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Sundance: In a World Gone Digital, Indie Filmmakers Reach for 16 mm

Low Down Sundance Film Still - H 2014

"Happy Christmas," "Listen Up Philip" and "Low Down" are part of an indie trend that bucks Hollywood’s move toward dumping film. Says one cinematographer, "[I don't want to be] part of the generation of a--holes that sent film up the river."

TV has all but abandoned shooting on film.  A growing majority of Hollywood blockbusters are 100% digital, with only directors like JJ Abrams and Christopher Nolan insisting their movies still be shot on 35 mm.  Even the self-proclaimed "analog" Coen Brothers have speculated that Inside Llewyn Davis will be their last movie shot on film.  And, in what might be a sign of things to come, this weekend the LA Times reported that Anchor Man 2 would be the last release for which Paramount makes 35 mm prints for the 8 percent of movie theaters still using film projectors.

So why are a handful of films at Sundance 2014 bucking the trend and choosing to shoot on 16 mm film?

Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (The Color Wheel, Listen Up Philip) rejects the premise of the question. Quoting his cinematographer Sean Price Williams, the filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter that  “shooting on film isn't a choice, it is the default decision and video is a choice.” For Perry, it’s a choice he wasn’t willing to make with his new film: “We wanted Listen Up Philip to not look of this crummy era we live in. None of the films we love or were inspired by are from after 1993. Shooting Super 16 mm was an easy way to spiritually connect us to the type of film that made us want to make this film.”

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Aesthetics were also the reasoning behind Lowdown director Jeff Preiss’ decision to shoot 16 mm. “I made the argument that film was required to suit the period feeling,” says Preiss, whose film is set during the 1970s jazz scene in Los Angeles. “But really it was the intangibles that tipped it for me: an organic surface where the image and story both nest. Surprisingly, every actor expressed tremendous gratitude, as if it honored the time they spent within the take, absorbing their performances more organically.”

Shooting on film might seem like an obvious decision for a purist like Perry and a filmmaker with experimental roots like Preiss, but Joe Swanberg’s announcement that he shot Happy Christmas on 16 mm was a little bit of a head-scratcher.  Known for working with small budgets and improvising his scripts from an outline, Swanberg seems like an unlikely candidate to constrain his shooting ratios (meaning the ratio of footage shot to running time of the final cut) by shooting on expensive film.  

Swanberg tells THR that he could not have afforded film on his earlier projects: "Video allowed me to shoot more than I needed, and reshoot freely, as I put the project together and figured out what I wanted to say with it.” Swanberg says that the more confident he becomes as a director, coupled with making the shift to working with mostly professional actors, has allowed him to shoot less footage. He actually makes the argument that shooting on film works better on smaller movies like Happy Christmas, where he had complete control over the process, versus a bigger-budget film like Drinking Buddies.

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“Where there is more money involved, and a ‘notes’ process on the different cuts of the film, it remains necessary to overshoot so that there are options down the road. Maybe we want to try something multiple ways, or maybe we decide to get extra coverage so that I can shorten a scene in the editing room," he says.

Listen Up Philip cinematographer Williams, who is vehemently against video, also challenges the notion that low-budget indies can’t afford to shoot on film:

“The amount of time and energy and resources that are spent to make video look good add up enormously," Wiliams says. "Both in the shooting and in the post. You can roll film and it looks like a movie right away. And the technology of film now is so incredible. The Vision 3 stock is ridiculously flexible.”

To Williams point, Swanberg adds that at a certain budget level, video isn’t any cheaper once the cost of media management -- high-definition video takes up a tremendous amount of hard drive space, while video dailies from 16 mm are significantly smaller -- and extremely high-priced video-camera rentals are factored into the bottom line.

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That said, these indie filmmakers are not kidding themselves as to what direction things are headed for film. Swanberg’s initial motivation to shoot on film was that he felt the clock was ticking if he was ever going to return to his film school roots and shoot on 16 mm. For Williams, the end of film is inevitable, but he refuses to go down with the ship:

“If I gave up on what it means to shoot film, then I am a part of the problem and a part of the generation of a--holes that sent film up the river -- the baby boomers and nerds that wanted to make their lives easier at the cost of the heart and glory of cinema. It's too late in any case. Now there is only one lab in NYC! The labs will eventually close. The closet in NYC that is the Kodak office will be cleaned out. It's tragic. And most filmmakers adding to the pile of garbage won't miss celluloid one bit.”

 

CORRECTION:  An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that "virtually every blockbuster not shot by Christopher Nolan" was shot digitally. While an increasing majority of tent pole films are being shot digitally, there are films like The Amazing Spider Man 2 and JJ Abrams' Star Trek reboots which were shot on 35mm film. 

The Story also stated Martin Scorsese had made the switch to digital filmmaking when he made Hugo.  This is only partially correct.  As the filmmaker recently explained to ASC, he went into production on The Wolf of Wall Street intending to shoot 100% digital, but ended up deciding upon a "hybrid" approach, where portions of the film were shot in 35mm.