the journey associated with filming on 16mm, they weren't as positive about the prospects of shooting film with micro-budgets (especially concerning post-production costs) as Kodak would've hoped. Still, there's hope for the format yet and all the right steps are being taken to try and make the process easier and cheaper for independent filmmakers.

If you do choose to shoot on film, there seem to be a few basic rules to follow: be prepared for a tight shoot, have your days laid out beforehand as best you can, don't plan on having a ton of coverage, and know that your crew will need to have an entirely different skill set than they would for working with digital. Below are a few takeaways from the panel that we found to be especially useful.

Todd Hayne's 'Carol' was shot on Super 16mm film.

1. Know the factors to keeping your shoot costs low

Producer Lucas Joaquin's latest film, Little Men, has garnered rave reviews, but wasn't shot on film. Joaquin detailed many of the budgetary challenges you're going to face when shooting on 16mm. As long as you're prepared to shoot on the medium, you can keep them relatively low. He explained, "I think it depends on many factors. One is how many days you are planning to shoot. It’s kind of like, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, because you can keep your margins fairly low if you know there's going to be very few shoot daysand you strategize to be like ‘we’re only going to do a couple takes’ or 'we’re not going to do so many set ups and coverage.' If you don’t do that, it’s significantly more expensive."

Joaquin was reluctant to give specific numbers here because prices do fluctuate, but he encouraged producers to do their due diligence because, "It adds up. You’re buying raw stock, you’re processing it, and then you’re either scanning everything or you’re potentially shipping out of town, and a loader vs. a DIT, those are the big differences. You save on drives, for instance, if you’re shooting on film, so you can take that out. Each project requires its own analysis to figure it out."

2. Be intentional, rather than risky

Because the format is more expensive and trickier to deal with, you shouldn't be planning on using 16mm as a big, risky experiment. You should be planning on planning. If that's challenging for you, then know that the risk lies most heavily in the steps you take before you shoot, rather than in the shooting process itself.  Director Eliza Hittman, who has shot two projects on film, described her process as "less about risk and more about intentionality, and whether or not you are somebody who wants to turn the camera on and just rehearse and find the moments. It’s really about process and constructing the moments. It’s more about the process you want to have more than the actual risk. I mean if you have a crew that you trust, there should be no risk involved."

The biggest hit that filmmakers shooting on 16mm took during the sudden death of film was the sudden death of film labs.

3. Get ready for exhaustingly slow post-production

If you are determined to release something as quickly as you can, then film is not the medium you should be using. Hittman planned for a slow post-production process, but admitted, "The post was a little bit slower than anticipated. It was about a five or six-day turnaround. We didn’t have a loader. The size of my crew was about the size of a student film crew. We had an AC, a second, a gaffer, a grip, and that was basically it. In terms of what complications we encountered, I think that if you’re really trying to move quickly and you want to look at the footage instantly, then [film] poses some challenges. But the way our timeline was set up worked with it. We were set up for a seven-day delay."

4. You won't have much negotiating power with film labs

The biggest hit that filmmakers shooting on 16mm took during the sudden death of film was the sudden death of film labs. Joaquin explained, "It was a challenge. I want to make it clear, especially at that time, last year all the labs in New York had shut. There was competition among these labs, and you’d get good prices from them, and all of a sudden they disappeared. So the infrastructure wasn’t there. I think Kodak is trying to build an infrastructure for developing film. Suddenly it’s like what lab are we going to go to? Well, there’s Photolab in LA, they have no incentive to give good rates. They used to. There isn’t the same urgency in competition because they’re the only lab in town who can do professional pictures."

Darren Aronofsky's 'Black Swan' shot on 16mm film.

5. You can still wipe away those pesky blemishes with VFX 

One way that film has benefitted from modern technology is that you can make more mistakes during the actual process. Joaquin recalled a particular shoot: "We had scratches on the film for a little while, and that was incredibly stressful for us, and we had kind of a slow turnaround. There were little things like hairs in the gate, we needed to do do a little dust bust past. But I will say that VFX has gotten so sophisticated, that it's really simple, even on a tracking shot to take out hair, and it’s not expensive."

"It’s the same challenges, just in a different way."

6. Use film as an incentive to get that DP you want on board

When asked how to find experienced crew members willing to work on a micro-budget film, Joaquin replied, "I’d approach it the same way I’d approach any independent film, which is reaching out to people, talking to agents, approaching the DPs you like and respect. Let them know that you’re going to shoot on film, because people are attracted to that. DPs especially. They seem to be still very excited about that because they know that it will lend a unique quality to the look of their work that is pretty hard to find anywhere else."  Joaquin thought that an interested DP might be able to, in turn, get a good crew on board for the same reason—they all want the chance to work with film.

