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~29 Movies Shot on 35mm Released In 2016

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in Cinematography, Filmmaking
on Feb 22, 2017

This is my third time rounding up the previous year’s US theatrical releases shot in 35mm, and this year’s number is substantively lower than 2014 (39) and 2015 (~64). This seems like an anomaly, not a permanent trend: following the high-profile push by J.J. Abrams et al. to force studios to pony up for a certain amount of Kodak celluloid for the forseeable future, the company seems solvent enough (and they’re bringing back Ektachrome!). Some celluloid regulars (Spielberg, Nolan, Abrams, Tarantino) sat the year out, while Woody Allen jumped to digital, and there are fewer straggler releases that were completed three or four years ago that were still shot on film. As usual, my tally does not account for exclusively 16mm-based productions or television production, but it’s worth noting that quite a number of countries — China, Australia, South Korea — seem to have eliminated the capacity for 35mm production and the vast majority of these films are big studio productions. And despite the studio’s commitment to celluloid, the post-end has become increasingly tricky, with both skills and basic supplies diminishing.

The first 35mm-based release this year was Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women, which is entirely appropriate; Garrel is a lifelong celluloid loyalist. “I’m like this group of Hollywood directors who went to see Kodak in Manchester and said, ‘We’re still going to shoot film. Even if our films are distributed on digital, we’re going to shoot on 35mm,'” he explained in an interview. “And I was one of the first in Paris to say, ‘I’m going to stop shooting if there’s no more 35mm.'” Slot Garrel alongside Martin Scorsese (Silence) and Jeff Nichols, who had not one but two 35mm releases this year (Midnight SpecialLoving) — though, as his regular DP Adam Stone admitted, on the former “out of necessity, we did dabble with digital (Arri Alexa XT and M) on nighttime process trailer work, which allowed us to place digital cameras where a film camera and mag would not fit.” Speaking re the latter, Stone offered an example of why they’re still sticking with film, discussing a scene where two sisters speak against a field: “The sisters are in shadow in contrast to the field. […] At that time of day, it looked great, but shot on digital, it wouldn’t look as good.” Also note non-director film loyalist Tom Cruise, whose films are almost always 35mm (he still doesn’t like digital capture, said DP Robert Elswit last year), and who continued that trend this year with Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

There’s also Zach Snyder, whose Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was mostly 35mm, with just about every possible format (IMAX, 65mm, Super 16, various digital cameras, you name it) around the edges. “We pushed our film one stop for some night exteriors,” noted DP Larry Fong. “Our philosophy was that if we’re going to shoot film, then don’t be afraid to show a little grain, so when the kids ask why we’re shooting film, we have something to point to. In this age of artificially added grain, flares and film-emulation software, it feels good to do it all for real.” More mixed-format productions: Jason Bourne, which originally wanted to go all-film but, said DP Barry Ackroyd, ended up being half digital — predictably, mostly for night scenes. Also, “it comes from the second unit wanting to shoot digitally so they could have instant replay on the technical stuff, and multiple cameras.” Possibly the most thoughtful division of film/digital labor was Robert Elswit’s reasoning for Gold, which shot 35mm for the Thailand scenes that make up the backstory: “Anamorphic gives you the scope and scale you want to show in Thailand, and shooting on film created a softer, more romantic look for the moments that make up his past.” That past/present rupture is reinforced by shooting present-day U.S. scenes of a con man being caught up with in harsher digital, which makes it “feel clinical, a little harsher.” Sing Street was also a 35mm/digital mix, but I couldn’t find much more information about that decision. Bafflingly, IMDB’s tech specs page for Deadpool claims one single shot was in 35mm. I emailed DP Ken Seng’s film rep for comment, hoping to find out exactly what that shot might be, assuming that’s accurate, but didn’t hear back. One more 16/35 hybrid: Hidden Figures, with DP Mandy Walker citing the common idea that for a period piece, “it was appropriate to capture people’s skin and their costumes by dealing with the kind of grain you only get from film.” (Added 2/24: Dr. Strange shot its Nepal scenes on 35mm.)

