Film vs. Digital: Is the Expense of Shooting on Film a Misconception?

You know the reasons you want to shoot your next film on film. Film looks better. Film gets crews and actors to focus. Film lasts.

But prepare to face the naysayers—and there’ll be many. How feasible is shooting on film for microbudget moviemakers in 2015? How much more does it actually cost than shooting digital?

When I made the decision to shoot my first feature on film, I had $0 to my name, but I wasn’t going to let that be an obstacle. I had been going through a particularly dark time and my life needed a change. Why not really shake things up while following my dreams?

How the Fire Fell was inspired by the true events surrounding the rise and fall of the Brides of Christ Religious cult in turn-of-the-century Corvallis, Oregon (my hometown). The approach to telling the story relied heavily on creating the right atmosphere: It needed to have a certain sense of mystery, distance, texture and grit. The only way to get that, I thought, was to shoot on film. Despite advice to the contrary, I began selling everything I owned and beefed up my dreaded credit card collection.

Actor Joe Haege in a still from the author’s Super 16 feature, How the Fire Fell

Actor Joe Haege in a still from the Super 16 feature How the Fire Fell

The first order of business was to invest in a camera. I did some research and decided to go with the Eclair ACL II, a relatively quiet 16mm sync camera that could be found for fairly cheap, take pretty much any type of lens, and be easily converted to Super 16, my intended format. After scouring eBay for months for good deals, I found everything I needed. Before long, I had my own fully functioning Super 16 camera with a set of Zeiss T* C/Y mount lenses and three magazines for a total cost of just over $7,000.

Next up was obsessing over exposures, glass and processing techniques. After some initial research and several rolls of test footage, I obtained the look that I had hoped for, strictly from optics and chemistry. I was proud of the results, but I still had no funding for the rest of the film.

So I began the usual process of talking up the film to anyone who would listen, while borrowing and begging from friends and family. I was met with a mixed bag of enthusiastic encouragement and, “What the hell are you doing? You can’t do it that way!” Collaborators came and went, crowdsourcing campaigns were launched, fiscal sponsorships were obtained, tears were shed, friendships were tested and sleep was lost. When the dust settled, I had assembled a full cast and crew, secured my dream locations, acquired a truckload of props and wardrobe pieces and raised half my budget. The rest would go on credit cards. Thanks to a huge outpouring of support, the total budget of the film came out to just $55,000—roughly $16,000 of which accounted for the Super 16 film costs.

Lesson learned: It is indeed possible to shoot a microbudget feature on film. I did it by having a very small crew of mostly non-professionals, shooting at a 5:1 ratio and taking the crazy risk of having no dailies at all. I had to wear far too many hats during production, but what microbudget director doesn’t? And I made a film for less than $60,000 that looks like it was made for $500,000.

I often remind people that shooting a feature in any format is expensive. If I had shot on digital, I’d still be in debt, I still would’ve had to maintain a full-time job through production, and it still would have nearly killed me to get the film done.

But can we say across the board that the cost of shooting film is always comparable to the cost of shooting digital? The infinite approaches to workflow make the matter hazy, but to attempt to get to the bottom of it, I decided to make comparisons based on a hypothetical 90-minute feature, with a 10:1 shooting ratio, on a 30-day shoot. It was assumed that each format would finish digitally.

In order to narrow things down, I only counted things that factored into specific formats, such as camera body rental costs, mags, storage, film stock, processing and final scans to digital. I excluded variables like lenses, camera accessories, post-production costs and everything close enough to being a wash between film and digital. For the sake of fair comparison, I decided to go with four different, likely indie-feature format choices, with lower-end and higher-end cost options in both film and digital. My approximations were based on full rental rates from multiple rental facility and processing lab rate cards, and from Kodak’s current catalog listings.

To my surprise, there appeared to be no significant difference between film and digital in the cost of dailies—at least to the extent that they are both very difficult to determine. File management on digital features is a huge task, which has recently become more much more involved and costly with the increased use of higher-res formats. Some productions, for example, require the use of data transfer stations that can be equal in rental cost to the camera. Additionally, at least one digital imaging technician will have to work full-time to deal with the constant unloading, transcoding and backing up of these files. The costs could, however, fluctuate in favor of either format, depending on the situation, the size of the source files and the chosen workflow. So I left dailies off the table and considered them, for the sake of my study, a non-factor.

