Shooting Film in a Digital World: A Victorian Ghost Story Comes to Life in Glorious 16mm
Film is fading out as a capture medium, but the experience of shooting it remains an invaluable one for aspiring filmmakers.
Zander and Elliot Weaver are working filmmakers and the founders of Elliander Pictures, a production company based out of the UK. Together they've produced a wide range of television content for networks like BBC and Discovery, as well as numerous commercials for major clients. Their true passion, however, lies with independent narrative filmmaking. In the past few years, they've shot a few brilliant short films, and they're currently in pre-production on an independent sci-fi feature called Cosmos.
Like many of us, especially those of us who have known little else than a world dominated by digital technology, Zander and Elliot feel that celluloid has a certain allure, not only because of the intrinsic nostalgia factor, but because it's still an incredibly beautiful capture format. A little over a year ago, the pair had two 400-foot rolls of 16mm film stashed away in their fridge and were looking to put them to good use. What they came up with was a short film called The Mysterious Disappearance of M.M. Bayliss, a simple, yet delightful Victorian ghost story that offered them the perfect opportunity to challenge themselves creatively and technically, and to explore a capture medium that is disappearing at a faster rate than anyone could have imagined.
You can watch the short film in its entirety below:
I recently had the opportunity to chat with Zander about the entire process of creating a 16mm short film in the digital age, and he provided some unique insights into the age-old debate of film versus digital, as well as some solid advice for filmmakers of all ability levels and stylistic persuasions.
NFS: First tell us a little bit about yourself and your background in filmmaking. How did you become interested in making films, and what was your path once you decided to pursue film as a profession?
Zander Weaver: We're brothers Elliot and Zander Weaver, and we've been passionate about making films since we were kids. At the ages of 5 and 3, we picked up a home movie camera and decided to make a 90-second film together, and we've loved cinema and filmmaking ever since.
As kids we made over 100 little productions; short dramas with friends, mini-documentaries for school assignments, and music videos for mates with bands. We both decided not to go to University or study film, instead diving straight into the industry and starting at the bottom as unpaid assistants. Since leaving school, we've gained invaluable experience as cameramen, editors and directors and received nominations and awards for our work.
We've been lucky enough to work on a broad spectrum of projects from drama for the BBC, factual entertainment for Discovery Channel and commercials for brands such as Bentley, Honda and Sony. Aside from our freelancing work, we run an independent production company, Elliander Pictures (still proudly sporting its original 1993 name!) which has produced over 300 professional projects, such as documentary films for TV, short films, and music videos. Our long-term goal is to professionally direct and produce feature films for the cinema.
NFS: Where did the idea for your 16mm short The Mysterious Disappearance of M.M. Bayliss come from? Why was 16mm film the right capture format for this specific film? Talk a little bit about the idea of how different capture formats are best used to tell certain types of stories.
ZW: Weirdly, we did this all backwards. It started with two 400ft rolls of 16mm film sitting in our fridge, which we'd bought to shoot some lighting and camera tests. But instead we set ourselves the challenge of shooting a 10-minute short on the 22 minutes of stock. We've always loved Victorian ghost stories, so we set our sights on a Twilight Zone-esque tale about a man who is awoken one night by a set of haunted keys. We thought it was a charming little story, nothing fancy just something fun to make. And of course, the texture of 16mm really helped achieve that distinct aesthetic that you associate with classic ghost films.
The capture format debate (film vs. digital) is very interesting -- there are passionate supporters for each side and there probably always will be. Many people argue the merits of how film or digital will enhance the story and therefore the audiences experience, but we don't really buy into that; on the whole your audience isn't going to be able to tell or even care if you shoot on film or digitally. So, we think you should choose based on what format you want to work with. We decided to shoot film because we wanted to.
NFS: Describe the pre-production process when you’re shooting on film. What specific steps do you have to take to ensure a successful film shoot? Does that process differ from pre-producing something that will be shot digitally?
ZW: With only 22 minutes of stock to shoot a 10-minute film we had to stick to a strict 2:1 shooting ratio. As we decided to shoot the film 'in sequence', overshooting that 2:1 ratio would have resulted in us running out of stock and the film not having an ending! We could have always bought another roll of film, but that wasn't point -- we'd have failed our challenge.
