September 6, 2016

Why I Shot My Sundance Feature Doc with 16mm Film

'The Royal Road'
Call me a luddite, but I prefer "Keeper of the Analog."

[Editor’s Note: Filmmaker Jenni Olson wrote this essay in defense of 16mm for No Film School in advance of the DVD/VOD release of her documentary The Royal Road.]

I’m convinced that viewers are impacted emotionally and psychologically as they experience the images produced by shooting on regular 16mm film. The 4:3 aspect ratio (as distinct from Super 16mm with its wider aspect ratio), the grain of the film image, and the color qualities of 50 daylight film stock all contribute to a set of feelings akin to nostalgia—evoking a calmer, quieter time in one’s own life. 

This is an aspect of my filmmaking strategy: to create the space for you as the viewer to bring forward your own associations, memories and feelings—and to be in a relationship with the film that is uniquely yours. All of these reasons play a role in making shooting with 16mm film an organic component of my vision as an artist.

Jenni Olson
Jenni Olson shooting with 16mm film

A calmer, quieter atmosphere is also constructed via the content and themes of the images on the screen. In particular, the urban landscapes of San Francisco and Los Angeles serve as the raw material for my new film, The Royal Road. It consists of a mere 90 shots in 65 minutes, all showcasing architecture, streets and exteriors, mostly in lengthy takes and always from an unmoving camera. 

4:3 creates a conscientious crop

The simple, contemplative shots in The Royal Road might also best be defined by the things I’m cropping out. I try to eliminate or downplay such contemporary urban stressors as billboards and advertising and our elaborate modern traffic management signifiers. My shots are also devoid of human figures—enhancing a sense of solitude and contributing further to an overall meditative tone. 

Whether residential or industrial, streetscape or building, I aspire to frame landscapes that evoke the analog technologies associated with a pre-digital era: telephone poles, train tracks, bridges, roadways and the structures of industry.

Celluloid gives art an aura

In his pioneering 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” cultural critic Walter Benjamin describes the idea that only a painting, sculpture or singularly created original work of art can be thought of as possessing an “aura” (that unique non-reproducible quality of an original work of art which, for instance, a photograph of that artwork does not possess). He goes on to point out the ways in which photographs lack an aura due to their mechanically reproducible nature.

In 2005, when I made my first experimental feature, The Joy of Life (which I also chose to shoot on 16mm film) I began to develop a new updated version of Benjamin’s thesis. If 1936 was the age of mechanical reproduction, certainly 2005 (and now 2015 with the transition to digital projection in all mainstream cinemas and the ascension of digital video and still cameras) marked a new age of digital reproduction.

In relation to digital reproduction, the medium of film cinematography can now be said to possess an aura. The nature of that aura has changed from Benjamin’s era, and I would say now arises primarily from film’s physical existence—it can be touched, scratched, accumulate dust upon its celluloid surface, and the photochemical nature of its image means it can (and will) change over time based on such factors as exposure to heat and light and humidity. This is true of both the original (the negative) and Benjamin’s mechanically reproducible copy. Which means that each film print will change uniquely over time and is therefore—I believe—imbued with a singular aura. 

The fiery blossoming that penetrates the celluloid as the burning hot arc lamp of the projector incinerates the plastic is one of the most frightening of cinematic moments.

Film makes moviegoing into a singular experience

It is also true that each screening of the film (like an on-stage performance of a play) is a singular, performative experience inasmuch as it occurs by way of a method of physical projection which impacts that print in time and space. New dust and dirt are introduced onto the print, scratches and imperfections occur as the film passes through the projection gate and spools onto the take-up reel. We can even hear this impact in the crackle of the soundtrack. 

The Royal Road
The most vivid example of this kind of unique projection experience is the startling image that explodes onto the screen when the film print becomes stuck in the projection gate. The fiery blossoming that penetrates the celluloid as the burning hot arc lamp of the projector incinerates the plastic is one of the most frightening of cinematic moments—and a fourth-wall breaking reminder of the physical nature of this most realistic storytelling medium. 

My point is that, even without this most drastic form of wear and tear on the film, the print changes over time, thereby giving a slightly different experience to each viewer every single time it’s shown. In the case of certain color films from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, the phenomenon of the pink or red print is well-known to archivists and collectors. In these cases, due to shortcomings in the printing process, all colors except for the magenta part of the spectrum have faded over time (a problem which ended with the invention of the Technicolor printing process).

The difference between history and nostalgia is sentiment.

Naturally, nostalgia plays a role

As I head down the path of these vivid nostalgic descriptions, I am giving the mistaken impression that an exhibition print of my film even exists (I confess it was all finished on digital and will never burst into flame from the heat of a projector nor fade to pink with the ages).

