Kodak's President of Motion Picture and Entertainment Steve Bellamy squashes the film vs. digital debate once and for all.
As little as four years ago, the entire medium of film was thought to be on the verge of extinction. In his 2011 essay The Sudden Death of Film, Roger Ebert declared "the celluloid dream may live on in my hopes, but digital commands the field...my war is over, my side lost, and it's important to consider this in the real world."
He'd be happy to know that in 2016, thanks in large part to the combined efforts of a handful of influential directors, the Kodak Eastman company and their recently appointed President of Motion Picture and Entertainment Steve Bellamy, film is king once again.
Just how triumphant has film's resurgence been? 2016's edition of the Cannes Film Festival featured multiple films shot on celluloid, including entries from Jeff Nichols, Olivier Assayas, Xavier Dolan, Hirokazu Kore-eda and Ken Loach. Four of these films were included in competition. The prestigious awards this year (Palme d’Or / I, Daniel Blake, Grand Prix Award / Juste la Fin du Monde, Best Director / Olivier Assayas for Personal Shopper) all were for movies shot on film. And the Jury Prize went to American Honey which was a hybrid of film and video.
Boutique theaters like The Metrograph and Alamo Drafthouse are sprouting up in more and more cities around the country. Most importantly, however, filmmakers both established and new are considering that despite how much technology advances, film will always look better than digital.
No Film School sat down with Bellamy to discuss the medium's revitalization, why today's film schools might as well be called "Digital File Schools," and how working with film not only makes you a better director, but could also end up making your career. Prior to his gig at Kodak, Bellamy directed several movies of his own in addition to founding The Tennis Channel, The Ski Channel, The Surf Channel and The Skate Channel television networks.
No Film School: How would you say film makes audiences feel differently than video?
Steve Bellamy: I have never seen a study that shows "here is what your brain waves are doing when they're watching film; here's what they're doing when they're watching video." There is something going on emotively that we have not quantified as of yet. We will. When you're seeing analog and you're an analog being, there is an emotional connectivity, and there are emotive responses that you just don't get when you're looking at pixels.
"We were a bankrupt company three years ago, and now we're kind of a start-up. But we're like the most mature start-up in the history of business."
In this day and age, we look at our watch and we're watching pixels in video. We look at our phones, our laptops and our tablets, our television sets, our desktops, even sometimes our billboards. If you think about it, we're spending 10, 12 hours a day looking at pixels in video. When your brain is processing any kind of digital motion picture technology, it's seeing a grid work of colored boxes. When it's looking at film, it's looking at basically infinite image characteristics, and it's looking at a light pushing through layer upon layer of 3D dye clouds.
When your viewers go to the theater, do you want them to spend two more hours, looking at content created with pixels and video, or do you want give them a different experience?
NFS: How do you go about exposing a younger generation to the value of analog technology?
Bellamy: I don't have enough money to tell [everyone] about film. I would have to be buying ads on your site and Indiewire and Filmmaker and in every film school all day long. Even if you gave me 10 million dollars, I couldn't do it. We were a bankrupt company three years ago, and now we're kind of a start-up. But, we're like the most mature start-up in the history of business.
Here's the unique thing that I never would have anticipated: it seems the more artful directors are finding us and reaching out in droves. We did a Kickstarter campaign last month, and in the first day, we had 300 e-mails from people just dying to shoot film. "Never shot it before, but how can I get involved? What can I do?"
Everyone thinks film costs more money. The funny thing is, film can actually be less expensive 90 percent of the time than shooting video. You have to buy the film at the front and you have to buy the processing at the front. Then after that, the film expenses largely will go away. When you get into post-production, you start saving a lot of money with film. The people that say "film is more expensive," seem to always focus on the upfront costs of film, and never focus on the long haul savings of film.
"When you make a movie on film, you are incredibly pragmatic about what you shoot."
