Shooting on Film in the Digital Age: What You Need to Know If You’re Still Taking Stock in Film Stock

When director Yen Tan and I first started talking about his new feature, 1985, we knew immediately that we wanted to shoot on Super 16mm black and white film.

The analogue warmth and pleasingly soft image felt like a better representation of the time period we wanted to show than any digital camera was capable of. With the popularity of digital cameras like the ARRI Alexa and the RED Epic, film cameras are no longer in heavy rotation and can be acquired for a fraction of the cost of their digital counterparts. Shooting film may seem like an impossible task for someone new to it, but with some simple research, a few phone calls, and some testing, it’s actually quite simple.

Format

There are two types of 16mm cameras: Standard 16 and Super 16. When Kodak first introduced 16mm in the early 1920s, it was a silent film stock and had perforations on both sides. In the mid-’30s they introduced a single perforation stock, putting an optical track for in-camera sound recording where the second  set of perforations once was. In both cases it creates a 1.37:1 image size that is extremely close to the square 4:3 aspect ratio that was the norm for all pre-HD TVs, which made it the ideal choice for news shows from the early ’50s till the late ’60s. Super 16mm cameras were first developed in the mid- to late-’60s by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson. By removing the optical track and widening the film gate of the camera, he found he could extend the image area to a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is closer to the 1.78:1 aspect ratio of all modern HD TVs. This allows for a sharper and less grainy image when cropped for wider aspect ratios as compared to Standard 16mm.

Rare Format: With newly manufactured film cameras now few and far between, quality control is even harder if you’re in the market for your first. Photograph by Eliana Naboolio

Cameras: Renting vs. Buying

Something to keep in mind: Other than the very delayed new Super 8 camera from Kodak, very few film cameras continue to be made, so quality control is very difficult to verify if you intend to own your first film camera. I would not recommend buying cameras off of eBay—most of the cameras for sale there haven’t been used in many years, haven’t been maintained, and are sold as-is. I have bought quite a few Super 8 and 16mm cameras off the site myself, and most either didn’t work at all or stopped working after a very short time. If you are determined to buy a camera, websites like visualproducts.com sell used cameras and gear with parts and labor warranties. Companies like these are staffed with technicians who know how to maintain the products they sell, so you know exactly what you’re getting.

In most cases, talking to your local motion picture rental house is your best bet. Since digital cameras make up the bulk of their business, you can usually negotiate a pretty inexpensive rental price for their underused film gear. These rental houses are also staffed with knowledgeable technicians who can show you the ins and outs of the particular camera you are renting.

The two most common Super 16 cameras available at rental houses are the Arriflex SR III, released in 1992, and the Arriflex 416, released in 2006. The Arriflex 416 is the camera of choice for the hit show The Walking Dead. These are stellar cameras; both have nearly identical features, with the 416 having a more ergonomic design and slightly better viewfinder. They both shoot 5 fps to 75 fps. If you need higher frame rates for slow motion, there is a high-speed version of each camera that will shoot 150 fps. Both cameras offer easy to load magazines, where only half of the film loading process has to be done in complete darkness.

Kodak is now the only company that makes motion picture film stocks. They currently have six stocks available for 16mm, which can work in either Standard 16mm or Super 16mm cameras. There are four color negative films, one black and white negative film, and one black and white reversal film. Negative film stocks have more exposure latitude and more natural looking contrast, while reversal film stocks have higher contrast and lower exposure latitude, meaning you really have to nail exposure. For detailed explanations and examples of all the film stocks available check out Kodak’s website (kodak.com/US/en/motion/default.htm).

All stocks come in 100-foot daylight loads—which are literally changeable in daylight, as opposed to loads that require changing in the dark—and these will give you two minutes and 46 seconds worth of footage. 400-foot loads, on the other hand, will give you 11 minutes and six seconds worth of footage, but the 100-foot daylight load’s advantage is that it can be loaded into the camera without the need for a darkroom or film-changing bag.

