November 29, 2015

Understanding the Value of Shooting on Celluloid with 'Carol' DP Ed Lachman

NYFF Speaks with Cinematographer Ed Lachman
Veteran DP Ed Lachman discusses his latest collaboration with Todd Haynes on Carolwhich was shot on Super 16mm to capture New York City in 1952.

With years of working with a diverse pool of directors from Wim Wenders (Lightning Over Water) to Robert Altman (Prairie Home Companion), even co-directing Ken Park with Larry Clark — Ed Lachman is simply one of the best. Lachman's love for grain and the ability for images to reinforce the interior world of a character drives his passion for celluloid, which he discusses with Amy Taubin at NYFF 2015.

"Images are about ideas. They're not just about aesthetic pleasing images. It's the idea that creates the image."

On Shooting On Film

I've worked with a gaffer for 30 years, a grip and an operator, and we've all worked with Todd before. We were trying to hold onto film, I've always shot film with Todd. So we told HBO that it would be cheaper (which it is) to shoot in film that digital. So we got the chance to shoot in Super 16. We wanted to reference this story that happens during the depression, and we wanted it to feel the hardship and the film grain would capture that world in its soiled way. Not in this high gloss way. We referenced early photography, we looked at a lot of Farm Security Administration. We were so astounded by the feeling that Super 16 has, it has a greater range. The way colors mix in film can't be reproduced digitally. Digital world is pixel fixated on one plane, your lights shadows and colors are all on this one electronic plane. For me film is like an etching, RGB 3 layers, and these layers are etched by light. Even if you go through a DI to complete the film, you still capture the feeling of how colors mix.

On Sharpness

I discovered when you look at film, and there's a focus at some place in the frame, the way it falls off in focus is much more pleasing to our eye. What happens digitally, it makes everything look sharper. I find that by the focus not being as sharp I feel there's more depth to the image.

On Acquiring a Film Lab in NYC

All films are gonna end up as a DCP. We made [Carol] prints right from the DI and to my demise those would be the last two prints ever made in that lab. The Lux and Technicolor merged, and they decided there wasn't enough work at that moment in time. I asked them what would happen to that equipment. They said they were gonna have to throw it out, and that was horrifying. So I was able to procure the whole lab. I did it out of altruistic reasons and I think there will be a lab back in NY, but the one I have is there for anybody else. I don't think film is going to die. Right now 15-20% of Hollywood films  and big budgeted films are being shot on film. So I think more than ever there's a trend back to film now because people really do see there's a difference.

On Digital Intermediate

For me I have a harder time manipulating a digital image than a film image. When I go into a color correct and I have a director trying to change. The whole idea that you can change the look of a film is a mistake. One: it's expensive. And two: you can never create something that you didn't originate in the inception of the idea. Because if you do one thing, it affects the other. So say I'm playing with a warm and cool color, they're merging and fighting each other, so they affect the look. If I did it all one way, I couldn't get that contract, that merge.

On Blow-up / Film choices / Using 35mm Lenses on Super 16

You go from the negative to the digital file. There's no longer a blow-up, that's what's so wonderful about 16. I used to push 35mm because you lost the grain, Kodak made their stocks so good that they're grainless. So I like to reference the feeling of grain, so that's why I love shooting 16. We had a discussion about shooting 2-perf, but Todd was resistant. It's 4-perforations to one frame because they used to shoot 4:3 or a bigger format. But now we see our films at 1:85 so you don't need those 4-perfs, you need 3-perfs or 2-perfs and they can blow it up. Or if you show it at 16:9 you only need 2-perfs. The advantage of shooting 2 or 3-perf is that the lenses in 35mm have more of a spherical feeling, roundness and shape than what you get from 16. I use 35mm lenses when I shoot Super 16 to maintain that.