Benh Zeitlin's "Beasts of the Southern Wild" was shot on 16mm film.

7. Choose 16mm over 35mm

When asked about the type of film stock they prefer to use, all three panelists agreed that, while the cost is basically the same, 16mm is the superior format. Director Eliza Hittman's reasoning was that, "35 almost feels a bit too clean and a bit too digital." For the practical producer Lucas Joaquin, "One thing that’s good about shooting 16mm is that you can get good camera rates from a lot of the labs, or free. If not, free then discounted. But the 35mm camera is actually more difficult to find. Also, it’s more difficult to scan it and you don’t necessarily have more picture information on a 35mm frame than a 16mm frame."

8. Budget even more than you would to shoot on an Alexa

Look, this is a broad statement and clearly it depends on the scope of your project. Joaquin, however, explained that, overall, "There are tradeoffs. It still costs a bit more now to shoot on film than on an Alexa. And there are different challenges. You have to hire a loader, instead of a DIT. It’s something that increasingly is difficult to find on an independent film crew. However, there are a lot of intrepid camera and crew who will take a week and get used to it because they are enthusiastic about shooting film. It energizes everybody."

9. Prepare for film's unique challenges

The lone cinematographer of the group, Naiti Gamez, shared an anecdote for the type of problems you might run into on a film set. She recalled, "One of the ACs I worked with in Texas applied to be a loader on a film. The DP asked if he’d ever flashed a can of film and he was like, ‘No sir, I’ve never flashed a can of film. I would never do that.' And the DP was like, 'I can’t hire you, because you’ve gotta make the mistake once so that you’ll never make it again.’ Which we’ve all done with digital. We’ve erased files and such, or formatted a card when we shouldn’t have formatted a card. It’s the same challenges, just in a different way." When it comes down to it, the challenges associated with shooting on film are as major or minor as the challenges of shooting on digital; they're just different.


See all of our coverage of IFP Film Week 2016.

Your Comment

24 Comments

Yes

September 26, 2016 at 3:07PM

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Doug
207

What film is the first frame taken from? Spectacular.

September 26, 2016 at 3:51PM

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Moonrise Kingdom

September 26, 2016 at 4:52PM

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Anastasia Antonova
Filmmaker
96

Thanks!

September 27, 2016 at 6:24AM

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What does Lucas mean when he says, "you don’t necessarily have more picture information on a 35mm frame than a 16mm frame." Is it because if you use a low-quality scanner, the res goes lower? In what situation would you get the assumed higher res of 35mm?

September 26, 2016 at 4:57PM

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Anastasia Antonova
Filmmaker
96

I was curious about that too. From my understanding, because a 35mm negative is larger, it's therefore able to hold more information.

September 26, 2016 at 5:01PM

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esso
Filmmaker
23

That wasn't true and this person must have been confused about something. Also anything technical should be answered by cinematographers, not young directors. 35mm has a massive bit more information in all ways over 16mm. Just look at all the films on 35mm film and compare them to any 16mm ones. Even on a DVD you can see the difference. The question is, do you WANT the more griany look of 16mm. This is all a very elementary issue.

September 26, 2016 at 8:23PM

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Kodak Vision 3 (from what I've read) comes in 8mm, 16mm, and 35mm. it's the same stuff just cut to different sizes. the 16mm stock is half as large as the 35mm so it's going to be lower resolution (assuming high quality scanning equipment).

September 27, 2016 at 1:03AM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
626

Exactly, Anton. It's LITERALLY the same grade of film, only cut larger or smaller. That's it. Folks are really going out of their way to embellish the differences as if magic.

It's just a larger from from the same pie.

September 28, 2016 at 8:34PM

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I find most of this article somewhat humorous in its naivety. The issues these (mostly inexperienced) people mention are issues on ANY film set. Digital cameras solve nothing, other than having to pay a lab and do a little shipping. And who cares if your shots are some days out? I don't know anyone who needs to edit a narrative feature until months after wrap. That comment was very confusing.

You need the same planning, prep and considerations. Rolling shot after shot on digital uses up more time than film actually, and then you have massive time spent in post reviewing all these poorly done roll-on shots.

It's simple: You shoot film because whatever you are doing might benefit from it, and that's all that really needs to be said.

September 26, 2016 at 8:29PM, Edited September 26, 8:29PM

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Yes and No, really
The ONLY advantage to shooting celluloid is the default color and default grain.
With digital today, you can give ANY look you want. A crip look, a film look, whatever you want. With film you have to undo the film qualities to manipulate the image further.

