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39 Movies Released in 2014 Shot on 35mm

Edge of Tomorrow Edge of Tomorrow

Last year, I posited that Boyhood‘s use of 35mm seemed to be a kind of special effect as much as anything: committing to film ensured an internally continuous look over 12 years of production whose uniqueness would survive despite a digital intermediate and no prints being struck for American release. This type of use of 35mm, separate from its ongoing viability as an exhibition format, was one common reason cited for its use in 39 2014 US releases originating in whole or substantial part from it. That’s a list that’s probably not complete: collating the release calendar against the technical specifications primarily quickly obtainable from IMDB is a flawed process with more informational gaps than you’d expect. It also doesn’t represent the use of film in the industry as a whole, like Bryan Singer using Super 8 and 16mm for ’60s/’70s period ambience in X-Men: Days of Future Past or 16mm’s continued use in the avant-garde.

Some common themes between otherwise disparate productions emerged, most predictably a sentimental fondness for 35mm, expressed vaguely but with conviction. There were also many practical reasons for continued use: another regular motif was 35mm’s use for basically any period film set during the 20th century, since the unconscious connotations of recreating periods most viewers may only have experienced (or revisited) through celluloid are strong. 35mm still responds to certain colors and shades better than digital, like the outdoor greens Phedon Papapmichael notes below, and under certain conditions — outdoor sets that are muddy, wet and full of explosives — celluloid cameras are easier to power than wired-up digital cameras. There are, it emerges, a few (lucky?) d.p.’s who are distinguishing themselves as solely celluloid practitioners, and directors whose advanced age makes it seemingly improbable that they’ll be new digital converts.

35mm is, it seems, still the stock of choice for really huge productions that want to look good and have enough complications (and a big enough budget) that the cost of digital color correction vs. the expense of shooting film no longer becomes a factor. This particular trend will continue into 2015, whose 35mm originating blockbusters include Jurassic World, SPECTRE, Cinderella and Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice. “Right now, there are 11 movies with budgets over $100 million shooting or prepping in London — and seven of them are on film,” d.p. John Schwartzman noted in 2013. Such productions argue that they benefit from an oft-cited, hard-to-define quality sometimes deemed “realism.” The year in 35mm action kicked off with the January release of Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. Like many other directors and cinematographers, d.p. Haris Zambarloukos cited a desirable, ineffable “timeless” quality as part of his reasoning. Zambarloukos was admirably specific in pinning down what would make for a “’70s vibe” and “a certain amount of realism.” “I handpicked C Series anamorphic lenses that had the quality I’d seen in the films that I remember and love from the 1970s, where the edges are soft and the colors are big,” he noted, singling out Alan Pakula and Gordon Willis’ work (The Parallax View, Klute). (The award for the most perverse visual reference point, incidentally, goes to notably iconoclastic French director Serge Bozon for Tip Top: in a press kit interview, he claimed he used 35mm to try to achieve “the fat tints you see in the hotel” in Herschell Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs!.)

Dion Beebe, a digital pioneer for his work on Collateral and Miami Vice, shot Edge of Tomorrow on 35mm and raised several points in its favor, including — again — that vague “sense of realism.” There were also connotational merits: given the main storming-the-beach’s heavy overtones of the D-Day landing in Normandy and the fact that “all the images we have from Normandy and World War II are film references, either still or motion[,] I think that did resonate for us.” Ditto d.p. Oscar Faura on The Imitation Game, not that I noticed his pains in a grain-free digital projection: “Digital was not an option because we wanted to keep the texture of the negative that has been used for years to shoot most World War II movies. It is something that unconsciously makes [audiences] relate a historic period to a certain kind of image.” The same reasoning probably applied to Michael Cuesta’s ’80s journalism drama Kill the Messenger, though I couldn’t find the quotes to back that guess up. I’ll go ahead and also surmise that Richard Ayoade’s overt points of reference (Truffaut, Wes Anderson et al.) have a component of textural cinephilia/fetishism that explains The Double‘s being shot on 35mm. So too the cinephilic James Gray, who wasn’t shy about his feelings on the topic re The Immigrant, noting (a common theme) that digital isn’t really that much cheaper and is “objectively worse,” while pessimistically/pragmatically predicting that “the choice is going to be made for us.”

Logistics and safety were also a concern given Edge of Tomorrow‘s complicated setups, which required shooting up to six cameras simultaneously on a beach set including pyrotechnics. With film, Beebe says, “you can cut your operators loose a little bit. You’re not running cable or signal to a complex switching system with six high def monitors.” Regarding the much-derided Dracula Untold, d.p. John Schwartzman had similar reasoning for insisting on film: “On the location scout, we were standing in the pouring rain, and I said, ‘We need film cameras. We can throw them down on the sandbags in the mud and they work.’ You’re not going to run fiber-optic cable across this field. We can’t have a DIT tent on the hillside in the muck. On a 70-day schedule, it ain’t going to work.”