On Digital Latitude

Shooting digitally is like shooting film 20 or 30 years ago. I find as much as they tell me it has a 14 stop range -- that's nonsense. They tell me 2 stops over I gotta hold my highlights. With film I can be 5 or 6 stops over and hold my highlights. The great part about digital is shadow detail, like at night, lowlight situations, but you have the same problem. Maybe you have 3 stops, in film maybe it's like that too, but I feel I have more control over my image on negative that digitally. But maybe someone who is more versed digitally wouldn't feel that way. Young people coming up working in film or digital, if they learn how to control their negative by using film they will be a better cinematography when they shoot digitally. A big part about what we do is controlling the image in different situations.

On the Period Look for Carol

Visually we're trying to reference the late 40's early 50's. Before melodrama was considered Circean, so going to the Eisenhower era. We're somewhere between black & white and color, so the colors are more muted in this film. I shot it more like a noir-ish film. But not with a naturalism or a heightened realism. It was shot more like we're documenting these people in their world.

On Working with First Time Directors

I generally don't have problems with first time directors or women. I [also] have a great experience with seasoned directors. It's the directors in the middle that want to change their path based on what they saw last weekend, or they're questioning themselves. I like working with first time directors because they are more open to trying things.

On Aspect Ratios

The aspect ratio I like the best we don't shoot in anymore, except in Europe, 1:66. I think 1:66 is more human for the body. 1:85 was about getting people away from their television sets in the 60's. It's harder for closeups, I don't like cutting into heads, I like to show the whole head. Everyone likes 2:35 or 2:41, they like it wider. But it's funny, even in The Assassin he went back to the 4:3 or the 1:33 frame. If you wait long enough it comes back.

On Framing / Eyeline philosophy

I'm always trying to experiment with compositions. I'm always trying to break closeup, medium, our camera operator has this incredible sense of framing. Letting people come to the left side of the frame in a pan and not letting them leave the frame. We call that offset compositions. Why? I don't know, it's just kind of an intuitive thing trying to play with visual grammar in a way that connects the audience to the characters. For me the spatial relationship in the frame has a lot to do with the space we're shooting them in, I'm very interesting in the composition of what's around the person, rather than situating them in a specific frame no matter what the environment is. In the scene where Carol goes with Rooney to that restaurant, the compositions are offset. We partly did it because we love the way the extras look in the background and the painting on the wall. We just played with it.

On using modern stock to create a period look / Shooting through glass

That's why we used 16mm. I limited the color palette of the film. We shot with a lot of magenta and greens and yellows. I was trying to shift the color spectrum of the film. Kodak has a much more saturated palette. We've lost Fuji, I used to like Fuji for certain parts of films when I want the more muted colors. I never like to put anything in front of the lens, because if you put a filter in front of the lens it changes everything, but if I do it in lights and in the set then I have modulation of different color and looks in the same frame. A lot of times we're shooting through glass or Plexiglass, but when Carol is writing at the coffee shot, that was a dingy scratched plastic storefront and we just shot through it.

On American Scripts vs. European Scripts

The design of the shots and lighting and the mood is creating for the viewer what the emotional impact is for the character. That's the strength of images, they can create a world for the view to respond to the emotions of the characters. In Europe, many scripts are written much different than our scripts. Scripts are written here purely by dialogue, and many directors I've worked with in Europe, Bertolucci, Wim Wenders, Eric Seidl, Werner Herzog, they write description. It's not based on dialogue. Not to say that dialogue doesn't play, but they'll write pages about where the location is, what the setting is, how it should feel. I've thought about it a lot why our culture is so rooted in the word, I think we come out of 19th Century novels, and we don't deal with irony very well. But until abstract expressionism, we didn't really have a visual code that was recognized internationally.

I just think Europe has a longer tradition visually through painting that creates the language of them telling their stories. When I was younger I think I only saw films that had subtitles, I didn't know they spoke English. [Todd Haynes] writes another script talking about imagery. He does visual references, a wonderful look book, he's so knowledgeable about imagery and ideas about images. You're only as good as the references you use.      

Your Comment

32 Comments

Oh gawd, another old timer acting all old fart-ey towards the future. Go to bed, gramps.