This isn't a slight AGAINST celluloid film. But it does come with more drawbacks than advantages compared to digital [of today].

September 28, 2016 at 8:37PM, Edited September 28, 8:37PM

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Thanks for the 16mm Article! I've been dying to learn more about this format since my dad gave me his old Bolex H16. I want to use it but it costs $60 for 3 minutes of Kodak film! Then add the development costs and I'm spending over $100 for just 3 minutes!
I shooting my current project in Raw on a BlackMagic Cinema Camera. The big expense is hard drives to store the files. I use home-made NAS machines with mirrored drives then keep an offsite backup. So I'll buy three 2TB drives to store 6.5 hours of footage. $75x3 = $225 for 6.5 hours of shooting.
I still love the idea of film so I plan to shoot a short, just for fun project with a couple rolls on the Bolex and see how it turns out.

September 27, 2016 at 1:14AM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
626

Just to mention: you don't save much on storage costs - since you still have to store and back-up all the large DPX files from the scan. They're huge, with each frame at about 30-50 MB.
And of course you have more detail and resolution with 35mm vs 16mm. That's just silly to claim otherwise and this person obviously didn't test and compare properly. A well exposed, well scanned 35mm 4K scan has an INCREDIBLE amount of detail. It's a marvel, really!

September 27, 2016 at 6:34AM

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Gleb Volkov
Director of Photography
327

I didn't think about storing it. Unless there's a way to only digitize what you plan to use or delete the digital versions of the unused footage which doesn't sound like a good idea. Of course with my budget I'll only be able to shoot 10 minutes of film so It's not an issue.

September 27, 2016 at 4:49PM

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Anton Doiron
Creator/Filmmaker
626

Everyone should have the experience of shooting on film, especially anyone that wants to be a DOP. Though you probably only want to do it once and then move on.

The thing with film is you really have to know your shit technically and thats super beneficial to every part of your craft. When people want to stay ignorant so it doesn’t ruin their creativity it really shits me. Without knowing the advanced technical aspects of the craft (let alone the basics), you don’t know whats possible. You don’t know how to achieve that look you want or how to develop and create different styles. Knowledge un-bounds your creativity enabling you to create a film that is much more than its budget.

The point about using film to build a crew is a good idea but you probably want an experienced clapper / loader when dealing with film.

There are a few things I have a problem with in this article. First is the 16mm thing. The way its written up is that there is no benefit to 35mm film which is wrong. I think what it means to say is 16mm looks more like film because it has a much lower quality image. The stock might be the same as 35mm but projected or on the same size screen the grain will be twice as large and thus it will look more film like. I don’t particularly like it. I kinda hated working on 16mm jobs because it always meant it was a “cheap” job, working on 35mm jobs was a career progression. I’m biased but try and shoot 35mm, it’ll give a better result. Depending who you talk to 35mm is equivalent to a 3.5K digital picture once scanned in, which sounds right to me. You can scan it at 8K if you want but the size of the grain structure is such that you are resolving about a 3.5K picture. Half that for 16mm and you can see why I reckon you might want to shoot 35mm.

Point number two is tricky. Shooting negative is a larger risk than digital so yes do lots of planning but do it to embrace the (risky) medium. Shoot camera tests and try things you can’t do the same on digital like pushing stops, cross processing or bleach bypass. You might get your focus and exposure correct but the lab might fuck the bleach bypass process and your screwed, at least you went for it.

The other thing that bug’s me is that a lot of these things should be obvious. If shooting film was cheaper than shooting on a Alexa then lots of jobs would still do it. I was cutting lots of jobs on film after the Alexa came out but once someone used it on a job they didn’t go back. The image is basically exactly the same as shooting on film with with out the hassle on set, the Neg cost, processing cost, and transfer cost. Everyone just jumped off film to put that money somewhere else into the production. Notably they spent it on lenses, if for the same money your option is shooting film with standard speeds or an Alexa with Master Primes the Alexa is what people chose. A HDD to store your footage costs the same as about 1 camera roll of 35mm and on a TVC they would shoot about 12 camera rolls a day, not to mention processing cost and telecine.

Another point I have a problem with is that modern technology allows you to fix problems with film like a hair in the gate. People have been doing this since the 90’s so if by modern technology you mean 20 year old computers then ok. Dust busting was standard, thats how juniors learnt VFX systems. Here’s a tip, if your doing graphics on a still shot, track them to the frame. Film floats in the gate so it will help integrate the graphics, also add film grain to them. FLAME has a good film grain tool that lets you choose the stock and then sample the shot to match grain, though I’m sure Nuke and Fusion probably have good tools for that too.