Cameras, Lens, and Film Stock Tests

I cannot stress enough how important it is to perform camera and film stock tests. Well in advance of your shoot, you need to run film through the actual camera and film magazines you’ll be using. For 1985 I was able to work it out so that I could shoot my camera and stock test on site at the rental house free of charge. I brought along a model to shoot the test, so I could see how the film stock rendered skin tones. We shot two 100- foot daylight loads of the stock we were going to use on 1985. We shot one roll inside their facilities with a few lights, then we shot one roll outside in the bright sunlight, while also testing out different Super 16mm lenses they had available for rent. Keep an accurate log of your testing so, when you review your footage later, you know what you are looking at.

Meters

Be sure to have a properly calibrated light meter to judge exposure, too. The two leading brands of cinema-style light meters are Sekonic and Spectra. It is important to use the same light meter on your project as you do on your test. That way you are consistently exposing the image the same way. On 1985 my gaffer’s light meter was reading almost a quarter of a stop brighter than mine.

Each camera angle for our test was filmed three times for 10-15 seconds each. First, I underexposed the image by one stop, then I exposed it “normal,” and finally I overexposed it by one stop. I then sent that film off to the lab to be processed and scanned.

The benefits of these tests were threefold. First, we were able to make sure that the camera was in working order, and that the film magazines weren’t scratching our negative. Second, we could see the characteristics of each of the lenses we tested and could determine which ones would help us tell the story we wanted to tell. Third, we were able to see how the film stock handled under- and overexposure in a darkly lit environment, as well as in the bright sun.

Light-Headed: Be conscious of your light meter’s calibration to best judge your images’ exposure, says HutcH. Photograph by Eliana Naboolio

Film Labs and Scanning Services

There are fewer and fewer motion picture film labs, so be sure to check Kodak’s website for an up to date list of working labs.

Unless you are lucky enough to live in a city near a lab, you will have to ship off your exposed film stock. When picking a lab it’s important to look at their processing and scanning services with equal weight. Your processed film is a very fragile medium that is susceptible to dust and scratches. The more it is handled, the more opportunity it has to get damaged. That’s why it’s important that you send your film to the lab to be processed and scanned immediately in the highest quality you can afford. If you start off with a 1080p scan and later decide you want it to be scanned in 4K, then you are introducing more wear and tear onto your negative.

There are two options for the format of your digital scan, either ProRes which is good looking for a compressed image with a smallish file size, and a DPX image sequence which is uncompressed and gives the highest image quality but requires a lot of hard drive space. Make sure you’re getting the correct format that fits your post-production workflow.

In most cases you will want a flat scan which retains as much information from your negative as possible. With a flat scan, you will need someone to color correct your footage in post. The other option is to have the lab color-correct your footage, but if you have them create an extreme look, it will be baked into your scanned footage forever, and might be difficult to make changes to later on.

Film Storage Archiving

After you get your film from the lab, it needs to be stored in a climate- and humidity- controlled space. Search online for a film storage facility near you. With proper storage, we know film can last well over 100 years. Many moviemakers do not think about this enough. I know many moviemakers, myself included, who have rolls of film packed away in a closet, and extreme temperature and humidity changes will have adverse effects on the film stock. Taking proper care of your film stock will allow you to get the best quality updated scans as technology evolves.

Upon first glance it may seem like shooting on film is a difficult proposition, but in reality, once you understand the fundamentals and shoot a few rolls of film yourself, it will become as easy for you as shooting on digital. What Yen and I found out on the set of 1985 was that the cast and crew treated the movie with more respect and brought their “A” game because no one wanted to be responsible for messing up a take. Our days also ran faster because there wasn’t a video village and playback to slow us down; we were able to shoot quickly and efficiently, which overall saved us money on production. MM

This article appears in MovieMaker’s Winter 2019 issue. Featured image: Soft Power: Super 16mm film will endow your indie with a “warm, pleasingly soft” aesthetic, says 1985 cinematographer HutcH. Photograph by Patrick Dean.

1 Comment

  1. Tom Luca

    February 21, 2019 at 8:00 pm

    Excellent article. Thanks for sharing. Love Arri and Panavision.

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