Some of the more disheartening stories about working with 35mm had to do with the lost knowledge base and declining infrastructure for its processing and projection. Roger Deakins was headline-pullquote blunt (“I’m sorry, it’s over”) discussing his experience on Hail, Caesar!: “We had some stock issues and stuff like that, which was really disconcerting. […] I never really remember having those kind of problems before. But it makes me nervous now. I don’t want to do that again, frankly. I don’t think the infrastructure’s there.” It was hard on the editorial side too. Per Adobe’s Mike Kanfor: “Adobe didn’t expect to have to deal with film, and so we had to find a way to handle key codes [numbers on the film negative a bit like timecode, that reference each frame for the negative cut]. Even simple things like dailies, EFILM is used to putting out an Avid log exchange file,  ALE – all the metadata of the dailies, which is a text file container that typically the Avid would read. We don’t work with that type of metadata, we do it another way. So we had to find ways to get EFILM to create a Premiere project that had all the dailies in it.” (In the panel during which Kanfor spoke, his response is preceded by a frank question from Deadpool editor Tim Miller: “I don’t know why anyone shoots on film, it seems crazy?”)

But nothing can top Anna Biller’s epic account, well worth reading in full, of the problems she faced editing The Love Witch and preparing it for 35mm projection: there was no affordable black leader so she went with a digital substitute for fades to black; Fotokem was confused about how to scan a negative to go back to a negative rather than a DI, a problem requiring conference calls to solve; the end credits had to be redone three times for film standards; it was difficult to buy film cement (!); and, since post-production ended, “my negative cutter has vowed to never cut a negative again.” Dennis Hauck’s Too Late got the bulk of its press from an attention-getting release solely on 35mm. It helped, production-wise, that the film was shot in 2012, though Hauck, while a film devotee, has “mixed feelings” about playing up that aspect: “The 35mm thing is something that sets us apart from the pack, especially the way we’re releasing it, only on 35mm, no DCP, and anything that gets people to see this movie, I’m for. But […] it does distract from the story, which I’m very proud of. Even in Q&As, most of the questions are technical and they’re about how did you pull off the long takes, and so I do always get very happy any time someone asks me anything about the characters.” (An honorable mention here to Ted Fendt, whose feature Short Stay was shot on 16 but projected in 35mm, with the director paying for the print himself.) 

There were two black and white 35mm-based features. As with his breakout Everybody in our Family, Radu Jude shot Aferim! (and still to-be-acquired/released follow-up Scarred Hearts) on film: “DoP Marius Panduru and I decided that the film should be shot in black and white out of a wish to highlight the historical re-enactment artifice: we wanted to make the audience understand from the very beginning that what they are seeing is a subjective re-enactment […] We therefore tested different methods: a digital camera, one colour film and two types of black-and-white film. Comparing them, we concluded that the black-and-white film (namely, Kodak Double-X) was the most expressive and the one best suited for our project.” Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent is another ambitious project with lots of exteriors on B&W 35mm, and in addition to citing the format’s greater visual depth he noted a practical upside to using it in the Amazon: “Film cameras are a technology developed to record war, especially during WWII, so they’re rugged machines. They don’t have the problem with humidity and condensation that digital cameras have. They are better, much stronger cameras for extreme conditions.” (I couldn’t find an interview to back it up, but I suspect that’s at least part of the reason that Valley of Love, shot in Death Valley, was also on film; ditto the extreme sunny desert visuals and setting of A Hologram for the King. I’ll also note here that I could find no particular reasoning for why the studio comedy Keeping Up with the Joneses was shot on 35mm.) 

