The Ripple Effects of Shooting Film: Why Using 35mm for Outlaws and Angels Made Unexpected Financial Sense

For my first feature film, I had a number of scripts ready, but the one I knew I had the best chance to get made on a realistic budget was Outlaws and Angels.

I knew, right from the beginning, that I had to shoot on 35mm, as opposed to video. Part of the reason for this was because I had waited patiently to make what I felt was a “legitimate” feature film, one that had a low budget—not a microbudget—and I knew there was no medium out there more synonymous with the big screen and “cinema” than film.

But another key reason was the genre. I was shooting a Western. I’d been very disappointed with the look and feel of other low-budget Westerns I’d seen that had opted out of film and shot video: Either they looked like a wedding video, or the grit, grain and texture had been manufactured in post with filter programs trying to look like film, which was worse. My Western needed to reflect the time period I was depicting and look more like the early photographic technology that was being developed in that age.

Francesca Eastwood and Chad Michael Murray byDonSalt

Francesca Eastwood plays Florence and Chad Michael Murray plays Henry in Outlaws and Angels. Photograph by Don Salt

I was under the impression that shooting on film would be difficult and more expensive, but that it would be worth it in the long run, because the results would separate us from the pack and give us a better shot at playing the best festivals and getting a theatrical release. I was right about the latter: The dirty, old-photograph, out-of-a-vault-from-the-’60s look that DP Matthew Irving and I were going for helped us get into Sundance and also score a theatrical distribution deal with eOne and MGM.

However, to my surprise, I was wrong about the former: Film was not more expensive and more difficult. It actually saved us money. Yes—as a director shooting film, you have to prep meticulously and know exactly what you want and how you want it before you get on set. But that’s your job, anyway. And yes, as a director, you are undoubtedly going to have to go to battle with producers and financiers over your choice to shoot film—but was there ever a great prize that wasn’t worth fighting for? Once you’ve stood your ground and you’ve got your film in the can, you will have reaped great rewards and value for your time and effort.

We had problems, but film wasn’t one of them. In fact, I can’t imagine what would have happened if we’d gone the video route. Film saved my movie in more ways than one.

We made Outlaws and Angels with a group of excellent, brand-name stars including Chad Michael Murray, Francesca Eastwood, Luke Wilson, Ben Browder, Madisen Beaty, Frances Fisher, Steven Michael Quezada and Teri Polo. We had many different period locations, gun fights, livestock, horseback riding, serious practical gore effects as well as some CGI—all for under a million dollars. One of the main reasons we could make the movie for that amount of money was because we shot it on film. We shot in New Mexico at a time when 15 productions much bigger than ours (including a Shane Black project) were all working at the same time. While local crews were basically naming their prices, we were getting elite crew members to work at a fraction of their normal rate because people wanted to work on a film shoot.

Murray, Eastwood and director JT Mollner on the set of

Murray, Eastwood and director JT Mollner on set

We didn’t spend money on video drives, cards and storage, things that end up costing a small fortune. I have heard horror stories from contemporaries who couldn’t get drives or cards to work days after they had already struck their sets. You shoot and process film, and then you can hold it and see your image. When you shoot digitally, you have drives and a prayer. The film camera packages cost us very little: We went straight to Panavision and got everything we needed: Panaflex Platinum cameras, Panaflex Lightweight cameras, Arri high-speed-body for in-camera slow motion and vintage Zeiss and Cooke lenses. Our package cost a fraction of what the video camera packages were going for.

In post production, we did very little to the images. With planning and on-set underexposure, we captured almost the same image we wanted to present; aside from a photochemical-inspired color pass with a damn good colorist, Taylor Mahony (who also was attracted to the project because of film), we did very little. We spent less money in post because the images looked beautiful straight out of the lab and needed very little doctoring. Video productions spend loads of money in color and with grain software trying to make their video images look like film. Productions frequently spend much more money than if they would have shot on film to begin with.

One of the most interesting elements of the film savings equation was the number of shoot days. We made a movie with a runtime of just under two hours (the rough cut was two hours and 40 minutes) and only shot for 18 total days. My shooting ratio was incredibly efficient. When film cameras start rolling, you can hear a pin drop on set. Actors are prepared, more dialed in. The crew is focused. There is a sense of something sacred, something of great cinematic importance happening. There is also a tangible sense of the value of each minute and money being spent as the film rolls. On a video set, actors aren’t as dialed in, and they also fatigue after a shorter time because the camera is always on. So besides the fact that you have so much less footage to go through in post (another giant cost savings), the film gets finished quicker. I believe our 18-day shoot for Outlaws would have likely been between 22 and 25 days if we were shooting video.

One recommendation I have for filmmakers shooting on a lower budget is considering the 2-perf format. It requires only half the amount of film stock that shooting 4-perf does and the end result is a gorgeous, grainy, widescreen image that can’t be beat. This is a great additional cost-saving measure and it was a nice bonus for us, especially since we already felt that 2-perf was the right creative choice. Additionally, because so much of what we see these days is on video, the 2-perf which really exposes the grain makes for a distinctively higher quality and different look than most other productions. After a while, all the video out there these days begins to look the same, while film looks organic and original.

Mollner and cinematographer Matthew Irving

Mollner and DP Matthew Irving (Waitress)

And now that the movie is finished, we have a real film. We don’t have only a 4K piece of content that will be worth a whole lot less when we end up in an 8K, or a 24K, world. We’ll just keep scanning to higher resolutions as the industry changes. And we have our archival element for 500 years! It’s the biggest myth in Hollywood that it costs less to shoot video than it does to shoot film. Film is less expensive in the end, much more beautiful and timeless in its aesthetic. MM

Outlaws and Angels opens in theaters and on Demand July 15, 2016, courtesy of Momentum Pictures.