I'm seeing a huge interest from the next generation of motion picture artists to get involved with film. We did an 8mm film festival this year at Slamdance. A coworker and I had an argument about whether we were going to get five submissions, which is what I thought, or fifteen, which is what she thought. We ended up with 550. We barely marketed the festival at all. We just put it out there, and lo and behold, 550 entries. We weren't prepared for that, candidly. But it just shows that if you give them a reason, all of a sudden, they come out of the woodwork.
NFS: What are some of the steps you'd like to take to make access to this medium easier for emerging filmmakers?
Bellamy: 8mm is obviously an amazingly economical way to make a movie. We just shot some footage at Coachella, and I took a motion picture artist, Michael Kontaxis, who's prepping a huge feature now, and he's only shot video his whole life. I sent him to Pro-8 to pick up a camera and film, and he calls me and said, "Steve, there's a massive problem here." I asked what the problem was.
He goes, "I added up all the film stock here, I've got 10 cartridges, and I only have 17 minutes' worth of film. How am I supposed to chronicle a whole event with 17 minutes of footage?"
I said, "Ahh, you're just going to have to trust me."
He goes to Coachella and starts shooting. After an hour, I get a text from him saying, "Oh my god, I've seen the light. Mind-boggling." Instead of one day, he stayed there two days, and instead of using all 10 cartridges, he only used nine. It's just a different way of image capture. When you're shooting film, you really focus on, "what do I need?" and when you're shooting video, you tend to shoot everything, and then you figure it out later in post.
"Video is just a gridwork of colored boxes. That's not as artful. Film is infinite."
It's a very different process and procedure. At the same time, it's amazing when you go back through and edit and you don't have clutter. For the movies that I made, I usually had about 23 hours of footage to make a 90-minute movie. Going through and getting rid of all of that 21-1/2 hours and deciding what doesn't go in was so hard and so unfun, and I did it five times. That's often what happens when you make a movie on video and you have the illusion that it is costless capture.
It isn’t actually costless because you spend more time on set with more takes and it takes real money for cards and drives. But the significant cost of costless capture is after it has been captured. Culling though all that excess data, storing it, transferring it, etc.
When you make a movie on film, you are incredibly pragmatic about what you shoot. Do you cover yourself? Sure, but you also are more attuned to what really needs to be in your final product. That major philosophical difference is just paramount. I believe that if you shoot film, you become a better motion picture artist, because it's just a completely different thought process.
NFS: What are the benefits of confronting the challenges associated with shooting on film that you may not face with video?
Bellamy: Video is just a gridwork of colored boxes. That's not as artful. Film is infinite. In a digital camera, it's pre-set everything. Whatever is on that chip is all that you can ever do. You can't do more than that. It's a finite capture mechanism. A great one, but very finite. And film is not. There are a bunch of chemicals in there, and you're mixing the chemicals and creating a new cake every time you do it.
"As the light is passing through that film, it's hitting those crystals at all kinds of different angles, creating this light show in your subconscious. It is literally 3D."
If you make a movie on film, the film is a character. It has a living, breathing, organic feel. Film is truly 3D. It looks like it's a flat strip, but the reality is, there's layer upon layer of silver halide crystals, and there's all of these dye clouds, areas that have little bits of dye that form the colors that make up the image.
As the light is passing through that film, it's hitting those crystals at all kinds of different angles, creating this light show in your subconscious. It hits the first bath and the second bath and the ninth bath. You get this organic feel. Even if it's grainy 8-mil, it still feels alive. It brings your characters to life. It brings the whole project to life.
NFS: It seems like there's this misconception that it's hard to break in. Do you believe that's true, or do you think that anyone can just pick up a film camera and start shooting?
Bellamy: Would I advise someone to go buy a bunch of 35mm film and start a movie if they've never used a 35mm camera? Absolutely not. I would get someone on your crew that knows how to do it. But can you walk into Pro-8, grab an 8mm camera, and go out and shoot film? Absolutely, it's so easy, it's ridiculous. It's so artful, and most of the things that people are afraid of are the things that work really well.