Like many, Guerra cites both the greater color range and heightened discipline and attention that 35mm brings to the set, a point echoed and amplified by The Magnificent Seven DP Mauro Fiore: “it’s very impressive for the actors, director and crew when you suspend a 100ft x 50ft softbox above the set to create a moonlit exterior scene. Everyone gets a special thrill that they really are ‘making a movie’.” And discipline is realistically scalable, argued The Accountant DP Seamus McGarvey: “With the careful management of shooting ratios and the natural discipline that comes with shooting on film, I demonstrated to the producers how cost-effective film can be versus digital. The handling and post-processing of terabytes of data from the digital capture world can be unseen, costly and time-consuming ventures downstream. With this in mind, the producers quickly saw overall that shooting on film can be just as cost-effective, if not cheaper, than digital, and were very supportive in the decision to greenlight the production on 35mm. Indeed, it set a pleasing precedent to take into future productions when the debate revolves around the costs of shooting film versus digital.” Ditto Brady Corbet, discussing his directorial debut The Childhood of a Leader: “it can be more expensive depending on what it is that you are trying to do, but it can also be cheaper than shooting with digital cameras, which are in much higher demand, so the equipment rental is much more expensive. It also requires more time in the digital intermediate to work on the colors. You are spending a lot of money on extra days. There is also a lot of extra equipment that you need when you are shooting on video than you need when you are shooting on film.” [Added 2/24/17: I missed one movie, and JT Mollner’s essay discussing how shooting his film Outlaws & Angels on 35mm actually saved him money on a number of levels is definitely worth a look.]

The format of the film itself, of course, also matters: DP Linus Sandgren noted that there was no question La La Land needed to be on 35mm for “the widest possible image and the best colors,” but deciding to shoot CinemaScope meant a more conservative shooting schedule. Film wasn’t just right for the colors of location shooting in Pittsburgh, but anamorphic lenses were an essential part of the equation for Fences: per DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, “the reason why Denzel wanted to go film and with anamorphic lenses is because he said again and again, it’s an axis lens, and when you pull focus, the distortion makes you focus on the face.” McGarvey also shot Nocturnal Animals (another film with a lot of desert shooting) on 35mm, noting that “film and film cameras are more robust and able to deal with the vagaries of temperature and conditions […] when you came to the DI [digital intermediate], we have grain, we have contrast, but yet when we want to open up the negative and create a paler side, the latitude is there for the earlier scenes in her house.” 

For Ti West’s Western In a Valley of Violence, he and DP Eric Robbins felt film was crucial (though for budget reasons they went with spherical 2-perf 35mm over 4-perf anamorphic). There’s visual continuity with the genre, and then there are practical considerations: “film has tremendous highlight capacity and we where going to be shooting in extremely bright locations where highlight retention was going to be a huge part of the visual language. More importantly, we knew that the movie was going to have beautiful women in it but would also have movie stars. I owe it to actors to make them look as great as they can on screen and I knew that film would render skin tones in the most flattering way. It’s simple: everyone looks better on film. Film has a certain ‘glue’ to it; a way of melding planes of an image together in a very natural and organic way. This can never be replicated in any format in HD.” Similar concerns motivated Christensen to shoot The Girl on the Train in 35mm: “Emily Blunt is a very beautiful girl, but her makeup is very rough and it’s all about no makeup and red skin, split lips and a red nose. That’s a lot of makeup to make somebody look like that. And film is going to be much more gentle to it.” Ditto David Ayer re Suicide Squad: “When you’re doing something where people are made up, and you have so many constructed sets and everything, I think film sort of melts things together and makes everything feel very natural. Whereas, digital, you can see every pore, every detail.”

And that’s it! Much of the reasoning here is familiar from years past: film as period connotation tool, way of forcing discipline, working more efficiently in harsh landscapes, as superior for extreme daylight, etc. The “glue” explanation is new to me in terms of the word but the concern isn’t new. In closing, I’d like to ask the person claiming on the IMDB tech specs pages for Bad Moms and Neighbors 2, both of which I have seen, that their negative format was 35mm: what kind of pleasure do you get from this  kind of obscure trolling, which forces me to check whether I actually believe my eyes? Because I still do and c’mon. [Addendum: a knowledgeable friend writes “Both Bad Moms and Neighbors 2 are Universal and they still require 35mm film out for final delivery for archival purposes, even if the film was shot digitally, so perhaps the technical specs are referencing that?”]

(Image courtesy of Carolyn Funk)

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