Why and how to shoot 16mm film, part 1

Film vs Digital
If you’ve been following video production and media over the past couple of years, you may have noticed a big resurgence in using actual film celluloid as a medium to tell stories (commercial, music vids, narrative, etc). I jumped on this trend in early 2017 and it’s been one of the best moves I’ve made in my career thus far. Let’s talk about why.

First, I’m not interested in the debate of “film vs digital”. As a director I know once said to me, “I don’t think one is better than the other. It’s just a different medium in which to express your art form. Just like how people paint with water, and other people paint with oil.” That’s the best way I can describe it. Now that you know my stance on it, let me tell you “the why”. But first, I think it’s important to tell you my background so you get a sense of the perspective I’m coming from.

One of my favorite inspiration vids shot on super 16:

How I got into shooting film
Prior to 2017, I had only shot on 16mm film in one film class I took at SVA (an art school in NYC). When the results came back, I died. I couldn’t handle how amazing the footage looked. The way the highlights rolled off, or blew out, the grain structure, the feeling of it, etc. This was the time when I had just purchased a RED Scarlet and still shooting on Canon 5Ds. However, practically speaking it did not make sense. The cameras still were a little pricey, the film stock and development didn’t make sense. And back in 2012-13 the DSLR rage was pretty much at full force with cinema cameras just starting to replace them. So I put it in the back of my mind that film was this great thing at one point but no longer a viable option as a means to create images.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2017, my career had been chugging along slowly but surely, and I had just come off a series of commercial campaigns for some beauty brands. I had some down time and wanted to try something new. I started looking at film again because I had seen so many projects come up lately with super 16. A DP I know, Justin Derry, had just purchased an Aaton XTR Prod film camera and offered to have me come by his studio to check it out. This seemed like providence, so I took him up on his offer. He showed me how to load a magazine with a dummy roll of film (which I will show you how to do in part 2 of this article), and we shot some test footage and got it developed. I was now ready to go out on my own and shoot film.

Here’s the first project I shot with 16mm. I worked with one of my favorite directors Sam Shannon on this piece, a fashion editorial mixing RED, super 16, and super 8. It was key to me to start on low key projects, get used to exposing the film certain ways, how various light intensities and quality affects the image:

Why I shoot on film
So now you know my brief history with my contact with film, here’s why I shoot film:

It makes me a better DP.

I’ve found that because I’ve shot film I have to be more conservative with each take, my framing, etc, because there’s a limited amount of time to film. Every second you roll is costing you or the production money. This makes me look at the scene as a whole and be more selective, and has carried over to my digital shooting. I scan for angles and framing before committing now, vs rolling as much as possible which has sometimes been the request of some directors.

Film also is teaching me how to memorize light intensities without the use of a light meter or an in camera meter. When you shoot on a film camera, you are looking through an optical viewfinder. If you don’t know what this is, it’s essentially like a DSLR where you’re seeing the real life image of the object in front of you.

It’s not like an EVF or an electronic monitor that interprets real life and the image you see when you view the footage in post. You don’t see what your lighting will look like in post until you process the film. It’s a little nerve wracking at first, but when you start to get a few rolls under your belt, you start to remember the camera’s settings, what the film can handle exposure wise, and you get a better sense of what type of lighting does what to the exposure, all without having to look at an electronic monitor. Because it’s so visceral, you remember what the images look like. This helps expand the knowledge of how light looks to your eye vs looking at a camera monitor on any digital camera.

The second, obvious reason I shoot 16mm film is because it’s an aesthetic preference. It has its own unique look. You can mimic this in post with the right tools and color grading, but that also comes with already knowing the qualities of what 16mm looks like.

Some stills from an upcoming project. The images get better as you improve over time:

To be continued
Now that we have the why, I will discuss the “how”. The next article covers things to think about when creating your images, followed by part 3 in which we’ll talk about the mechanics of actually using a film camera.

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