So trying to use as few camera angles as possible, we storyboarded every single shot, and there are just under 40 different angles in the whole film. We have a storyboard comparison video that shows Zander's sketches side-by-side with the finished film and the time and effort we invested in storyboarding proved invaluable. We trusted it completely and knew we only needed to get those 40 shots in the can to make the film work.
Another big decision we made was to have no dialogue. This was purely a way of minimising the risk of retakes. With no lines to say, there was no chance of the actor fumbling his words and us having to redo a shot. The actor, Marc Baylis, is a good mate of ours and we've worked with him on a number of projects. He doesn't fumble his lines often, but we thought it was an unnecessary risk. And yes, that's where the name M.M. Bayliss comes from. (With an extra 's' because it looks cooler!)
With no dialogue to record, we then decided to not record any on-set audio at all! This meant we could also make use of the film stock that would have been 'wasted' slating the shot. When you're on a strict 2:1 every little bit helps! Also, our Arriflex 16SR is a little noisy so it worked out for the best anyway. This resulted in an extensive sound designing process in post-production -- everything you hear was recorded later and allowed us to really craft the sounds, which hopefully makes the film an audio experience as well as visual.
The main differences with this shoot were the rehearsals. Shooting on film breeds a level of discipline anyway, but on this project we had to be so strict. We rehearsed three times, and if everyone was happy, we'd go for a take. If we got the shot, we moved on -- we couldn't afford to reshoot angles 'just in case'. If we messed up, we did a retake. But thanks to everyone being focused we got 80% of the angles first take and the rest on the second. Annoyingly, the floating keys caused the most problems. They wouldn’t 'float' where we wanted them and when they did, the nylon string would snap mid-take.
NFS: Talk a little bit about the costs of shooting film compared to shooting digital. What was your budget for this film, and how much of it was used for the costs associated with shooting and processing the film stock?
ZW: Our total budget was just under £400 (about $615) and all of that was spent on the stock, which we bought directly from Fuji, and the processing which we had done at Technicolor Pinewood -- they made us a 1080p HD scan in ProRes 422HQ. However, we own a small lighting kit and the Arriflex 16SR, so we didn't have to pay for any gear, which doesn't make this a fair testimonial for the affordability of film. Having said that, you can hire film cameras for a few hundred pounds now, so if you're smart and plan things through you can still make a short on film for under £1000 (about $1500). In fact we're about to do it again with 2 more rolls of 16mm.
Would using the same paintbrush as Leonardo Da Vinci suddenly mean you'd be able to paint the Sistine Chapel? Or buying a Fender Stratocaster mean you could suddenly play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix? Of course not. So why do so many filmmakers assume that if only they could shoot on film, or 2K or 4K, it'll suddenly make their films better?
But this is obviously where digital's strength lies and where all the anti-film filmmakers will suddenly rear up and shout "A-HA! It's expensive!" And they're right; film is more expensive, but is that unfair? No, we don't think so. If you want to save up some money and buy some film, do it. If you think it's a waste of money, then don't do it. But don't be one of these filmmakers who moans about how expensive film is as if they have no alternative way of making their movies. Imagine if you were an independent filmmaker in the 70's, 80's or even 90's -- it was film or nothing and if you couldn't afford it, you couldn't make your movie. But you're living through this incredibly liberating digital revolution that allows you to shoot 4K on a DLSR, so stop worrying about people that like to shoot film.
Anyway, it's not about the gear. It's about who uses it. Would using the same paintbrush as Leonardo Di Vinci suddenly mean you'd be able to paint the Sistine Chapel? Or buying a Fender Stratocaster mean you could suddenly play the guitar like Jimi Hendrix? Of course not. So why do so many filmmakers assume that if only they could shoot on film, or 2K or 4K, it'll suddenly make their films better?
NFS: Which film stock (or stocks) did you shoot for this film, and why? What specific aesthetic qualities made that stock right for this film?
ZW: We shot on Fuji Eterna 8673 500T, which is a high-speed (E.I. 500 ISO/ASA) tungsten (3200K) colour negative film stock and is available for both 35mm (8573) and 16mm (8673). Sadly Fuji is no longer making motion picture film, so if you fancy shooting some Eterna 500, you should buy some now while stocks last! (Excuse the pun.)