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3 Comments

  1. John King

    August 18, 2017 at 1:15 am

    Stewart McIntyre wrote:” There are so many questions I have about this article.
    1. How much did they spend on the cameras, the film, etc., and how did that compare to digital?”

    JMK: Well, I don’t know how much they saved on camera rentals. I know that I have bought EXCELLENT 16mm cameras (in Super16) I once bought a Bolex EBM in S16, with a Kern-Vario Swiatar POE 10-100mm zoom lens, and a 10mm lens, plus battery, charger, and two 400ft. mags for $3000. I doubt you can rent a professional grade digital camera for that. Also I intend to make more than one movie, so the purchase was justified.

    However, the gentleman who made this video did a breakdown on the costs of renting 16mm cameras as opposed to digital cameras

    http://nofilmschool.com/2017/04/16mm-filmmaking

    Stewart McIntyre: “2. The author says that if he’d shot on video the schedule would have been 22 to 25 days. Does that mean he would have had more money to spend on cast and crew? Does digital filming mean that he gets an extension of some sort? Like, the schedule magically lengthens? Does shooting on digital make a day last 36 hours, so you can get in more shots? Because that’s amazing!”

    JMK: I think what he is referring to here is the tendency of people to shoot and shoot and shoot, when it is really not necessary — you can do this with film too, but it is going to cost you more, so people tend to be more economical about their shooting ratios when dealing with a film budget. But anyway multiple takes add up on your days to shoot schedule.

    Stewart McIntyre: “3. He wrote that when they prepped for a shot you could hear a pin drop on set? Does that mean when/if he shot on video, he had a less disciplined crew? Or did it suddenly make the mics that much better? Like, they didn’t need absolute silence to pick up sound, so people on set could make some noise?”

    JMK: Again the assumption is that film encourages a crew to be more disciplined. People shooting digital can start the camera while some crew member is still talking, or doing something that makes noise and no one gets bent out of shape over a blown take — micro-budget producers cannot afford that and when a take is blown on film it costs money. So cast and crews DO tend to take the whole production more seriously because they know the producer is laying more money on the line (with regard to up front costs)

    Stewart McIntyre: “4. He writes that hard drives and cards and all that cost a small fortune. But is that really true? And even if you shoot on film you still have to digitize it in order to get it edited together. Unless he went old school on this. So you still have to buy the hard drives.”

    JMK: He’s talking about the multiple hard drives purchased for shooting and backing up shots during production. However, when you go to post, IF you just pay attention to the basic rules of photography and adhere to or break them (depending on the effect you want) Now the LAB –THAT is where the supposed savings of digital go out the window and film begins to pay for itself

    To date I have NEVER heard of a movie shot on digital — even major Hollywood fare shot on top end cameras like the Arri Alexa series — going through post without need of extensive filtering AND colour correction. Those guys usually start out at around $300 per hour and they are going to spend anywhere from 10 to 15 hours grading the colour in your digital footage.

    But with my Super16 stock, I was able to get a one-lite transfer, which added up to a CONSIDERABLE SAVINGS — all because film has much more latitude than digital, and again, just paying attention to that light meter and setting up accordingly does marvels.

    Stewart McIntyre: “5. And he wrote that he had friends who couldn’t get cards and drives to work days after they struck their sets. Did they not save on more than one drive? Did they buy the worst drives in existence? Did they not check their footage immediately?”

    JMK: I have heard of this and many other horror stories relating to digital cameras and gear. I subscribe to the cinematographers mailing list (CML) and it seems that every other post is someone asking a question about what to do over this or that failure in a digital system.

    Stewart McIntyre: “I dig it if he wants to shoot on film, but don’t sell a bill of goods and crap all over advancing tech when you know it’s not true.”

    JMK: I don’t think he is selling you a bill of goods, but merely stating a fact that most here would find surprising in light of that great MYTH about digital movie making — that is is cheaper than film. On the front end that might be so, but on the back end a different story takes shape pretty quickly

  2. Stewart McIntyre

    July 25, 2016 at 11:09 am

    There are so many questions I have about this article.

    1. How much did they spend on the cameras, the film, etc., and how did that compare to digital?

    2. The author says that if he’d shot on video the schedule would have been 22 to 25 days. Does that mean he would have had more money to spend on cast and crew? Does digital filming mean that he gets an extension of some sort? Like, the schedule magically lengthens? Does shooting on digital make a day last 36 hours, so you can get in more shots? Because that’s amazing!

    3. He wrote that when they prepped for a shot you could hear a pin drop on set? Does that mean when/if he shot on video, he had a less disciplined crew? Or did it suddenly make the mics that much better? Like, they didn’t need absolute silence to pick up sound, so people on set could make some noise?

    4. He writes that hard drives and cards and all that cost a small fortune. But is that really true? And even if you shoot on film you still have to digitize it in order to get it edited together. Unless he went old school on this. So you still have to buy the hard drives.

    5. And he wrote that he had friends who couldn’t get cards and drives to work days after they struck their sets. Did they not save on more than one drive? Did they buy the worst drives in existence? Did they not check their footage immediately?

    I dig it if he wants to shoot on film, but don’t sell a bill of goods and crap all over advancing tech when you know it’s not true.

  3. Pim Tjujerman

    July 22, 2016 at 10:16 am

    I Love the smell of Emulsion in the morning

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