The Future of Film: you thought it was dead, yes? by: Jeff Bird
Screen Hub Sunday 4 November, 2012
While digital exhibition may be dead on its feet, cinematographer and teacher Jeff Bird delivers a tightly researched argument that production on film is alive and well. After all, Alaric McAusland at Deluxe has just guaranteed the future of film processing in Australia for the forseeable future.
With cinemas moving to digital projection, film labs closing and Alexa-mania sweeping the Australian film industry, it’s fashionable to write off motion picture film as an acquisition format. But for premium content, film is still the gold standard in image capture.
Filmmakers around the world revere film’s distinctive look, it’s high quality gloss, its tonal range, and its unparalleled colour rendition. As a capture medium, motion picture film is a beautifully cinematic image technology that Australian filmmakers must continue to have access to in a globally competitive entertainment industry. It is an important tool in the artistic toolkit of any director or cinematographer, as well as producers seeking to create polished content that naturally engages audiences.
Looking overseas, the most celebrated films in Hollywood are still mostly shot on film, including three quarters of the films nominated for 2012 Oscars in the Best Picture and Best Director categories – with film originated Oscars going to The Artist; The Iron Lady; The Help; Midnight in Paris and The Descendants. Other film based nominations came from a wide range of genres: The Tree of Life; War Horse; Moneyball; A Better Life; Bridesmaids; Footnote; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows – Part 2; The Ides of March; In Darkness; Margin Call; My Week with Marilyn; Rise of the Planet of the Apes; Transformers: Dark of the Moon; and W.E. Warrior.
Film acquisition continues to dominate the upper echelon of the American indie market, with the top five grossing indie films captured on film in 2011. And it’s not just 35mm, with many Indie filmmakers embracing Super16 for its beautiful texture, colour fidelity and substantial cost savings. Films such as The Way, starring Martin Sheen, Sundance winner Beasts of the Southern Wild, the opening film at Cannes, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Paperboy, are just a few examples of films that have used super16 to create a distinctive look.
The grand canvas that is 65mm film is also enjoying a renaissance in Hollywood, with the super sized negative being used on the visually enthralling The Tree of Life, Paul Thomas Anderson`s much anticipated The Master, Rupert Sander’s Snow White and the Huntsmen, as well as the Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan’s Batman flick used more 65mm film that any other in Hollywood history. At 2 and a half times the quality of 35mm, the 65mm format produces a cinematic experience way beyond anything imaginable with today’s digital cameras.
While film acquisition has taken a battering here in Australia, some of our best work is still shot on film. Smash hit The Sapphires, shot on 35mm and produced by Rosemary Blight and Kylie du Fresne, has taken over 14 million at the Australian box office and is looking at a potential Oscar nomination. To distinguish the feature from the TV show, the producers of Kath and Kimderalla went with 35mm.
On television, the Network Ten series Reef Doctors, expected to screen next year, was shot on super16, as was the radical looking Killing Time, now being broadcast on the Seven Network, as well as the ABC’s landmark telemovie Mabo, broadcast earlier in the year. Australian features currently being shot on film include Two Women, starring Naomi Watts and Ben Mendelsohn, and Tracks, a 35mm 4 perf anamorphic feature set in the Australian outback. December Films is also shooting Hidden Universe, an IMAX project on 65mm. Goalpost Pictures, maker of The Sapphires, will also shoot their next feature Felony on film, scheduled to start production in November and starring Joel Edgerton and Tom Wilkinson.
The producer of The Sapphires, Rosemary Blight, believes that motion picture film is a compelling visual component in such classic looking films, “Film has a particular movement, a particular look. When you look at film, you feel like you can touch it, it is tactile and has a beautiful warmth that tends to engage an audience”, says Blight. Before deciding on 3 perf 35mm for Felony, Blight’s team rigorously tested all the best digital cinema cameras, including ArriRaw on the Alexa. And while the Alexa looked very good, according to Blight, for her, it just didn’t have that special look of film.
But what about the cost? Isn’t shooting 35mm film horrendously expensive? Not if you have a disciplined cast and crew, argues Blight, since being aware of your shooting ratio makes the difference between shooting film and digital marginal. “And then there are other costs associated with digital”, says Blight, “You still need the best lenses, you need data wranglers and you have to deal with large amounts of data in post, which can eat into your budget.”
According to Blight, it’s what looks good on the screen that counts, “What camera system or format you use is a really important decision, it’s not something you should do lightly, we’re making films after all and the pictures are important”, says Blight. “Settling for second best in a global market place is not good enough, we’ve got to aim for the best and for us, film was the right choice for both The Sapphires and The Felony.”
