Should You Shoot on 16mm?
Panelists on Kodak's IFP Film Week panel weighed the pros and cons of using a legacy medium in a digital age.
A few months back, we published what proved to be a controversial interview with a Kodak executive, detailing some of the renewed strategies his company has employed in order to make shooting on film a more accessible process for anyone looking to experiment with the format. During IFP Film Week, the film stock company hosted a panel emphatically titled "The Power of 16" featuring director Eliza Hittman, producer Lucas Joaquin and Cinematographer Naiti Gamez.
Prior to the discussion, an announcement was made heralding the upcoming opening of a new Kodak film lab in New York City as part of an initiative to make the transfer of dailies and other stock items easier for filmmakers on the East Coast. While the panelists remained enthusiastic about the visual aesthetic and even the journey associated with filming on 16mm, they weren't as positive about the prospects of shooting film with micro-budgets (especially concerning post-production costs) as Kodak would've hoped. Still, there's hope for the format yet and all the right steps are being taken to try and make the process easier and cheaper for independent filmmakers.
If you do choose to shoot on film, there seem to be a few basic rules to follow: be prepared for a tight shoot, have your days laid out beforehand as best you can, don't plan on having a ton of coverage, and know that your crew will need to have an entirely different skill set than they would for working with digital. Below are a few takeaways from the panel that we found to be especially useful.
1. Know the factors to keeping your shoot costs low
Producer Lucas Joaquin's latest film, Little Men, has garnered rave reviews, but wasn't shot on film. Joaquin detailed many of the budgetary challenges you're going to face when shooting on 16mm. As long as you're prepared to shoot on the medium, you can keep them relatively low. He explained, "I think it depends on many factors. One is how many days you are planning to shoot. It’s kind of like, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, because you can keep your margins fairly low if you know there's going to be very few shoot daysand you strategize to be like ‘we’re only going to do a couple takes’ or 'we’re not going to do so many set ups and coverage.' If you don’t do that, it’s significantly more expensive."
Joaquin was reluctant to give specific numbers here because prices do fluctuate, but he encouraged producers to do their due diligence because, "It adds up. You’re buying raw stock, you’re processing it, and then you’re either scanning everything or you’re potentially shipping out of town, and a loader vs. a DIT, those are the big differences. You save on drives, for instance, if you’re shooting on film, so you can take that out. Each project requires its own analysis to figure it out."
2. Be intentional, rather than risky
Because the format is more expensive and trickier to deal with, you shouldn't be planning on using 16mm as a big, risky experiment. You should be planning on planning. If that's challenging for you, then know that the risk lies most heavily in the steps you take before you shoot, rather than in the shooting process itself. Director Eliza Hittman, who has shot two projects on film, described her process as "less about risk and more about intentionality, and whether or not you are somebody who wants to turn the camera on and just rehearse and find the moments. It’s really about process and constructing the moments. It’s more about the process you want to have more than the actual risk. I mean if you have a crew that you trust, there should be no risk involved."
The biggest hit that filmmakers shooting on 16mm took during the sudden death of film was the sudden death of film labs.
3. Get ready for exhaustingly slow post-production
If you are determined to release something as quickly as you can, then film is not the medium you should be using. Hittman planned for a slow post-production process, but admitted, "The post was a little bit slower than anticipated. It was about a five or six-day turnaround. We didn’t have a loader. The size of my crew was about the size of a student film crew. We had an AC, a second, a gaffer, a grip, and that was basically it. In terms of what complications we encountered, I think that if you’re really trying to move quickly and you want to look at the footage instantly, then [film] poses some challenges. But the way our timeline was set up worked with it. We were set up for a seven-day delay."
4. You won't have much negotiating power with film labs
The biggest hit that filmmakers shooting on 16mm took during the sudden death of film was the sudden death of film labs. Joaquin explained, "It was a challenge. I want to make it clear, especially at that time, last year all the labs in New York had shut. There was competition among these labs, and you’d get good prices from them, and all of a sudden they disappeared. So the infrastructure wasn’t there. I think Kodak is trying to build an infrastructure for developing film. Suddenly it’s like what lab are we going to go to? Well, there’s Photolab in LA, they have no incentive to give good rates. They used to. There isn’t the same urgency in competition because they’re the only lab in town who can do professional pictures."
5. You can still wipe away those pesky blemishes with VFX
One way that film has benefitted from modern technology is that you can make more mistakes during the actual process. Joaquin recalled a particular shoot: "We had scratches on the film for a little while, and that was incredibly stressful for us, and we had kind of a slow turnaround. There were little things like hairs in the gate, we needed to do do a little dust bust past. But I will say that VFX has gotten so sophisticated, that it's really simple, even on a tracking shot to take out hair, and it’s not expensive."
"It’s the same challenges, just in a different way."
6. Use film as an incentive to get that DP you want on board
When asked how to find experienced crew members willing to work on a micro-budget film, Joaquin replied, "I’d approach it the same way I’d approach any independent film, which is reaching out to people, talking to agents, approaching the DPs you like and respect. Let them know that you’re going to shoot on film, because people are attracted to that. DPs especially. They seem to be still very excited about that because they know that it will lend a unique quality to the look of their work that is pretty hard to find anywhere else." Joaquin thought that an interested DP might be able to, in turn, get a good crew on board for the same reason—they all want the chance to work with film.
7. Choose 16mm over 35mm
When asked about the type of film stock they prefer to use, all three panelists agreed that, while the cost is basically the same, 16mm is the superior format. Director Eliza Hittman's reasoning was that, "35 almost feels a bit too clean and a bit too digital." For the practical producer Lucas Joaquin, "One thing that’s good about shooting 16mm is that you can get good camera rates from a lot of the labs, or free. If not, free then discounted. But the 35mm camera is actually more difficult to find. Also, it’s more difficult to scan it and you don’t necessarily have more picture information on a 35mm frame than a 16mm frame."
8. Budget even more than you would to shoot on an Alexa
Look, this is a broad statement and clearly it depends on the scope of your project. Joaquin, however, explained that, overall, "There are tradeoffs. It still costs a bit more now to shoot on film than on an Alexa. And there are different challenges. You have to hire a loader, instead of a DIT. It’s something that increasingly is difficult to find on an independent film crew. However, there are a lot of intrepid camera and crew who will take a week and get used to it because they are enthusiastic about shooting film. It energizes everybody."
9. Prepare for film's unique challenges
The lone cinematographer of the group, Naiti Gamez, shared an anecdote for the type of problems you might run into on a film set. She recalled, "One of the ACs I worked with in Texas applied to be a loader on a film. The DP asked if he’d ever flashed a can of film and he was like, ‘No sir, I’ve never flashed a can of film. I would never do that.' And the DP was like, 'I can’t hire you, because you’ve gotta make the mistake once so that you’ll never make it again.’ Which we’ve all done with digital. We’ve erased files and such, or formatted a card when we shouldn’t have formatted a card. It’s the same challenges, just in a different way." When it comes down to it, the challenges associated with shooting on film are as major or minor as the challenges of shooting on digital; they're just different.