After the both dreadful and dreadful-looking Sabotage, which suffered many of the ills of sloppy digital — unpleasant image saturation in the worst possible shades, lots of blur during movement — David Ayer went back to film for Fury. Beyond the usual fondness for 35mm (“film has more”), Ayer said film’s color range made sense for his muddy battlefield setting: “We tested various platforms, but our initial test was on film, and there’s such a subtle palette of uniforms and the patina and world we created in design that when you did tests on digital you ended up with these crushing blacks and these very muddy greens that didn’t have any differentiation that one has with film.”

The Amazing Spider-Man was digital, but its sequel was shot on celluloid by Dan Mindel — a d.p. with the luxury of being a 35mm specialist, having never shot a digital feature. Since digital became the standard, Mindel’s shot Savages, John Carter, Star Trek: Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 on film (as well as the forthcoming Star Wars: Episode VI – The Force Awakens). He got the Spider-Man job because director Marc Webb liked the look on ST:ID and desired, in his (again) vague words, “an operatic quality.” Mindel is a bit clearer on the concept: “The CG that these movies live by should contain some elements that are organic,” he explained. “To me, film is irreplaceable.” (A cynical translation: when dealing with an overabundance of potentially wonky CGI, it’s good to have something realistic-looking on screen to hopefully sell the image.)

Trying to defeat CGI’s often-inherent alienation effect was taken to a predictable extreme by Christopher Nolan, whose use of not just celluloid but, when possible, practical spaceship effects for Interstellar has been widely noted and discussed. Less so his longtime d.p. Wally Pfister’s widely derided directorial debut Transcendance. Pfister is another d.p. who’s so far managed to avoid working in digital, enabled by regular collaborator Nolan and Moneyball‘s Bennett Miller. Pfister spoke of Transcendance‘s 35mm in familiar terms: “There’s nothing wrong with 35mm film; it didn’t need replacing. People simply thought that digital capture was a cheaper way of doing it. However, digital is more complicated and, in some cases, it requires a more expensive process.” Two film stocks helped him deal with extremes of light (the desert) and dark (“a completely black set”), and the resolution is preferable to his way of thinking: “To capture all the resolution of an anamorphic 35mm image, you need a scan somewhere between 8K and 12K. So while everyone brags about 4K cameras and scans, we’re shooting on, effectively, a 10K camera. Why replace that with an inferior technology?”

Having shot The Wrestler and Black Swan (primarily) in 16mm, Darren Aronofsky kept the celluloid faith with Noah. “People assume it’s all digital because of the VFX,” he explained, but “there wasn’t any pressure to shoot digital.” Like Pfister, increased expense wasn’t a tipping point factor: “The studio didn’t care, except about the final cost, and it was actually still cheaper to do a film this big on film.” It does raise difficulties though: not just the decline in labs that process film, but “even finding a loader for the camera department was really hard as most of them have moved on to digital.”

Note that Miller himself continued using film on Foxcatcher; he, too, cited period connotation as a factor. “There was an incentive to shoot Foxcatcher on digital and I wanted to feel okay about it, but we did a lot of tests and I just couldn’t get at ease,” he explained. “For me, shooting on film makes it a lot easier to convey the period; there’s a language and a context when it comes to film stocks.” D.p. Giles Nuttgens has plenty of experience with digital, but was drawn to both Stuart Murdoch’s 16mm God Help the Girl and Jake Paltrow’s 35mm, little-noticed Young Ones because “I’m one of those people who is taking a little time in terms of the changeover to digital. Not because I think digital is worse. I just think it’s a different medium and a different process. I’m very comfortable with film. I’ve grown up with it and I like the way film looks.” As with Pfister, working in a desert setting probably helped make this decision practically justifiable as well.

Having shot Unknown simultaneously on 16mm and 35mm (a process worth reading up on here), director Jaume Collet-Serra and d.p. Flavio Labiano shot Non-Stop on 35mm, though I couldn’t find any interviews explaining their reasoning. Ditto a few other outliers, notably the instantly forgotten Cameron Diaz comedy The Other Woman — I couldn’t find any comment online about it from either director Nick Cassavetes or d.p. Robert Fraisse. All over the internet, you’ll find the context-less tidbit that the equally-quickly-dismissed Nicole Kidman thriller Before I Go To Sleep was the last feature shot on 35mm — stock procured from Frame24, an “official Kodak stock reseller,” which says it has Kodak and Fuji negative stock available in 8mm, 16mm and 35mm, plus “stock from major productions. such as the recent Star Wars movie, and […] a comprehensive range of short ends and recans to suit all budgets.”