Once the backbone of film acquisition in Australia, TVC production has largely gone digital. Many would argue that there has been a dramatic fall in production standards as a result. Some TVC producers are now turning to film to make their TVC’s stand out from the digital crowd. This year has seen approximately 30 high end TVCs shot on film, including the Volkswagen Up and Tiguan TVCs, the latter winning the 2012 Silver Spike Award; Tourism Australia’s stunning TVC series; the Qantas TVC; and perhaps one of the slickest ads produced for Australian television for some time, the striking Toyota 86 Raw Driving TVC.
Ed Hobbs, a Nine Network producer, recently bucked the digital trend for a series of 20 athlete vignettes to promote the London Olympic games. Having seen film pushed out of so much of his television work, Hobbs was determined to use film to achieve a glossy high quality look, despite network reservations about the cost and need for shooting film. Working closely with Lemac, Kodak and Deluxe, Hobbs put together a cost effective package to shoot 3 perf 35mm on the Aaton Penelope camera, drawing on the skills of DP Josh McIvor.
With untrained talent, and the first takes likely to be the best, speed and discipline was the name of the game. “We were shooting athletes in their natural training environment with less than an hour to get training shots, an interview and hero shots, and we had allocated only 5 rolls of film to each athlete”, explains Hobbs. The discipline required when shooting film was perfectly suited to this tight shooting schedule, which meant a close working relationship between Hobbs and the DP. “Instead of setting up large HD monitors and being transfixed by them” said Hobbs, “I simply used the split for framing and then focused solely on the talent, trusting my DP to get the required shots”. This allowed the team to sort out shooting issues with talent on the spot, creating a rapid fire shooting of usable takes. “Unlike video”, says Hobbs, “We found that film meant making quick decisions, going with your gut instinct and sticking to it. That allowed us to get what we needed and move on fast.”
Despite this fast pace, changing light through out the day, extreme backlights and highlights, Hobbs says the Kodak stock produced beautiful shadow detail, maintained highlights and delivered a gorgeous natural colour rendition across the spectrum. “More importantly the film uniquely reproduced the passion, sacrifice and pure athleticism that we were trying to capture in the TVCs”, says Hobbs, “Shooting film again was fun, it was also liberating for the crew, they got to finish early, without the endless retakes that other clients had been indulging on video shoots”. He also found the post process even more refreshing, since they had just 25 minutes of footage per TVC, with their economy of shooting in the field greatly magnified in editing and post. Instead of wading through gigabytes of rushes, wondering which were the good takes, the discipline of film meant that almost everything they had was useable.
Justifiably proud of this beautiful looking promo series, the real triumph for Hobbs and his team was the reaction of Nine’s executives. “When they saw the pictures they were taken aback by the rich, yet organic and ultimately honest nature of the film images,” explains Hobbs, “It was their reaction and those of my colleagues that convinced me that there is a magical and distinctive quality to film capture that is still yet to be achieved by digital.”
Surprising as it may seem, even the digital natives are discovering film acquisition. Many young filmmakers recognize the unique cinematic quality that films brings to their productions, giving them a professional gloss with the minimum of fuss in production and post. The reduced demand for film cameras by industry has freed up equipment and resulted in deep rental discounts, especially in 16mm production. Kodak, which reports strong demand from the student sector, continues to support student production with significant discounts, making the option to shoot film exceptionally attractive.
Ed Goldner, a former Swinburne Film & Television cinematography student, already has an impressive list of short film credits and awards. With plenty of experience shooting on RED, DSLRS and Alexa, Goldner says he prefers shooting film since it makes his work stand out. “My preference is to shoot film whenever possible”, says Goldner. “I feel completely comfortable working with film, knowing that I can mould it to suit whatever look I’m working towards. And it always looks great.” In a sector dominated by low budgets and digital shoots, Goldner has shot a string of high profile music clips on both Super16 and 35mm film, the latter mostly shot on the Aaton Penelope in 2 perf mode. The 2 perf camera system is especially attractive to independent filmmakers, since it allows for shooting 35mm with half the film stock and processing of conventional 4 perf.
Goldner’s first music clip, Kimbra’s Settle Down, won the Grand Remi for Best Music Video at Worldfest Houston in 2010. Moving up from Super16, Goldner shot Kimbra’s next three clips on 35mm – Cameo Lover; Good Intent; and Come Into My Head. Impressed with the young cinematographer’s work, other high profile artists have come knocking on his door, including Delta Goodrem (Sitting On Top Of The World) and Guy Sebastian (Gold), and All The Colours (Love Like This) – all shot shot on 35mm 2 perf. Not bad for a 23 year old.
