Why Shooting on Film is Like Writing a Handwritten Letter
What is it about film that makes filmmakers want to shoot their projects with it, even though shooting digital is faster, cheaper, and still produces beautiful images?
This question is explored by a director that chose to produce his short on 16mm film. According to him, the entire process is much like writing a handwritten letter: slower, expensive, but very -- articulate.
This is a guest post by Naftali Beane Rutter.
Let’s say you want to write to someone. Instead of texting, instead of emailing, instead of writing a facebook message, you decide to get out a piece of paper or a postcard and a pen, and write a letter. You compose the letter. Maybe you get it right the first time; maybe not. Maybe you use white-out, or cross out a few words. Maybe you just crumple up the paper and do it over again. "Man, this is so much harder than writing an email," you complain to yourself. But you finish.
Your letter has the right amount of postage and makes its way into the mailbox. Now someone is waiting. They don’t know they’re waiting, but they are. Someone is waiting for your letter.
Last weekend, I wrapped production on a short film I wrote and directed called WILD ANIMALS, which is about two boys hiding out in the moments immediately following a school shooting. (As I write this I’m in the final stretches of a Kickstarter Campaign to fund it.) We shot the film on Super 16mm, on Kodak Vision 500T stock on an Arri 416 Plus camera that we call the Hidden Champion, and in the months and months of preparing for both efforts, I found myself explaining to many people why I wanted to shoot it on film. The fundamental question is: How will it affect the completed movie if you shoot on film? Will it ultimately make the movie more successful, more effective, better? My answer is: Unequivocally Yes.
Explaining why you want to shoot on film is not an uncommon position to be in in the year 2014. There are hundreds of writings and essays, even a documentary by Keanu Reeves called Side by Side, dealing with the battle between film and digital. Why are you shooting on film? Directors’ answers tend to come from an instinctive place -- the Spirit Place. Director Alex Ross Perry, describing his decision to shoot Listen Up Philip on film, said, “Super 16mm was an easy way to spiritually connect us to the type of film that made us want to make this film.” The director Jeff Preiss says of his choice to shoot his film Lowdown on celluloid that, “It really was the intangibles that tipped it for me: an organic surface where the image and story both nest.” When I try to explain it, I go naturally with Preiss and Perry to the Spirit Place. Artistically, there is no doubt about the feeling of shooting on film. It feels better. Our inspirers all shot on film; some of them still do. But words like “organic” and “nesting” and “spirits” mean different things (and sometimes nothing) to different people. What else is this about? Can we explain our feeling about film to those who won’t give us the benefit of the doubt, the producers, the businessmen, the racers, the first responders, the google glassers?
At the same time that we are powered and bound together by digital technology, there is now more than ever a return to and desire for “vintage.” Our fashion trends backward, from Victorian to 80s Bronx. Urban Outfitters sells record players and Polaroid cameras. Our apps let us take a picture that looks like it’s on film. Our culture yearns for the days before digital took over, but the yearning and delivery of this vintage is made possible by technology. That slower process of arriving at our products -- for example, of shooting and unloading and developing film -- is disappearing. We get it instantly and it looks almost like the real thing. You know all this. However, I mention it as a way of bringing into bold relief the question of Process. Because I think Process can be essential in changing the outcome, nature and functionality of a product -- in this case, a story told on film. We Process film, we don’t just plug it in. We Process it even if we have to send it to one of the last surviving locales which holds the Spirit of the Processing, on an industrial street in Burbank.
I knew that the process of making WILD ANIMALS would be different if I shot it on film. I am someone who thrives in structure (one of my best movies, in my opinion, was made in two weeks, from nothing to finish), and when a movie is shot on film, the director is automatically under greater constraints than when shooting digitally. For WILD ANIMALS I had a fixed amount of film to shoot (a fixed amount of feet!), and had to prepare accordingly. I had to know more precisely where my actors were going to go, and what they were going to do. I had to think more about directing than I ever had before. I had to know more precisely what I wanted each shot to look like. In essence, before the shoot I had to know my film more thoroughly, deeply, intimately.
(The day before we shot WILD ANIMALS happened to be the day that the Kodak Film Office in New York City was closing. I was the last person ever to pick up film from that office. From the Spirit Place, this was a sign that this was all meant to be.)
The film I shot prior to WILD ANIMALS was a 90 second PSA for the DC Office of the Health Care Ombudsman. We shot it over the course of 4 days on the Red Epic Camera. We shot about 1.1 terabytes worth of footage for that shoot -- which in our case translated into approximately 350 minutes of footage. For WILD ANIMALS, a film that could be up to ten minutes in length, we ended up with 4700 feet of 16mm film -- which translates into about 130 minutes of footage. This means that my shooting ratio on the Ombudsman PSA was about 233:1 (an admittedly outrageous number of options) and my shooting ratio on WILD ANIMALS was about 12:1. This staggering difference not only affected the pre-production and production, it also will have ramifications in post-production and beyond. In editing, if you have fewer options, your process is naturally streamlined. Fewer options technically means less storage space (you don’t have to buy as many drives). Creatively, as you put together the film, you work in that same constrained space with, in the case of WILD ANIMALS, even fewer options. In this way, the creative process returns to the days before satellite TV, before the internet, when our options for what to watch, read, or do were less fragmented than they are now.
I also am fairly sure (unless it’s a verité documentary) that I will never again shoot a movie with a 233:1 shooting ratio. Shooting on film is like couples therapy -- to help deepen the relationship between you and your movies. There is a soft, warm, lovely feeling as you start and stop that shutter. The actors move through the light as it is captured onto the negative. If you’ve prepared accordingly, there’s a feeling that we (the director, the crew, the actors, and our film) deserve this. We love one another -- in a different, deeper way.
So it is important for me to explain this decision not just from a spiritual perspective, but also from a simple, grounded place. After a conversation with my girlfriend this thought emerged: shooting on film forces you to be more articulate in your process. To be more articulate before you shoot the film as a means of being more articulate on set, as a means of then being more articulate in the editing room.
It’s the same for a letter. When you make that decision to write someone a letter by hand, you decide to do it more slowly. It costs more money, and it costs more time. But that is more time thinking about the person you are addressing, more effort put in to the message you want to deliver. You are adding degrees of articulation to your message and to your relationship with that person. Shooting on film forced me to be more articulate about what I wanted WILD ANIMALS to be. This will make the film better. This will make it different.
How different will it be from its digital counterpart? We will never know. And when you open your mailbox and see a letter there from a friend, do you wonder -- what would this have looked like if they’d emailed me instead?
I think you’re just glad you got that special letter.
Naftali Beane Rutter is a filmmaker and long distance runner. He is at the tail end of a Kickstarter Campaign that ends on November 20th at 4pm to fund WILD ANIMALS, a short film about children struggling with the aftermath of a school shooting. Visit the WILD ANIMALS Kickstarter Page here. Rutter's first feature film script, "La Marea" was selected to IFP's Emerging Storytellers Program. He is currently in pre-production on "La Marea." Rutter is the director of Waterbound Pictures, a motion picture and branding company based in Brooklyn and San Francisco that specializes in socially relevant stories for screens of every size.