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Golden Rules of the 35mm Transfer

Golden Rules of the 35mm Transfer

Articles - Directing

In a world where video production
and post-production technology have reached previously unthinkable
levels of sophistication, independent moviemakers can now use their
medium to accommodate nearly any artistic aspiration within a reasonable
budget. If that profound statement is accurate, then the digital
revolution has never looked better-and that’s especially true with
tape-to-film­transfers. The number of features originally shot
on video and then transferred to film has been higher than ever
this year. At least three struck gold: The Blair Witch Project
by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, On the Ropes by Nanette
Burstein and Brett Morgen, and Conceiving Ada by Lynn Hershmann-Leeson.
These projects could not be more different in terms of theme, genre
and aesthetic persuasion, but their creators each used tape-to-film
methods in a unique way, and each found distribution at the Sundance
Film Festival (BWP and Ropes in ’99; Ada in
’98).

In an attempt to identify the "golden rules" of
the 35 mm transfer, MovieMaker asked the three creative
teams on these projects to share what they learned, and to discuss
the advantages and obstacles posed by the new technology. We limited
questions to the following: 1) Brief genesis of the project.
2) Format and equipment chosen and why, and 3) Research done on
the transfer process and reasons for selecting a particular transfer
facility.
We’ve left their responses verbatim.

On The Ropes (1999)

On The Ropes. Co-director and cinematographer
Brett Morgen’s first documentary, Ollie’s Army, about
the grassroots support behind Oliver North’s senate campaign,
won several awards at the San Francisco Film Festival, IDA and
UFVA. (The other part of the team is Nanette Burstein, 1997 Emmy
Award-winning producer). This new film follows the stories of
three boxers and their trainer as they prepare for the 1997 Golden
Glove tournament at the famed Bedstuy Gym in Brooklyn. Polished
and impeccably photographed, the film was shot almost entirely
with a 537A Beta SP camera (typically used for TV newscasts).
The release by Winstar (formerly Fox Lorber) began nationally
in August.

Brett Morgen: "Back in 1996 Nanette and I were
looking for a documentary project  to work on together. We wanted
to create a documentary that felt, smelled, and breathed like a
fiction film. Around that time Nanette read about the Bedstuy Gym
and heard they had a good reputation for training women, so she
decided she wanted to learn how to box. (The fact that she and
I were romantically involved at the time had nothing to do with
it!). The first person she met at the gym was Harry (the trainer
and star of our film) and through him she met the other boxers-Tyrene,
Noel, and George, who later became our cast.

We began shooting in August, 1996 and filmed nearly
every day until April, 1997. Our biggest challenge was to capture
all the action in the present, hoping that it would work into a
three-act structure. We didn’t want to rely on talking-head interviews.
At first we used a Sony 3-chip Hi-Eight camera, which we owned,
out of necessity; we couldn’t afford to rent the equipment because
we had no money throughout principal photography. After a few weeks,
though, we gained access to a 537A Beta SP camera from NYU, where
Nanette was enrolled. That move made a monumental difference. For
one, we were now working in a broadcast format. The camera was
heavier and had shoulder support, which afforded me greater stability.
It also had a nice lens, so I shot the film the way I wanted: shot/reverse-shot,
always shooting on the eyeline-like a feature a film. We locked
picture in October of 1998.

At this point, we had to raise about $250,000 to
finish the film and were able to arrange a co-production deal with
TLC (The Learning Channel) and the distribution company Fox Lorber
(now Winstar Cinema). Nanette and Nancy Baker (who also edited
the gritty docs Harlan County, USA and Streetwise)
cut the film in six months. By the time we finished cutting, we
had a really special film and didn’t want a poor transfer to ruin
months of hard labor. At the time, I was aware of 4Media and Sony.
However, I had seen Ulrike Koch’s documentary, The Saltmen of
Tibet
, at Film Forum the previous year and had been blown away
by the transfer, which was done, I found out, by a company in Switzerland
called Swiss Effects. The day I reached them was the first day
they set up a North American office. We worked out a deal and did
the transfer with them. On the Ropes was the first NTSC
transfer Swiss Effects did for the U.S. theatrical market.

Working with Swiss Effects was amazing! During production
we hadn’t thought that far ahead and didn’t do anything to prepare
for the transfer. Our assumption was that at some point we would
have to do a 16mm blowup for festivals. I wasn’t framing for a
35mm aspect ratio. I wish I had. When we realized that we needed
a 35mm print, I had to re-adjust every shot of the film in post
to fit the 1:66 aspect ratio. We chose the 1:66 aspect ratio instead
of 1:85 to keep more of our original frame. At Swiss Effects they
worked with us to get the look we wanted. They are remarkable in
that they work with filmmakers from pre-production through the
delivery of the negative, making all kinds of recommendations for
optimal results."