Other student cinematographers are hoping to also use motion picture film as a career accelerator. Thom Neal, another young cinematographer, prefers film for its beautiful look and the discipline it forces on him. “It forces you to think before you shoot”, says Neal, “It keeps you honest and forces you to get it right on location, which saves you time and money fiddling in post. And as opposed to digital, the colours are true, the tonal range is brilliant.”
The Future of Film
But isn’t film dead? Media commentators have certainly been quick on the trigger in that regard. It makes for a catchy headline, but the truth is more complex. With cinema projection going digital, film print distribution is certainly nearing the end, but camera negative for acquisition is still the image format of choice for the world’s leading filmmakers. And digital cinema projection makes films shot on film look even better, since print damage is eliminated.
For Kodak, which expects to emerge from Chapter 11 in 2013 a much stronger company, selling motion picture film remains a profitable business – it was the company’s digital exploits that got them into trouble. (In the United States, Chapter 11 bankruptcy allows for a company’s financial reorganisation and is not the same as bankruptcy or liquidation in Australia.) Kodak is also likely to take up any slack resulting from Fuji’s decision to pull out of most motion picture film.
Fuji, which accounts for only a small fraction of worldwide motion picture sales, will continue to manufacture motion picture archive films as well as professional and amateur still film. Even an extinct consumer format like Super 8 is still profitable, with Kodak selling 150 rolls a month in Australia to enthusiasts and professionals seeking a particular look.
With Victoria and Queensland recently losing their labs, concerns have grown in the industry about the continuation of film processing in Australia. However, by centralising all film processing at its facility in Sydney, Deluxe Australia has essentially guaranteed negative processing in Australia for the foreseeable future.
According to Alaric McAusland, Deluxe`s General Manager, the consolidation of processing was needed to maintain volumes, important for the quality and efficiency of the process. "We are definitely hanging onto our processing in Sydney", says McAusland, "In fact, we’re experiencing an uptick in demand and our negative processing facility is very busy at the moment.”
McAusland has noticed an increase in pricing inquiries from large scale American studio productions wishing to shoot film in Australia, highlighting the importance of motion picture film infrastructure to our industry. He has also noted a shift in the discussion surrounding film and digital, a move from away from a discussion solely based on cost to one more concerned with aesthetics.
The Digital Black Hole
In addition to its compelling cinematic quality, the other important reason for shooting motion picture film is its archival superiority. Film’s role in preserving both film and digital content is underscored by the `Digital Dilemma`, a report published in 2007 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This was followed up with a second publication released earlier this year, called the `Digital Dilemma 2`.
The reports forecast a looming digital black hole that threatens to disappear large tracts of our cultural heritage, with anything shot and mastered digitally considered to have a very limited lifespan. Digital is very much a case of easy come easy go, with hard drives lasting a couple of years, digital video tape about 5 to 10 years, and DVDs potentially as little as 6 months. Even LTO tape, said to have a life 15-25 years, is still way short of the 500 year lifespan of a properly stored film preservation master. And LTO tape suffers from hardware obsolescence, with current LTO 5 machines unable to read LTO 2 tapes – after just 7 years between hardware generations.
Then there’s the horrendous cost of data migration and storage, and that’s if anyone has the budget and will to continually migrate this digital data. Although 5 or 6 years old, the figures cited in first Digital Dilemma are an indication of the staggering costs potentially involved - $208,569 for a 4K digital feature, and just $1,059 for a film based feature (when all camera source material is archived). And that’s an annual cost!
With the discipline of shooting film falling by the wayside and directors indiscriminately rolling cameras ‘because digital is cheap’, just one feature film can result in over 2000 terabytes of data, the equivalent of 5000 HDCAM SR tapes or 436,000 DVDs.
The story gets even scarier when it comes to the independent feature film and documentary sector, which lacks the resources to properly confront this sleeper issue. The Digital Dilemma 2 reports that even today, only 10% of American independent filmmakers are migrating their data. Would it even be that high in Australia? As Criss Kovac, Supervisory Motion Picture Preservation Specialist at the US National Archives and Records Administration states, “Digital is a great tool for providing access and doing restoration work, but it is not a great tool for long term preservation”. Perhaps ironically, Kodak recently announced its own solution to the digital dilemma – a new colour asset protection film and a new black and white digital separation film for long term archiving.
Motion picture film is not only the highest quality image capture medium, it is the only one likely to survive for future generations to enjoy. While film is far from dead, it looks like our digital data might not be so lucky.