November 30, 2015 at 12:39AM

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Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1353

Your ageism is rather ugly, no? I'd love to see work of yours that you feel is better than his.

That said I always roll my eyes when I hear the technical described in esoteric terms. This is not an age thing - many young people do it too. It reminds me of an old saying "What we are unable to understand is always perceived as magic."

November 30, 2015 at 8:04AM

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Robert Ruffo
Director/DP
303

If you actually read the article and check out Ed Lachman's work you'll find out he freely shoots both digital and film, and is making a creative decision in order that the cinematography better serves the story. Rather than, yknow, making a snap judgement based on prejudiced ignorance, or some fear of the unknown. Ahem...

November 30, 2015 at 6:04PM

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And you are shooting another 5D M7 vs BMPSC 8k noticing how the zeiss lenses look "sharper" compared to the rokinon ones... The modern "filmmakers"

December 2, 2015 at 4:17AM

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Ruben arce
Student
306

I always have to wonder when people insult others for the way they chose to work. Especially when their victim is known and successful and I can not find anything online significant about the one doing the insulting. I lean towards digital myself but I think film is cool too. Any medium that allows you to realize your vision is good.
Why limit yourself to one or the other?

December 3, 2015 at 10:00PM, Edited December 3, 10:01PM

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What a stupid comment. The man is a veteran and if you want to be a serious "photographer/ cinematographer" then you would respect him and his intelligence in the field. You would also be aware that ALL highly successful photographers and cinematographers have used, and still use film in their work, even today, when it's so called "Dead".
Seriously though, have you seen how gorgeous this film looks? I dare you to do better.

December 12, 2015 at 7:32PM

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Daniel Wiles
Writer
60

mmm i'm disagree about most of these statements about film vs digital.
probably are real since 5-6 years ago... but now...
if you show me a film strip where you recover 4-5 stop in burned highlights i will happy to see, from since 25 years that i shoot in film...
With film you expose to the right (ettr) like you must do in digital, if you expose digital cinema camera like video camera, you obtain video picture.
This statements is not mine, but i learned from an old (84 years) DoP that teach me like to expose and work correctly with film, and later with digital. He told me : it's only a matter of media, i found a new kind of emulsion, well i test it, i found its limits, i push the picture around these limits. And he did the same with digital.
actually a good digital vs good film offer same opportunity, if not... change your dit and / or your cameras.
Especially where you told that digital is better than film about dark areas... digital sensors lack especially in shadow, where if you not expose correctly you grab so garbage instead of film, where you can grab some dectails or grain.

November 30, 2015 at 6:05AM, Edited November 30, 6:05AM

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Carlo Macchiavello
Director
686

I'm open to listening to anyone describe their craft and art, so I enjoyed this. However all these established cinematographers and directors who praise celluloid over digital - it feels like a guy with a Ferrari telling a minimum-wage family that their crappy old Ford is nowhere near as good as his Ferrari.

November 30, 2015 at 9:07AM, Edited November 30, 9:07AM

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Jon Mills
Filmmaker
771

how much do you really think it costs to shoot film? the cameras are now cheaper than equivalent digital cameras (arri LTs now for a few thousand whereas a basic used red, canon or alexa kit is 15k and up), and scoring recans off the back of features can drive the price down stuipidly low. chances are you have this idea in your head but you've never actually tested it in the real world. my advice? grow a pair and give it a shot.

November 30, 2015 at 4:57PM

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I found this article interesting to read, I think it's important to respect and learn veterans with decades of experience. However, I saw Carol a few day's ago in a 4k digital screening, which in theory should have been as close to an authentic experience as possible, outside of a 35mm projection. However I found the way the projector reproduced the 16mm grain extremely distracting - the end result appeared much more like strong digital noise. I think this would have been less so on a 2k projector, as the softening of the image would have reduced the effect.

November 30, 2015 at 11:06AM

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Sam Gordon
Moving Picture Maker Man
87

Film is dead. Get over it.