The Blair Witch Project (1999)

The Blair Witch Project.
Written, directed and edited by Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez,
produced by Florida-based Haxan Films and distributed by Artisan
Entertainment. This year’s Park City at Midnight runaway hit, The
Blair Witch Project
smashed existing box-office records for "fledgling" distributor
Artisan Entertainment, the cultmaker wizards responsible for
last year’s success story, Pi. Taking in $1.5 million at the
box-office on opening weekend in July, The Blair Witch Project put
an indie spin on the term summer block­buster as it went on to
gross a dizzying $30 million on its first weekend in wide release,
second only to the Julia Roberts’ Runaway Bride. Shot
for an alleged total of less than $40,000 in Hi-8 and 16mm black
and white, Blair Witch cleverly incorporates the use of
video in the narrative to heighten the credibility of the story
which, in case you spent your summer vacation somewhere other
than earth and haven’t heard, is built on the premise that footage
has been discovered from a missing team of documentary film students
who disappeared in the woods while researching a legend about
a witch.

BWP‘s producer, Gregg Hale, spoke with MovieMaker just
before the movie’s July 16th US. release.

Greg Hale: "The basic idea for the movie was
Ed and Dan’s, from film school (University of Central Florida)
in ’93. In the Summer of ’96, Dan gave me a five-minute off hand
pitch one night and literally 10 minutes later we were shaking
hands on my commitment to produce the film. We ini­tially planned
to shoot the whole thing on black-and-white 16mm. From the point
of view of the narrative, though, the film wouldn’t have worked
had it been shot entirely on film because we would have lost the "you
are there" feel that’s so important to building the tension.
Video made sense, both because it would save us money and it helped
the story where the main character is an obsessive documentarian
and a poor student. We had to concentrate on the believability
of the gear/formats from the characters’ standpoint. The actors
ended up shooting 18 hours of video in the course of an eight day
shoot. Even at 86 minutes, it would have been hard to justify how
they could carry so much film and how they could afford it. So
we chose a consumer grade Hi-Eight, which would have been the logical
choice for her to make as a character, and our cinematographer’s
CP16 because, well, that’s all we could get. And, again, it worked
story-wise-that’s the workhorse camera for most film schools. Also,
the CP is a solid, tough camera and we knew we were gonna be putting
the gear through some rough stuff.

Having footage shot by the actors was always a part
of the film; what we were hoping for was 15-20 minutes of usable
footage that would then be edited in a more conventional documentary
style. As Ed and Dan got further into editing, though, we saw there
was a real narrative and power to the footage by itself, but we
were still convinced we needed some of the traditional documentary
stuff. We shot several newscasts, a 1940s style newsreel about
the killer Rustin Parr, a ’70s style "In Search of"…
type show, and a few other things, which we called "Phase
2." By themselves, they worked beautifully, but when we tried
to integrate it into the footage, it just didn’t work. It took
the audience out of the woods, which diminished the power of the ‘found
footage.’  We were split on whether to lose Phase 2 or try to make
it work Ed and Dan must have tried 30 different edits until we
all sat down one night and made the (at that time) difficult decision
to excise everything but the ‘found footage: There were a few B-Roll
type shots on film that were not shot by the actors, but they shot
everything with action going on. We were definitely going for a
home video look and feel. We did no research on the transfer! It
wasn’t much of a consideration at this stage. But I wouldn’t recommend
that to someone making a standard narrative film. We transferred
to film after we were accepted to Sundance. Since we wanted the
film to look raw, however, many of the detri­ments of transferring
video to film (jerky motion, grain, muted colors, etc) became assets
for us. We wanted it to look like video trans­ferred to film. We
even maintained the 1:1.33 aspect ratio of the Hi-8 after we transferred
to 35mm film. 4MC did the transfer, and it was a relatively pain-free
process, except for writing the check."

Conceiving Ada (1998)

Conceiving Ada. Written
and directed by Lynn Hershmann-Leeson, the world renowned multi-media
artist whose artwork is included in such collections as New York’s
Museum of Modern Art, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Walker
Art Center. Her ongoing electronic diary "First Person Plural" has
won numerous awards worldwide and was recently screened at the
Berlin Film Festival. She was the first woman to receive a tribute
and a retrospective at the San Francisco International Film Festival
in 1995. Conceiving Ada, in Sundance 1998 as an American
Spectrum entry, is exquisitely crafted around the his­torical
character Ada Byron King, daughter of the famous British poet,
Lord Byron. Boldly mixing time frames and media formats, Leeson
used cutting edge technology to create period locations and special
effects. Shot partly in 35mm and partly with a digital Beta camera,
virtual sets were used for period sections, while computer animation
programs such as Quicktime were employed for animated segments.
The movie enjoyed a fairly successful run in limited theatrical
release this past spring through Winstar (Fox Lorber).

