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.
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.
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.
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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