We bought the stock before we knew what we were going to shoot, but we chose Eterna 500 because of its speed and rich colours. Eterna is also known for its ultra-fine grain but our footage came out a little grainier than we were expecting -- but we don't mind too much as it adds to the aesthetic of the film. We're confident in the highly skilled hands of Janusz Kaminski or Roger Deakins that Fuji Eterna 500 would look as smooth as silk!
NFS: Talk about the process of lighting for film and the importance of metering light. What tools and techniques did you use to light this film? Walk us through the lighting setups from one or two of your favorite shots.
ZW: Lighting is our favorite part of shooting! The great thing about lighting for film is that you learn to trust your eye, because what you see down the viewfinder doesn't always equate to what you'll get on the negative. With digital you can check your monitor and your LUTs to see what the final image will look like, but you don't have any of that with film -- it's just your eye and your light meter. That's where the skill of a true cinematographer comes in and shooting on film really gives you a great respect for the masters of film cinematography. We used our light meter to help us get the exposure following the recommended 500 ISO/ASA rating.
We shot using the ArriSR's amazing high-speed Distagon lenses, which are really fast! We love using wide angle lenses and getting the characters to move around the scene and up to camera -- it's so cinematic. So we shot primarily on a 9.5mm, 12mm and 25mm and also had a 10-100mm zoom for the odd long lens shot.
Despite our fast film stock and fast lenses we still needed to shoot wide open as we weren't using that much light. With the exception the 'moonlight' through the windows, the whole film was lit with 4 small Dedo lights, which are only 150W each. For lighting on film these don't really pack enough punch (and probably why we had a few grainy shots) but we wanted to use them as they're really neat lights and helped us achieve the pools of light we were looking for. We're not big fans of blasting everything with soft light then shaping it in the grade. We prefer the more classical approach of lighting pockets here and there and letting areas roll into shadow, and the Dedos are perfect for achieving that.
For the pockets of moonlight in the house, we used Color Temperature Blue (CTB) gel to convert the tungsten Dedos to make them read as blue moonlight on the tungsten film. Then we'd box in 3 Dedos with the barn doors or punch holes in black wrap to make interesting shapes and throw that light across the walls. For the exterior moonlight through the windows we used a 2K Blonde with CTB and lots of smoke for atmosphere -- you can't have moonlight without smoke! Sometimes the smoke machine would go off on its own mid take and you can see a few clouds drift through certain shots, which is funny -- we were on 2:1 so just went with it! Oddly, a few people have commented on how weird it is to have these little clouds drifting across the floor, but they don't seem to mind the floating keys and a man being eaten by a box! We also used baking flour for dust.
We set a rule of always trying to reverse key the candlelight which we created with one Dedo and Colour Temperature Orange gel (CTO) to get a really warm source. We also used the old film trick of a double-wicked candle, which we made at home -- the double-wick results in a bigger, brighter flame and helped add that warm flickering fill light on the actor's face to sell the candlelight effect. The downside of the double-wick was that the candle burnt down really quickly and constantly doused our actor in hot wax! We were also paranoid he'd set his (fake) moustache on fire.
We did a few contrast and colour tweaks in the grade just to enhance saturation and hue here and there, but on the whole, we're really proud of the lighting.
NFS: Tell me about the film’s aspect ratio, which appears to be 2.35 or 2.39:1. Why was the widescreen aesthetic the right choice for this specific film? What aspect ratio did you shoot in, and how did you frame your shots for the letterboxing that was done in post?
ZW: We shot standard 16mm (1.33:1) and if we were being totally faithful to our Hammer/Twilight Zone inspiration, we shouldn't have cropped, but we always intended on 2.35:1 as we love widescreen -- it just is cinema! Widescreen is often associated with wide vistas and landscapes, but it's also a perfect ratio for portraiture and we love big closeups, so it's always our ratio of choice. We actually have a black & white uncropped version of the film and it has a totally different feel, which does emphasize the impact that aspect ratio and color plays.