Lynn Hershamm Leeson: "I first learned about
Ada Byron King in 1993. Sometimes known as the "mother of
all programmers," she was a visionary mathematician in Victorian
England and an original thinker. She predicted the advent of modern-day
computer language, and foresaw many uses for "Babbage’s machine" [Charles
Babbage, the English mathematician, invented the precursor of the
first modern computer in the mid-19th Century ed.], like music
composition, poetry and art. She changed the world and revolutionized
the way we think-and yet she was invisible to most people. I knew
I had to tell her story, but I wanted to relate it to the way we
live now-I wanted to show what she had accomplished and how what
she created lived through us into the future. This was the basis
of the two time frames and the main reason why I wanted to use
two media. Film would tell the story in the present, while the
past-which from Ada’s point of view is really the future-would
come out through the computer and be shot on digital video, with
computer-generated effects. I used a digital Betacam because we
found this to be the best equipment avail-detriments of able at
the time and I needed video for the video to film compositing.
It made sense to do the period portion in digital.

I had 386 pictures taken of bed-and-breakfast places
that looked like Victorian England, put them into Photoshop files
and these became the background sets for the rooms. We cut mats
in hallways and doors that people walked through. When we wanted
a different scene, we just pressed a button.  When we wanted to
animate something like fire or rain, we used Quicktime movies,
a computer animation program. This was all done in real time, and
this is how this process is innovative. The actors loved the virtual
sets (blue screen); for them it was very much like acting on stage,
very intuitive, very interactive. They would look in the monitors
around the blue screen to see what the set was supposed to look
like, then place themselves and forget about it pure acting.

It was very liberating.  With only a full week of
tests with virtual sets, though, I could have pushed it a lot more.
For example, you can’t pan or zoom on a virtual set because things
go out of focus and you lose the background. So we had to keep
the camera locked in. Had I known that beforehand, we would have
planned the shots differently.  Instead we added some of the camera
movement in post-production.

"Since we wanted
the film to look raw, many of the detriments of transferring
video to film became assets for us."

The total cost of principal photography in both media
was $119,000. Editing film and tape together was very pricey because
they each had different frame rates and at the time there were
no machines to compensate for the 29/9 to 24 ratio. Most of the
editing was done by hand, frame by frame, and it took over a year
and a half. We transferred the digital video to Hi-Definition format
and then to 35mm, then we re-edited the entire piece and finally
edited the video, the 35mm portion, and everything together to
take out the random frames. We edited five times, and as soon as
we finished, machines were released that could have accommodated
the frame rate project.

The budget estimate for this film, had it been shot
in the traditional way, was about $12 million. Our original budget
was $220,000 and final cost was about $400,000, though we received
about for us." $700,000 in equipment, access and transfers.
The transfer was done at the Sony High Definition Center, and they
were the best because they helped us with the pricing. The final
result was more beautiful and smoother than we had expected. It
was like a watercolor wash."

These three creative teams’ experiences notwith­standing,
the concern is still that the wide range of options now open to
moviemakers may confuse and even mislead the uniniti­ated, yielding
disappointing results. "Video is still a new medium," comments
Judson Rosebush, director of special effects at Cineric, where
Errol Morris’s new documentary, Mr. Death, has been transferred. "It’s
not a bad idea to leave room in the budget for some preliminary
test-shooting before committing money to a certain project. In
video, it’s perhaps even more necessary than in film-your choices
in pre-production will permeate all aspects of production down
to the transfer. Issues to consider are direc­tion of the action,
lighting, photography, camera movement, choice of aspect ratio
and technical decisions such as what frame rates you shoot at.
The way actors act and the way you frame them, close-ups and so
on, affects composition. Whereas in traditional television you
have a 1:1.33 aspect ratio, in film you almost always have the
wide aspect ratio (1:1.66 or 1:1.85), so a portion of the image
has to go to fit t the screen aspect ratio. Certain types of lighting
that might look acceptable on video could very well deteriorate
in the transfer and look horrible on film. Resolution is much higher
for film than it is for video, so small details that might be missed
on a video shoot will be magnified in the transfer and on the larger
screen. Camera movements like panning need to be con­sidered, also:
traditionally the shutter would impress the image on celluloid
more or less simultaneously; video will instead scan the image
so that the top of the image is temporarily ahead of the bottom
of the image. If you’re panning rapidly, the bottom of the image
won’t match the top. The other issue is that television is 30 frames
per second and film is 24 frames per second, so you have to consolidate
some of the video frames in order to produce film frames. Basically,
you have to have an idea of the look you’re going for and then
do your research.

Most transfer facilities offer printed guidelines,
manuals or oral advice to help filmmakers make optimal decisions
early in the process in terms of format, destination (which determines
the screen aspect ratio and is often distribution contingent),
and transfer options (PAL systems frame-rate conversion is closer
to film, for instance). All other considerations, however, are
tied into the final look a moviemaker is trying to achieve, whether
that may be as close to film as possible, documentary-like, or
home-video style. Brett Morgan of On the Ropes echoes Rosebush’s
advice: "The starting point should be the look you’re going
for," he says. "And that, no one can tell you." MM

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