Thinking about shooting on film? Here's what to think about first.
As part of LACMA‘s Veteran’s Making Movies program, I was tasked to make a 3 minute short. Seeing as I've already made a few short films, I thought I’d give myself a challenge: create a story without dialog. My inspiration was this P&G commercial that is only 2 minutes long but follows the careers of 4 Olympians from diapers to medals, all without dialog. My resulting film, Call Me Ma'am, shows my entire first year in the US Navy in 4 minutes.
My cinematographer conned, excuse me, convinced me to take on yet another challenge with the short: shoot on film. Here are my lessons learned for those who are considering doing the same. I'll start with a disclaimer: I am not a DP, so my first tip is not to attempt film without a cinematographer who loves film and has used it many times.
"Film is as needy as any insecure talent."
1. Film ain't cheap
100 feet of 8mm and 16mm are about $45 and $70, respectively. Prices vary widely for 35mm but 2000' can be bought for about $1K at B&H. After the film is shot, it has be developed and digitized, which is about the same price as the film. You will need more film than you think. Call Me Ma'am was only 4 minutes long and we bought 6 rolls. We used everything.
2. Plan for twice as much pre-production
There is no monitor; there is no playback. You won't know what you have until a week after wrap. Because of this (and also to not waste film), pre-production steps like storyboarding are a must. I always require it to some extent, but for film, each shot should be storyboarded, preferably by visiting the locations and taking digital stills. I learned this the hard way. The title shot was very important to me; we drove 4 hours each way to get it. But because I hadn't created a digital mock-up of that shot, there was a missed communication. The shot was beautiful, but not what I wanted. Save yourself the pain of ordering more film and taking a second trip by storyboarding.
Along the same lines, make sure to provide enough time for rehearsals when creating the schedule. While film is burning is not the time for the actors to figure out their motivation, lines, or blocking.
"Take camera noise into consideration when booking locations and creating talent contracts."
3. Film cameras are loud
I was always curious why the old film sets placed the cameras so far back and used zoom lenses. Then I used film. Thankfully, mine is a silent movie, but take camera noise into consideration when booking locations (echo, enough space) and creating talent contracts (ADR provisions). Use the clacker religiously as film has no sound. Wait what? That's right. For anyone born after 1985, film cameras have no sound recording ability. Unless you are interested in lip reading to match sound, the easiest way is to match with the sound of clack. Being vigilant about it on set will save hours in post. (If anyone is thinking “Oh, that's why they use that thing”, you are welcome.)
4. Film is needy
Film is as needy as any insecure talent. It needs to be protected. Don't leave it out in the sun, or any hot place. Keep it inside; it hates sand, water, and gluten. It's highly flammable. X-rays will destroy it. Also, not all film is the same. There are several different grains, different color sensitives, and preferred light. Examples of the finished film looks are available on YouTube; add to pre-production list. Make up and SFX need to be doubled. I am covered with glycerin sweat in the shot at the top of this post, but it can barely be seen. It would have been fine on digital but film needs more. Needy, needy film. I would have added more sweat on set but, once again, no monitor, no play back.
Also, when you are finished shooting, you can't just drop the film off and say “thanks, I had fun.” No, even the drop off and digitizing/transfer need special attention. I can not explain the technical part of this but I will tell you, if you're the producer, you must book your DP or director for these two parts of the process (make sure it's in their contracts.)
"Film was the birth of our industry and is still the benchmark for beauty that can't be faked."
5. It is totally worth it
Even if your movie is terrible, you will get respect because you attempted film. Film was the birth of our industry and is still the benchmark for beauty that can't be faked. Call Me Ma'am looks like a piece of history and film gets all the credit. Best of all, everyone involved with the project will level up in skill due to the difficulty and challenge. Well, except maybe crafty. Happy Filmmaking!