And this is the point in my thesis where I falter and realize that: Yes, the digital image also can be impacted by its existence in space and time—in more ways than I am even aware of, I’m sure. 

It’s true that nostalgia and historical associations are a fundamental part of this argument. I would make the case that the same is true of Benjamin’s thesis. And neither of us need apologize for this. The difference between history and nostalgia is sentiment. And even in the telling of history, there is often no shortage of emotion.

An iconic San Francisco view shot with 16mm for 'The Royal Road'
An iconic San Francisco view shot with 16mm for 'The Royal Road'

There are these observable facts, and then there are the subjective facets of our personal experiences as viewers, as audiences, and as artists. I cannot separate the personal associations of seeing films in my lifetime from whatever objective claims I might want to make about the unique qualities of the moving image as projected via actual film. 

When it comes down to it, I simply prefer the general capacity of film cameras and lenses, film stocks and print stocks in terms of the qualities they achieve in depth of field, grain of the image, range of contrast and saturation of hues. These qualities are different in the digital image. I have the impulse to claim the superiority of the analog but I know this is really only a matter of preference and that, in many categories, the digital could be said to be objectively superior. This seeming contradiction is at the heart of my contention about “aura.” If digital really is “better,” then why does my entire subjective experience tell me that it is not?

Is this not the very nature of how we experience technologies over time? I willingly brave the accusation of being a luddite. And confidently proclaim that I am not. Rather, call me "Keeper of the Analog."       

Jenni Olson is a pioneering filmmaker, journalist, curator and film historian. Her film ‘The Royal Road’ premiered at Sundance 2015 and was released on September 6th on DVD / VOD, across all digital platforms.

Your Comment

10 Comments

Good article! And, I'm very much interested in seeing The Royal Road.

I still have a fondness for 16mm. I used to shoot with the Bolex and a few different Arriflex 16mm cameras in film school.

September 6, 2016 at 6:01PM, Edited September 6, 6:01PM

0
Reply
Glenn Bossik
Videographer
475

For nostalgia, shooting on film is great. And aspects of film look great, like highlight rolloff and film grain.

However, in practical terms, today's modern digital cameras are collecting so much data -- that you aren't more than 2 plugins away from achieving a similar look. The extra cost and effort to process film could easily be spent in having a color correction company dial in your look perfectly.

September 6, 2016 at 7:26PM

2
Reply

But to some filmmakers, plug-ins aren't as much fun as film.
To some filmmakers the experience of making the film also has value.

September 6, 2016 at 11:00PM

0
Reply
Doug
217

I remain a purist. Also, it is extremely reassuring to know that my images are preserved on film. Time and technology changes are already presenting some very scary challenges with regard to digital preservation, especially for small indie filmmakers like myself.

September 7, 2016 at 2:10AM

0
Reply
avatar
Jenni Olson
Writer-Director
100

Shoot on film, project digitally. I have no problem whatsoever. Unless it's IMAX 70mm, than project IMAX

September 7, 2016 at 12:51AM

0
Reply

So great to see all the shares of this piece and the nice response. Thanks so much. For anyone who wants to see the film on streaming or download it is available worldwide via the link below (also out on DVD for fans in the US and Canada via WolfeVideo.com or Amazon.com and on digital via iTunes).
https://vimeo.com/ondemand/theroyalroad

September 7, 2016 at 2:06AM

0
Reply
avatar
Jenni Olson
Writer-Director
100

I think Doug here in the comments finally made an excellent point. This whole shooting on film is purely a decision of the film maker. They actually talk a lot about highlights and roll-off and other esoteric stuff no viewer ever will see/notice while it is just their personal, ego driven desire to shoot on film. I think more of them just should be honest and keep with their decision instead trying to spill a lot of bla bla.

September 7, 2016 at 2:09AM, Edited September 7, 2:10AM

2
Reply
Gerard M.
1132

Exactly ! It's a very personal decision and one is not better than the other. It's for me a matter of what the movie needs. :)

However, interesting article !

September 7, 2016 at 8:12AM

0
Reply
avatar
Fabien W. Furter
Filmmaker / Musician
149

Maybe ten years ago the medium mattered but not anymore. There are 100 better things to concentrate on in making a movie than the medium.

September 9, 2016 at 9:34AM

5
Reply

I prefer "fucking retrograde" like that wanker Tarantula.

September 9, 2016 at 3:58PM, Edited September 9, 3:58PM

1
Reply
avatar
Terma Louis
Photographer / Cinematographer / Editor
1321