Comparable costs between two film-based and two digital-based formats for a hypothetical 90-minute film, with a 10:1 shooting ratio and a 30-day shoot. The numbers are at full rates, assuming a three-day week rental rate, which is pretty standard. The 10:1 ratio is a likely scenario for a low-budget production; a 20:1 ratio, for a shoot with a higher budget, would make the differences much more pronounced.

Comparable costs between two film-based and two digital-based formats for a hypothetical 90-minute film, with a 10:1 shooting ratio and a 30-day shoot. The numbers are at full rates, assuming a three-day week rental rate, which is pretty standard. The 10:1 ratio is a likely scenario for a low-budget production; a 20:1 ratio, for a shoot with a higher budget, would make the differences much more pronounced.

As the table shows, there is a relatively small gap between the cost of shooting Super 16 vs. a top-of-the-line Arri Alexa at a 10:1 ratio. Shooting with a classic Alexa or an Arri Amira would widen the gap in digital’s favor. By the same token, renting an older “workhorse” 35mm camera, and possibly even shooting on 2-perf instead of the standard 4-perf, could potentially bring down the cost of shooting 35mm considerably, making it closer to the costs of shooting on an Alexa XT. It really depends on what your needs are.

Shooting ratio adjustment chart for a 90-minute film with a 30-day shoot

Shooting ratio adjustment chart for a 90-minute film with a 30-day shoot

Obviously, there are pretty big savings to be had on lower, mid-priced digital camera packages, but it is possible to bridge those gaps. The comparable cost total for the Red Epic, for example, is within reach of my $16,000 film budget from How the Fire Fell. In other words, if I had rented and shot on a Red or comparable digital camera, it would have cost me close to the amount that I spent on Super 16 costs. I just bridged the gap by making my aforementioned sacrifices.

Neil Kopp, along with Anish Savjani, runs the production studio filmscience, behind a number of recent breakthrough indie successes from directors Kelly Reichardt (Night Moves), Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin), and several others. filmscience has worked extensively with multiple film and digital formats over the years, so it’s not uncommon for them to prepare separate budgets for both film and digital to keep their options open.

According to Kopp, a recent filmscience production was shot on Super 16 at an additional cost of approximately $75,000 over the option of shooting on 2K with an Alexa. The budget for the film was around one million and was shot over 30 days at a 20:1 ratio. Accounting for the increased shooting ratio, these numbers seem to fall in line closely with my estimates.

How the Fire Fell DP Scott Ballard shoots on the Eclair ACL II

How the Fire Fell director Edward Davee with the production’s Eclair ACL II

Producer Daniel Hank, a former AMC network executive who had a hand in countless film, commercial and television productions that have been shot on film, including Breaking Bad and Walking Dead (why? “because HD gives away the makeup details too much”), confirmed my calculations. “We did one show for a director who had to shoot film and it cost $30,000-40,000 more per $3 million episode, or about one to 1.33 percent more.” Assuming these are 50-minute episodes shot on Super 16 at roughly a 20:1 ratio, this again falls into the range of my estimates as well as those provided by filmscience.

Contrary to popular belief, this is actually not a bad time to shoot on film. Camera rentals are relatively low and Kodak is happy to work with you to bring your budget down. In fact, talking to your Kodak rep should be priority number one when considering a film shoot.

I recently spoke to Gary Sales, the producer of the 1982 slasher cult-classic Madman. We discussed the magic and longevity of film and about Madman’s recent 4K scan, restoration and Blu-ray release. Sales stressed that, despite the facts that film projection is nearly extinct, film printing is far less common than it once was, and the advantages of shooting digital can often outweigh the disadvantages, “archiving is where film still beats digital storage by as much as a factor of 10.” He was blown away, he says, by the quality of Madman’s original negatives, which had sat in his closet for decades. “It looked like I shot it yesterday.”

When you tell people you’re shooting on film, there’s a certain heightened level of excitement and an increased willingness to help out. My new feature, Lost Division (currently in post-production), takes place during WWII. Again, there was no question in my mind that this one needed to be shot on film. During production, we were granted the use of several WWII aircraft and vehicles. We shot aerial footage and had shots of planes flying over our action on cue. This was all provided, for the most part, free of charge.

There’s also the great satisfaction of knowing your images are preserved on a format that could potentially be around for another 100 years or more. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Summer 2015 issue. Images courtesy of Edward Davee; top photograph by Matthew King.

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