We've kind of referred to them as "happy accidents." Something goes wrong, you don't do something right, you open the camera early, there's a hair in the gate, I mean, just typical things that can happen, turn out to be the most beautiful, miraculous things that you love the most when shooting film. Whereas if you're running hot on the video camera, it's over. There's usually no recovering that. Film is more like overdriving a tube guitar amp and video is more like clipping on digital music.
Film is the artful medium. If you want to create great art, I recommend shoot on film. If you want to create content, I don't think it's a necessity.
NFS: What sort of gear would you recommend for filmmakers that are just looking to get into film? Is there a specific type of camera that you think would be good for them? What is the minimum necessary equipment to be able to shoot film successfully?
Bellamy: Here's something that's pretty great: you can develop your own film. You don't have go somewhere to develop. You can literally go on Youtube find a bunch of videos showing you how to develop your own film.
If you don't want to go through that, there are stores, like Pro-8 in Los Angeles, which is an amazing place. They know everything there is to know about 8mm, and their clients are Chris Nolan and Ben Affleck and all these people that shoot Super 8. The other thing that's amazing about film is it's almost like a fraternity.
"If you're a young person who wants to get ahead in this industry, a great way is to shoot on film, because you'll be in the 5 percent as opposed to the 95 percent."
This year we had a ton of directors make movies under a million dollars on film, like Outlaws and Angels, directed by JT Mollner. If I call any one of the 30 A-list directors who love film, there is an instant connectivity between those guys and JT Mollner, and they all cannot wait to go see JT Mollner's movie. He is one of 1,000 people this year that made a movie for under a million dollars, yet now he has a reason to be separate from the crowd.
If you're a young person who wants to get ahead in this industry, a great way is to shoot on film because you'll be in the 5 percent as opposed to the 95 percent, but 90 percent of the greats all are in that 5 percent, so you now have really jumped out of the masses and the clutter and gotten into the rare air.
NFS: So shooting on film can really help you stand apart?
Bellamy: When you shoot film, I can't tell you what a fraternity you have joined. It doesn't matter what level you are, if you're making a $25,000 movie or $25 million or a $200 million movie, it's across the board. I mean, we [Kodak] are your partner. We are helping crew up your staff, we're helping raise money, we're making sure that the processing works great, we're introducing you to famous directors to come see your film, to go to your premiere.
It's amazing the value that you unlock when you shoot film, because there's this niche of people who are devoted to it. I tell you, the older guys, Spielberg, Nolan, J.J., Tarantino, all those guys, they are just so enthusiastic about a young person who shoots film. If you shoot a movie on film, you're making a statement that you are different and a different kind of artist.
"Be a filmmaker and not a videomaker, because you only get a few chances to make big pieces of art in your life."
NFS: I think that if more schools made film their first priority, the film industry would be a much more interesting place today.
Bellamy: Reaching young people is very important to me. So I've done the dance, I've gone to a lot of film schools, and half of them are digital file schools, not film schools. Right now, so many of these schools have migrated away from film, and some are even migrating away from story-telling, and they're migrating into 3D and gaming and VR.
NFS: As an aspiring filmmaker myself, it's really nice to hear someone in your position saying these things candidly.
Steve: Well, be a filmmaker and not a videomaker, because you only get a few chances to make big pieces of art in your life. Shoot film for the art that needs to be timeless and video when you don’t have those needs or the characteristics of the project push you there. Even artists like Spielberg don't get that many chances to make big motion picture art as they each take a long time to make. At the end of the day, the film ones will last. They're timeless. They're resolution-proof. You don't make a 2K film or a 4K film, you make a film. When you make a 2K video or 4K video, you're locked into a resolution, and there's going to be a time period when that resolution is no longer as valuable therefore marginalizing the value of your art.
You're basically making art that is more akin to being disposable. Much like all the television shows on the early video formats and lower resolutions that are now largely worthless. Resolutions will likely increase and increase. We will be at 8K in no time. I know of a camera company working on a 24K camera now. Film basically has stayed the same decade after decade, is still and will always be the gold standard.
Editor's Note: This post has been edited to reflect clarifications made by Mr. Bellamy. This is in no way sponsored content and no money changed hands.