Related lasts: Felony and The Rover, the last two Australian productions for the forseeable future to be shot on film. “There was the option to shoot 35mm, so of course I took it,” explained Rover d.p. Natasha Braier. “I always shoot on 35mm if I have the choice. It’s easier to shoot, more beautiful and more efficient; I learned shooting on film, so I’m always going to love film more than digital.” There was also a familiar practical reason given the post-apocalyptic setting: “The contrast in the desert is harsh, and 35mm took it better than digital.” There’s no longer a commercial film lab developing 35mm in Australia, though this possibly out-of-date story highlights the efforts of Neglab, the last lab in the country to do such processing. Snowpiercer‘s Joon-ho Bong experienced the same phenomenon in South Korea: claiming, plausibly, his will be the last of that country’s films to be shot in film, the director told audiences he returned from production abroad to find there were no longer any labs at home to process his celluloid.

35mm loyalists include not just the high-profile likes of Nolan, Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel continued his celluloid streak), P.T. Anderson (whose Inherent Vice, like Interstellar, invited viewers to actively hunt down theaters that might be playing the film in 35 or 70mm) and Quentin Tarantino, but also those accustomed to the stock out of decades-long habit. Darius Khondji shot Magic in the Moonlight in 35mm, citing the ’20s Côte d’Azur photographs of Jacques-Henri Lartigue as a reference point (another argument for the connotational powers of celluloid), but it’s also probable that Woody Allen, having never converted to digital, won’t do so so late in the game. (That also goes for Allen’s Fading Gigolo co-star/director John Turturro: of his fourth 35mm feature, he rationalized that “because most of the actors in the film were over 40 years old we thought it would look easier on the skin, and more flattering.”) So too with Manoel de Oliveira’s Gebo and the Shadow, which received a belated one-week run at NYC’s Anthology Film Archives; at 106, he’s equally unlikely to make the switch. Ditto Philippe Garrel, whose Jealousy avoided a digital intermediate no less: in an email Ted Fendt shared with me, d.p. Willy Kurant observed that “the prints on release stock are clearly superior to the digital copies — the blacks in low light and the details in the whites.” (Garrel’s next film, L’ombre des femmes, is being made the same way.)

Other arthouse figures whose films released here in 2014 were shot on celluloid: Arnaud Desplechin’s Jimmy P.: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian (d.p. Stéphane Fontaine: “Two years ago, everyone asked : ‘Why are you filming in digital?’ and now everyone asks: ‘Why are you filming in 35mm?’ We just felt like filming in 35mm!”), Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Like Father, Like Son, and Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan. Of the latter, the director told me that, despite practical difficulties working with celluloid, it was worth it because digital color correction costs more, film’s limitations make you concentrate more rather than shooting endless talks, and (this should sound familiar by now) that with film you get “an entirely different form of expression” which you feel “on some subconscious level.”

A few productions split the film/digital difference, though I couldn’t find any information about what parts of Million Dollar Arm were 35mm and which originated as Codex. On The Monuments Men, d.p. Phedon Papamichael shot most interiors and all night exteriors with the Arri Alexa Plus. Most day exteriors were shot on 35mm, both because (surprise!) “we love the look of it” and because “digital is very sensitive toward secondary bounce sources, especially green trees and green grass. This creates a tricky balance with skin tones, which still feel more natural on film.” The same, roughly, went for Nightcrawler d.p. Robert Elswit, who “shot the day exterior and day interior on film, just because it’s so much easier and simpler and less frustrating for me.” Digital worked for night exteriors, because “you can walk into available light locations at night and really just light the foreground. We didn’t have the money or the time to do anything else.”

Some stray titles whose claim to 35mm seems pretty tenuous: the Melissa McCarthy comedy Tammy (d.p. Russ Alsobrook: film has a “rich, creamy, look” and allows for “enhanced naturalism”), Robert Downey Jr.’s little-loved drama The Judge (shot by Spielberg’s regular collaborator Janusz Kaminski, another d.p. who’s yet to go digital, who cited “hyper-reality” and “beautiful emulsion” as advantages in this case), the even-less-well-received Hector and the Search for Happiness (no idea, though director Peter Chelsom is yet another figure who’s not yet worked with digital), the Bill Murray vehicle St. Vincent (no idea why), and Lasse Hallström’s latest exercise in cuteness, food porn/cross-cultural drama The Hundred-Foot Journey; on the latter, d.p. Linus Sandgren cited both “saturation and richness,” and, more practically, that Hallström “likes to see a little grain.”

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