Taking Your Best Shots: Kodak President of Motion Picture and Entertainment Steve Bellamy on the Value of Film

Obituaries written about the death of film have proven to be inaccurate, based upon the current crop of movies being shot on film rather than on digital.

In 2014, Kodak was on the verge of ending film production, and it appeared the days of film were at an end, with digital supporters lauding cost savings and the ever-improving resolution of digital cameras. But then supporters such as J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, and Quentin Tarantino spoke up. The major U.S. studios listened and committed to supporting the infrastructure needed to support film-based moviemaking, and here we are in 2018 talking about the uptick in movies being shot on film.

We recently talked to Steve Bellamy, President of Motion Picture and Entertainment for Kodak, the only film manufacturer left standing, about why film still matters, why it’s a viable option, and about long-held misconceptions that some moviemakers still have about film.

Peter Weed, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Why would a director want to shoot on film?

Steve Bellamy (SB): When you shoot film you are basically in control. You make the movie in the camera on the set. You shoot what you need to shoot to make your piece of art. When you shoot with a video camera you are usually shooting with more cameras, and it’s all about coverage. It’s about pushing off every decision into post-production. And then, it’s usually editors making movies and executives making movies, as opposed to filmmakers making movies. So, if I were a director today, there’s no question that I’d be shooting film every time, because if you really want to control your art you should be shooting on film.

The process of making a movie on film is better. If you want to make art, it is better.

I’ve never heard of a person shooting a movie on film, then asking in post-production, “Can we make this look more like video?” I’ve also never known a person who shot on video who didn’t try to make the video look like film in post. It’s 100 percent in both directions.

Steven Spielberg opted for 35MM Kodak film for his latest feature, The Post. Credit: Niko Tavernise.

MM: Ask most people about the greatest advantage of shooting digitally and you’ll hear cost savings—no film stock and no lab spends. What’s your take on the cost equation?

SB: The biggest myth in Hollywood right now is that film is more expensive. It’s absolutely less expensive to make a movie on film than on video. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts. I’ll argue that with anyone, and people are coming around. First of all, the camera packages are way cheaper with film. Your shooting ratios are way lower. Your performances are way better because actors know they have to come in prepared. Stories on film are storyboarded; stories on video aren’t.

You get more shots in per day because if you’re shooting with a 35mm camera, it’s usually just tethered to an HD monitor. When you shoot with a digital camera it’s usually got multiple connections, it’s got a monitor village—sometimes two monitor villages, or sometimes there’s a monitor village a quarter mile away. When you move digital cameras from set up to set up you have to move all that crap, and it takes a long time. So people are realizing there’s no cost savings. In fact, it’s costing way more.

The biggest thing is that when you get into post-production you end up with four times as much stuff that you have to go through. So, if you want to shoot a movie economically, shoot it on film. You make better movies. And you make them for
less money.

MM: What’s the reality of the resolution arms race? The “K”s keep rising. How can film compete?

SB: That’s the second biggest myth—digital’s resolution superiority. It’s just insanity. There is no such thing as a film video resolution comparison that has any accuracy whatsoever. And if there were, it would accrue to the benefit of film to such a staggering quotient if would be unbelievable.

There are people who say film is 4K, there are people that say that film is 12K, there are people that say it’s 40K, and then there are people who say it’s 100K. I can tell you it isn’t 4K, it isn’t 8K. Definitely, if you had to compare it, it would be much greater than that. But the two just aren’t the same. There is no such thing as two green boxes, a red box, and a blue box (pixels) on film.

We are scanning now up to 12K, and every time you take a 35MM film or even an 8MM piece of film and you scan at a high resolution, you start seeing things that you didn’t see on the lower scans. But if I take a 2K-resolution video and scan it to 8K, you won’t find any information that wasn’t there. The only things that were there were red, green, and blue boxes. So, the whole resolution thing is farcical. I’m not hearing the resolution thing anymore at all. Three years ago I heard it all the time. I don’t hear it at all now.

MM: There’s been concern about rebuilding infrastructure lost during the downturn—processing labs in particular. What’s happening on the film infrastructure front?

SB: As the movie business has migrated to production hubs, we are echoing that by putting labs in production hubs. Where there is a need for a lab we are going to put one there.

We have opened a lab in New York that is absolutely state of the art. In the last six months we put three million feet worth of film through that lab—we are talking The Post, HBO’s Succession, Mapplethorpe, and more. Great stuff has gone through that lab. It has awoken the market. And now, all these 16MM movies are coming through there. Amazing filmmakers are coming out of the woodwork; and we bought a lab in Atlanta, where we are doing a massive upgrade. We are going to build the world’s biggest lab in Atlanta. Since we’ve taken over that lab, we’ve done five feature films and The Walking Dead. We’ve done two million feet in six months. We also have the Kodak Film Lab London (in Pinewood Studios) and we have a 65mm processor there.

Daniel Day Lewis and director Paul Thomas Anderson on the set of Phantom Thread, shot on 35mm. Anderson has long used and advocated for film. Credit: Focus Features.

We are coming out with new 8MM cameras and 16MM cameras. The 8mm is going to be an amazing tool. It’s something you can absolutely make a feature film on and play in movie theaters. We took the sound off the film and are using the whole frame for visual, and we’ve put in the most sophisticated motor in a small camera ever. The reason 8MM movies looked like 8MM movies wasn’t because of the film; it was because the motor just didn’t run as smoothly as a 35MM motor. So we put a great motor in so you can make high quality art with this camera.

In addition, numerous companies are now putting out 65MM cameras. Between Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and Dunkirk, the cameras have been out. We’ve had a number of movies that wanted to shoot 65, but they couldn’t get cameras. In the first quarter we have three movies starting on 65. There are three companies that are now looking to put 65MM cameras in the market.

As far as film, we are coming out with Ektachrome in the first quarter. And I want to get a grainer stock into the marketplace. Unfortunately, we’ve gotten so good at making films, that it’s almost like we are making film that’s too good. So I want a stock that’s really grainy. Hopefully in the next year we’ll have that.

MM: Finally, the big question: What’s special about film?

SB: I would make the argument that film has better latitude, holds light a lot better, and is more forgiving. Film handles depths and shadows better, blacks and gradients better. I think grain is more artistic than a pixel. Film has a soul and feels alive. There’s an authenticity to film.

When I took this job, I went around to all the best directors in the world and said, “What’s the difference in your mind. Is film better?”

Candidly, nobody gave me the same answer. There were some intersections, but everyone had a unique take. And I kind of thought at the beginning that I don’t know that film is better. It could be a bunch of people who like their process and don’t want to be told what to do and because they have the gravitas to do that. Except, everyone had one word that was common, and that was the word magic—the magic of film. And I’ve never heard that word associated with video. MM

Steve Bellamy is the President of Kodak’s Motion Picture and Entertainment Division. Featured image of Bellamy with filmmakers Richard Kelly and J.T. Mollner at the closing evening of the 2017 HollyShorts Film Festival.

2 Comments

  1. Tom Luca

    June 5, 2018 at 2:23 pm

    Thank You Steve and Thank You MovieMaker. #FilmisMagic #MovieMagic

  2. Tom Luca

    June 5, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    I agree, wholeheartedly. I love photochemical, film, and will film on Kodak motion picture film stock every chance I get. Only in Panavision and Arri 435 Xtreme cameras and lenses. Thank You for this article. #KeepFilmAlive #KodakMotionPictureFilm

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