Watch: The Virtues of 16mm Filmmaking

A new video essay espouses the glory of shooting 16mm.

Shoot you shoot on 16mm? Many contemporary filmmakers continue to make the choice. But when it's so easy to buy a digital camera with the ability to emulate film, what's the point?

In a new video essay, The Royal Ocean Film Society's Andrew Saladino offers a defense of the virtues of 16mm filmmaking based on a few bedrock-solid points that filmmakers would be wise to keep in mind.

A Grainy Warmth

There's something about the look of 16mm that's inviting: perhaps it's that, as you gaze at, say, one of Rooney Mara's long, desirous stares in Carol, or Jesse Eisenberg's wondrous peering at the whale in the American Museum of Natural History in The Squid and the Whale, you can see each grainy pixel in the image, and what you see when you look at those millions and millions of grains is, ultimately, yourself. It could also just be easy on the retinae.

A Grainy Timelessness

Part of the persuasiveness of 16mm for the essayist might be its association. Since the advent of anything that looked like a personal computer, the idea of ease of use has been linked to the word digital. In the late 1970s/early 1980s, I can remember an editorial asking the somewhat provocative question, "What if Robert Frost had an Apple?" The implication being, of course, that digital instruments of any kind—computer, camera, phone—make things much easier, without any compromise in quality. We all know, of course, that neither part of that assumption is entirely valid. What Saladino is suggesting is that because knowing a film is shot in 16mm implies that the filmmaker jumped through a certain set of hoops that he or she might not have had to jump through when using a digital camera, the 16mm film acquires a certain patina that it might not possess otherwise. 

Just as Much Bang for Your Grain

Saladino does a cost analysis and shows that, while neither digital nor 16mm is necessarily a cheap method of making an artwork (by comparison with, say, writing a poem), the costs of film vs. digital are not really that far apart. Take a look at Saladino's numbers. Do they match your own experience?     

Your Comment

9 Comments

35mm becomes indistinguishable from digital. Say what?
Better get some earplugs a la Get Out...

April 12, 2017 at 3:53AM

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Film is great and there are great reasons to shoot on 16mm.
Shooting on film is not the same as shooting on digital and that really needs to be accounted for. Even experienced DP's that have taken a hiatus from film have a learning curve when it comes down to shooting on film. 16mm is an even more demanding format depending on what you are looking for.

You are going to need to shoot some smaller projects before you start up a feature, just to make sure you have your look straight.

Note one:
Grain is controlled by your lighting, rating and film processing. I have seen film come in shot on 16mm where the DP was disappointed that it was 'too clean.' Well lit and properly exposed film, even 16mm can be really clean all the way up to a 4k scan. The grainy character you are looking for will come with some testing and experience with where each stock.

Note Two:
Grain is controlled by your lighting, rating and film processing. If your lighting starts to change for shots that are supposed to be in the same scene you can have significant issues with grain continuity. Pick up shots can be a really big issue. You can always digitally increase or decrease exposure, but when you have actual film grain its prominence changes with exposure. Depending on what look you are going for this can break the flow of a scene.

16mm is still a viable format for feature capture. It can hold up to 4k scanning and even go to HDR processes required for deliverable.

As far as the costs go
They are close between film and digital, but the digital camera mentioned are more of a match to super 35 film rather than 16mm. The telecine process he listed as part of the cost outputs a 1920x1080 image. Some really nice older cameras like the Panavision Genesis, Sony f23 and Sony f35 can do that resolution with an external recorder at a fraction of the cost of even the Sony f55.

He also missed the lens costs difference as all of the digital cameras listed are Pl mount while the lenses for 16mm are a different mount and typically less expensive.

If you are shooting a mid-budget feature, I would recommend telecine for your editorial media and a full scan for your DI phase. That will add to the final cost, but can really improve the quality and as well give you true 2k (or 4k ) for your deliverable.

April 12, 2017 at 11:09AM, Edited April 12, 11:09AM

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I love super 16mm as a format, and I agree that the costs are closer than a lot of people might guess, and depending on the size of the production, the cost of film (or the difference between the cost of film and the cost of digital) may not be hugely significant, however, the math is a little misleading. No one is renting an Epic Dragon for $45k for 25 days. You can buy a pretty complete package with media for $20k or less and own a camera you could use on multiple productions, or sell at the end of your shoot. The same principal applies to some of the other options. Knowing this, rental companies tend to offer generous discounts for longer rentals. There are hidden costs with both film and digital, but it's definitely worth considering the light sensitivity. You may be able to get away with a lighter-duty electric package if you have a camera that you can rate in the iso 800-1600 range. Less light, less power, smaller generators, fewer crew needed to move things around. Again, I'm glad that there are intrepid filmmakers braving the additional hurdles, but this comparison is overly-simplified.

April 12, 2017 at 11:58AM

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scott pommier
Director
168

Something about film . .says nostalgia . .in every little round ,oval -imperfect pop in the grain.

April 12, 2017 at 5:42PM, Edited April 12, 5:42PM

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Dp Dan
D.O.P
74

I've never worked with a rental house that's not renting on a 3 day week. So you're not getting charged the daily cost every day on a 4 week shoot. So the comparison prices are actually significantly less.

April 12, 2017 at 6:19PM, Edited April 12, 6:19PM

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Jeff Barry
Director
106

You don't have to rent an ARRI Alexa if you are shooting digital. Given the $8K film camera rental cost, you could just buy your own $6K Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pro and spend the remaining $2,750 on batteries and memory to shoot with. You would still have to rent your lenses, but after you've made your first film you now OWN your own camera. ( no camera fees for any films you make after your first film )

It's also possible that your shoot goes faster when shooting digital because you can instantly check the last take to see if you are happy with it, and if you are you can then move on to the next scene. And this might help to cut down the number of shooting days to make your film, so your budget can shrink.

Another nice thing about digital is that you can do your own post processing for your film, where doing the same for film stock isn't really possible. ( unless you pay for a digital intermediate after getting your film processed by the lab, but this still costs more than being able to do everything yourself digitally )

April 12, 2017 at 6:31PM, Edited April 12, 6:33PM

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Guy McLoughlin
Video Producer
33606

I learnt the discipline of film in the 80's as an assistant on high end 16mm documentaries and television drama. I recognise the timelessness of film, however, the ability to shoot full frame and super 35 images, with greater iso and lattitude than any 16mm stock, grade them with the same or better result on digital far outweighs the romantic memory of the good old days. Even the use of 2/3 imagers on documentary allows us to capture moments, events and story that was inhibited by beautiful but constrained film. The time has come to move on.

April 13, 2017 at 2:00AM

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As MUCH as I love 16mm film (it was what inspired me to jump into cinematography), A LOT of it is due to obvious visual details that can be emulated if you know what you're looking for. From the grain (which there are SO many options of genuine grain scans to digital emulation), to the light blooming off of highlights due to the image actually being an upscaled crop of a 35mm frame. Easy to emulate if you know what it IS to emulate.

April 14, 2017 at 9:36AM

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Woww... Cool.

April 18, 2017 at 1:55AM

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Sameir Ali
Director of Photography
1568