Don’t be nostalgic for the medium just be practical for your job. 99.5% of that is going to be a digital film camera like the Alexa. Lenses are the new film stock, learn their looks.

I really hated the Kodak boss referring to the Alexa as a “video” camera, it shoots digital “film” not a limited dynamic range video image. It’s not MiniDV. Bringing ARRI RAW into Resolve is the same as loading a roll of 35mm onto a C-Reality, Sprit or URSA Telecine chain with a DaVinci grading desk. Thats why the digital film revolution happened, ARRI got digital capture to film equivalence.

There is no reason to shoot film and I wouldn’t recommend it for most jobs but try and do it once to learn the craft. There is no escape from the technical with film, it will help your creativity.

September 27, 2016 at 8:23AM

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Andrew Stalph
Editor
252

wonderful comment. thank you

September 27, 2016 at 6:53PM, Edited September 27, 6:53PM

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I agree with everything you said.

Except that I agree with the Kodak boss that the Alexa is a "video camera". You don't thread some sort of strip of digital membrane through the camera to capture the light directly so that you can later project light through the membrane to recreate the image. By all measures the Alexa captures light by using sensor technologies derived from making video cameras with the goal of achieving the "look" of film footage after it has been digitally transferred.

Maybe I'm splitting hairs, but to me "digital film" is a misnomer, and is shorthand for "film-look achieved digitally", whereas the word "video" has morphed in the popular imagination to mean "consumer" (i.e. cheap and not to be taken seriously).

But then again, I guess since there is a "film" that coats the image sensor on a digital camera, and so using the term "film camera" is fine, especially as a new generation grows up without having the experience of viewing movies projected on "film".

September 30, 2016 at 9:42AM

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Sean Bokenkamp
Animator
306

I was on the "Why shoot film?" panel at Cinefest 2016 (@CineFestUK) - The Bristol International Festival of Cinematography, which highlighted film as a creative choice with it's own aesthetic advantages.

There is more to the look of film than just grain structure, such as capturing full RGB with multiple layers, roll off, motion blur etc.

With so much film being shot in the UK there is a good supply of experience crew and two labs for processing (Cinelab London, Kodak Lab)
Cinelab (@CinelabLondon) has just installed 65mm processing and scanning to go with 8,16 and 35mm.

September 27, 2016 at 12:32PM, Edited September 27, 12:32PM

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Jonathan Smiles
Freelance Production and Post Produciton Specialist
5

Should I cut off my clit?

September 27, 2016 at 1:08PM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1122

huh???

September 27, 2016 at 2:14PM

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I stand with my posting in a previous, similar article`s comment section: it`s just a personal matter of taste of the director and/or dop. Don`t try to sell snake oil by pretending that it really makes a difference to the audience because it doesn`t. I, as a film consumer, only care if the film kept me excited. I don`t care if it`s film or an iphone movie. People here and elsewhere discuss this whole topic like we`re discussing wines. They`re arguing without end on grain texture, rolloffs, bayer array or whatever and codecs like that was what movies of Tarkowsky, Herzog or Michael Bay made what they are...Jesus, people, get a life!

September 27, 2016 at 2:20PM

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What gets me is that the people in favor of film's survival tend to argue that film should forever be an option for anyone who chooses to use it, yet the opposing side usually takes the stance that film should wiped out completely and nobody should ever have an option other than digital ever again.

Fighting over personal preference is petty and pointless, but fighting to actually reduce the number of options that future creatives have is downright evil. Nobody's going to take your Alexa away. Don't ruin someone else's passion by shitting all over their Arriflex.

September 27, 2016 at 6:37PM

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It had been 20 years since we last shot on film, and on our last feature "First Man on Mars" we went back to 16mm, shooting super 16 with an Aaton and Ultra 16 with a modified Canon Scoopic.
Because the film is a satirical homage to 70's drive-in creature features, 16mm was absolutely the best choice in giving it that authentic look.
Most of it was HD transfer, but Cinelab (highly recommended) did a few rolls with their 2k scan process which I will definitely use on the next film.
Here is the trailer on Vimeo - https://vimeo.com/152782140
(the rocket shot at the beginning is stock footage)

September 29, 2016 at 1:44PM, Edited September 29, 1:44PM

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Mike T. Lyddon
Filmmaker
13

"...you don’t necessarily have more picture information on a 35mm frame than a 16mm frame."
That statement is a load of crap.
You have FOUR TIMES more picture information. That statement is such BS that it makes this entire article questionable.

April 13, 2017 at 6:08PM

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Matt Pacini
Writer/Director/Composer
7