The viewfinder on the ArriSR didn't have widescreen frame etchings so whoever was on the camera just had to keep the widescreen crop in mind. We also didn't have video assist or monitors hooked up to the camera, so it really was old school filmmaking, which we loved! Whoever had their eye to the viewfinder saw it, and everyone else had to trust. We do a lot of shooting as freelance cameramen and often have to take letterboxing into account, so it was pretty easy to just keep the main action in the centre of frame.
NFS: Is shooting film still relevant in modern filmmaking, especially considering that digital technology has become so efficient and affordable? Is it still important for young filmmakers to experience the process of shooting on film?
ZW: Digital technology is INCREDIBLE! It's liberating, and it's shaking up the industry and a new generation of filmmaking talent has a chance like never before to create and pursue their passions. There has never been a better time to be a filmmaker, but we don't see why you have to choose between being pro-film or pro-digital -- why can't you be both?
We've grown up in a very interesting time; we are both kids of a digital generation, but were born into an analogue world. We owe our training and experience to the opportunities that digital technology has afforded us, but when we fell in love with filmmaking, films had always been shot and projected on film, so to us shooting on film is something we've always aspired to do. Film may not be as economical as digital and it may be harder to shoot, but that is what makes it great! Film still matters because of the discipline it enforces.
All filmmakers, young and old, benefit from the experience of shooting on film because of how it pushes standards to a new level. There are very few moments in 21st century life where you have only one chance -- we can hit undo, we can rewind, we can delete and shoot another -- but film demands more concentration, more consideration. You learn patience, efficiency, discipline. When a film camera runs, your dollar bills are rolling at 24 frames per second and that pressure pushes you to be your best and do your best work. For all of the above reasons, and so many more, film is still relevant -- film itself demands more from you, the filmmaker!
NFS: For anybody interested in shooting a project on film, what are the steps they would need to take to get started?
ZW: For any filmmakers out there that still want to shoot film, we salute you! The fully digital future is coming and someday celluloid film will be in the past, so thank you for enjoying this magical medium while you can.
Okay, so shooting film is not hard. 50 years ago EVERYONE used it whether it was for Super8 home movies or 35mm holiday photos. Your grandparents shot film, your parents shot film -- you can shoot film! If you've never shot film before, a great (and inexpensive) place to start is shooting 35mm stills with an SLR. Don't be afraid of it, just stick it in the camera and go for it.
- Buy a cheap roll of film (24 exposures)
- Borrow an SLR stills camera from an older relative (or eBay/Freecycle)
- Stick the film in the camera
- Check your light meter or the camera's built-in meter
- Set your f-stop
- Check your focus
- Put your film in the can
- Send it off for development
- Pat yourself on the back. You just shot film.
Experiment and take notes about your settings (f-stops and shutter speeds) and then analyse your shots with your notes once you've had them developed, you'll learn what works and what doesn't. Once you're confident with stills, move on to moving images -- there are some differences but the knowledge is all transferable. The Bolex H-16mm camera is the perfect camera as it shoots short 100ft rolls (2.5mins at 24fps) and gives great results. You can pick these cameras up for cheap on eBay or rent them for a "long weekend". If you want to shoot more than 100ft, you can buy "short ends" or "recans", which are cheaper than brand new stock (but make sure they've been 'strip-tested' recently).
Obviously read as much about shooting film as possible. You can get old copies of American Cinematographer magazine online and there's a wealth of forums discussing best techniques and tips and tricks. Also Kodak has a great app that is a gold mine of information.
For any filmmakers out there that still want to shoot film, we salute you!
NFS: What are you guys working on now, and where can our audience find more of your work?
ZW: We're currently producing an independent sci-fi feature film called COSMOS, which we're a few weeks away from shooting; we're running a production blog that covers every step of the process. We know filmmakers are secretive about their work, teasing a few behind-the-scenes photos here and there, but with COSMOS we want to share our process and offer an all-access pass to watch the full production of the film on its journey from script-to-screen. We also have a website for our production company and run a small tutorial film school on YouTube.
We'd like to thank Zander and Elliot for taking the time to share their experiences shooting this film with us. If you guys have any questions about the production of this short, or general comments about the state of celluloid filmmaking, leave them down in the comments!