November 30, 2015 at 11:46AM, Edited November 30, 11:46AM

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Vidrazor
163

Until the top masters of filmmaking see reason to switch, film will not be dead. Better tell that to JJ Abrams, who just shot the biggest Hollywood film ever on emulsion.

November 30, 2015 at 3:07PM, Edited November 30, 3:09PM

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Right, another old boy network director uses film, so it must be good.

November 30, 2015 at 9:18PM

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Vidrazor
163

there are more labs open now than there were this time last year. i see more productions shot on film now than any time in the last half decade. honestly, if you want to get anywhere in this industry you need to keep an open mind about the tools available to you.

November 30, 2015 at 5:01PM

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Nobody in their right mind shoots film today other than old boy network directors and their ga-ga'd fanboys. It's utterly stupid to waste your precious limited production funds as an indie filmaker on the medium.

November 30, 2015 at 9:21PM

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Vidrazor
163

I still shoot on 16mm and it doesn't blow my limited budget.

December 1, 2015 at 10:39AM

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Brendan Sweeney
Producer, Writer, Director
98

That's true. They are afraid of shooting film so they lie to themselves saying film is death, it doesn't look good, is not 4k. Happily I see where things are going. They did it before and they are going to do it again. Back in the day cinema invented 1:85 when tv appeared. They said it was dead then; it wasn't. Cheap fx like wipes and circle dissolves.. Pros stopped using those as soon as they were available to masses. Now everyone is a DP, a Cinematographer or a Filmmaker with a t2i. Everyone "can" shoot digital... But not many people can shoot in film. with by the way is better than ever before, and just ready to keep going after 120 years of being around.

December 2, 2015 at 4:32AM

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Ruben arce
Student
306

The only people Ive ever met who talk trash about film are 14 year old DSLR heroes on this website who have never shot on film. You have all these opinions about how much better digital is but most of you probably haven't shot with a real digital cinema camera either. You're all just a bunch of non educated loud mouths who are clueless.

November 30, 2015 at 5:00PM, Edited November 30, 5:00PM

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Jerome Stolly
1st. Assistant Camera
374

beautifully put

November 30, 2015 at 5:03PM

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I'm 60 years old dude. I've been around, and I got news for you. Film is dead. Get over it. The only people keeping it alive are the old boy Hollywood network. Once they're dead, you better have a good grasp on digital.

November 30, 2015 at 9:23PM, Edited November 30, 9:25PM

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Vidrazor
163

As long as the masters of this medium choose film, film will not be dead as you say. As someone in their 20's, I started on digital. I have used all flavors of Red, canon C series, Alexa, Sony cinema, and Panasonic. Compared to the film I have shot, it is all shit besides the Alexa. Until someone else besides Arri makes a decent digital camera, film will be here to stay.

Too many bugs and image artifacts due to manufactures rushing cameras out to serve the growing digital camera "hype." It seems like every new digital camera has more bugs that the last one.

If you're spending 10 million on a movie, you can't risk the sun being black, or the debayed pattern showing up on shots.

Film is the only perfected medium for shooting movies.

December 1, 2015 at 9:01AM, Edited December 1, 9:02AM

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when was the last time you shot actual film then? And I don't mean some shitty reversal stock through a crap lens on a bolex from the thrift store? I'm talking 5219 lit properly and shot with nice glass. When was the last time you did that then compared it to digital? There is no comparison. Digital just can't do what film can. Not in the highlights not in the skin tones not in the color not in DR not in ease of use. Film isn't dead and it isn't anymore complicated or expensive than digital. I've firsted 2 indies over the past year shot on film. The camera package plus stock plus processing cost exactly the same as an Alexa for the three weeks of production. The second production was shot out in the woods and in remote locations. Having a simple film camera that won't over heat, won't freeze, won't malfunction in wet, no DIT, no need to dump data, etc. film is just simpler and more reliable. Maybe in your old age you've forgotten that, maybe your eyes are slipping and you can't see the aesthetic differences, maybe you haven't been quite as "around" as you'd like to believe...whatever the case is you're wrong. Film isn't dead. The biggest movies of the year were shot on film and indies are still using it too.

December 1, 2015 at 2:37PM, Edited December 1, 2:37PM

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Jerome Stolly
1st. Assistant Camera
374

Right. So you shoot on film and..........................digitize and do all the post in digital. Then it gets played back in theaters on digital projectors being fed highly compressed digital files.

Yep, film isn't dead...

December 1, 2015 at 10:54PM

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Vidrazor
163

So you are saying that we should shoot h.264 YouTube ready? or 720 by 480 DVD format? Do you understand why Black Magic and digital camera have the RAW format? Acquisition. That is, you have one chance to capture the image, so you better do it right. Even Kodak says editing should be performed in the digital world and that's exactly the same reason for BMD and Alexa and RED to have a RAW code. You should grab a book and stay away from you tube "filmmakers" channels you old "been around" digital man.

December 2, 2015 at 4:43AM, Edited December 2, 4:43AM

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Ruben arce
Student
306

Not sure where you're deducting I advocate shooting h.264 from my comment. Perhaps you should learn reading comprehension, celluloid kid...

December 2, 2015 at 8:01AM, Edited December 2, 8:01AM

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Vidrazor
163

Actually you implied exactly that... Film doesn't stop being superior for acquisition because it's delivered digitally.

December 5, 2015 at 4:08PM

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chris
402

Yes it does. Just because you shot in film doesn't mean jack if you dump to digital. If you want the film look, it's colorspace and dynamic range, you need to stay in film, through post, right on to delivery. If you dump to digital, you're just shooting in digital. You're now dealing with the digital colorspace only available in digital reproduction, which is different than what you'd have with a complete film production flow.

Not that I think digital is bad, but it is different. Digital is actually superior to film today, but film zealots can't get out of the delusion of film being somehow magically better. But you're free to continue believing that it is.

December 5, 2015 at 9:37PM, Edited December 5, 9:44PM

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Vidrazor
163

That's totally completely false logic. You do not need to live in the same space to keep the quality. You can shoot in film to catch the latitude, and then have the ability to do secondary color correction in digital. Film still catches highlights and handles overexposure better...but you can't do secondary color correction without going digital. Something inbetween gives you more choices and looks than going all digital or all film. Back when HD was a new thing, and DI's were just becoming more common, I shot super-16 and we went digital and went to HDcam. It was superior to film or digital origin...before the DI, optical blow ups usually looked terrible. It looked far better than HD (good HD in 4444 color space)...but didn't look as bad as film all the way. The melding of the two worlds is often superior than either one alone. I don't know what's wrong with your eyes, but digital still doesn't look as good as film to me...the fixed array looks cold and lifeless...you can mitigate that by always having stuff moving...blowing leave, smoke and mist, waves...dolly shots...but you can't do this constantly. It just looks weird and cold. But...digital zealots can't get out of the delusion of digital being somehow magically better. But you're free to continue believing that it is.

December 10, 2015 at 6:35PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2119

im 22, totally independent, and i shoot film. and i know a lot of people exactly like me.

January 5, 2016 at 9:30PM, Edited January 5, 9:30PM

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"I generally don't have problems with first time directors... or women." - ? HAHAHA

December 1, 2015 at 6:51AM, Edited December 1, 6:51AM

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Matt Carter
VFX Artist / Director / DP / Writer / Composer / Alexa Owner
459

It hasn't been "celluloid" since the 50's. Come ONNN, guys. Just call it film.

December 3, 2015 at 8:13PM

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Chris Santucci
Cinematographer
252

What?! Are you kidding me? They're synonyms. There is no different connotations of one word or the other...or one time period over another in any English speaking place I've ever been to.

December 10, 2015 at 6:20PM, Edited December 10, 6:21PM

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Daniel Mimura
DP, cam op, steadicam op
2119