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~31 Films Shot on 35mm Released in 2017

A print of The Other Side of Hope shown at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (Photo: Arin Sang-urai)

This is my fourth time rounding up the previous year’s US theatrical releases shot, either partly or in full, on 35mm, and it increasingly feels like I’m asking the wrong question. If the number of films originating on 35 has remained more or less consistent the last three years, they fall into an increasingly limited number of categories: auteur films by directors too old or stubborn to change and with the clout to follow through on that; period pieces; and enormous blockbusters. (To these we can now add the return of 70mm-originated and released films with Dunkirk and Murder on the Orient Express. Apparently all those projectors installed for The Hateful Eight will be around for a while.) What’s different about 2017 is the (slight) uptick of movies originated on either 16mm or 35mm that were also projected on 35mm, an option that seemed to have gone away entirely a few years ago.

The champion here is clearly Aki Kaurismäki, whose The Other Side of Hope was shot on film, avoided a DI and was at least partially exhibited on 35mm prints (American distributor Janus Films put two into circulation; the one I saw was gorgeous). “I won’t make a digital film in this life,” he said back in 2012. “Cinema is made from light and I don’t even know what you call a filmmaker these days…maybe a pixelmaker, and I am a filmmaker not a pixelmaker.” Maintaining this label is increasingly difficult, and Kaurismäki says that he’ll call it quits in 2021; that’s when the owner of the Belgian lab which processes his film plans to retire. Contrast this limited-but-notable release with Steven Spielberg, another longtime advocate for celluloid who got no 35mm release prints for The Post. Speaking with Patty Jenkins, he noted “I love film because of grain. Let’s say you have an insert of silverware on a place setting, and you’re sitting about one third closer to the screen than in the back, [for] everybody in the first five to ten rows, it’s alive. The still life is alive, because the grain is giving a kind of breath to inanimate objects.” Nonetheless: “The thing that I’m sad about is, even though I’m shooting on film, all of our films are converted to digital…. The only thing that I caution all of us about is, it still doesn’t look like film unless you put the reels up in the booth.” (There are 70mm prints of his current Ready Player One, which is ironic considering most of it was digital-based — the 35mm “real world” segments are reportedly a minority of the running time.)

Citing “a certain type of epic grandeur escapism that film gives you that […] you will struggle very hard to get on video,” Jenkins herself shot Wonder Woman mostly on 35mm (minus some sequences, mostly aerial and underwater, where digital made sense), It wasn’t (as far as I can tell) projected in that format anywhere; it was, however, one of four 2017 releases to be exhibited in 70mm blowups. The others: Kong: Skull Island (which doesn’t make much sense, since it originated on Codex ARRIRAW), and twin 35mm productions Justice League (Zack Snyder has been very consistent about preferring 35) and celluloid proponent Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread. This last is unusual, in that while it originated on 35mm, the preferred projection format is actually 70mm, as Chris O’Falt pieced together in two articles. Kodak stocks that remain in production are so tight grainwise, on the verge of looking grainless; blowing up 35mm to 70mm to heighten the grain that could be gotten from already pushing the film was always the plan. (I wouldn’t want to swear to this, but having seen Phantom in both DCP and 35mm, the former looked more noticeably grainy to me; my guess is it’s closer to capturing the intended effect of seeing it in 70mm than the actual 35mm print.)

In a similar vein: for Good Time, the Safdie brothers and DP Sean Price Williams tested digital, 16mm and 35mm. Settling on the latter, Josh Safdie noted that “16mm you can’t beat up too much. We were taking it to perverted levels, pushing it three stops sometimes.” Williams: “When I shoot 16mm now, I try to make it look like 35. We were shooting 35 almost trying to make it look not good — or not ‘not good,’ but torturing it, exposure-wise, running around with it, being really punk about it.” A print of Good Time was struck and played around NYC for the better part of two months. Three other 35mm prints that played in at least limited circumstances were 16-to-35 blowups: Person to PersonMost Beautiful Island and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected). The print of Meyerowitz is night-and-day compared to the perfectly fine DCP, with a neat touch: the chapter titles dividing the film come at the top of each reel, with each completing as the cigarette burn signals the end of both reel and chapter. Noted celluloid advocate Christopher Nolan went all 65mm for Dunkirk, though 35mm prints were still produced. (To read about the insane editorial process on this film — no DI while prepping for five release formats! — click here.)

Smaller-scale loyalists: as with Clouds of Sils Maria, Olivier Assayas’s continuing use of film on Personal Shopper was a luxury enabled in part by Karl Lagerfeld’s financial support (Chanel clothing helped keep costume expenses down). “There is something that’s more physical or mysterious on 35mm,” he said. I’m in love with the medium, you know, with the textures.” That’s not surprising, but Assayas also responded to interviewer Daniel Kasman’s suggestion that 35mm was a thematic fit for a story whose context includes the rise of spiritualism, which Kasman noted was “tied to the advent of photography and capturing a trace of something you didn’t think was there.” “I had not thought about it from that angle, but I am convinced you are right,” Assayas responded. “I think it has to do with the photochemical.”

James Gray has been, if anything, even more insistent about the importance of 35mm; at an NYFF press conference (where the film was screened from a 35 print) for The Lost City of Z, he bluntly stated that shooting film rather than digital added $750,000 to the budget, which understandably “bummed” out his producers. The logistics were tricky, with no remaining labs anywhere near the Amazon shoot: “We actually toyed with the idea of making a mobile lab with chemicals in the jungle, but it was so prohibitively expensive that we couldn’t really do it. We had to train this film loader in Bogota, and the process was crazy. He’d change the film the day we’d shoot and it’d go into the changing bag. You unload the camera and put the film in these cans. We made this little runway and had this single-engine prop plane [makes growling engine sound] and it’d take off with your box of film, and you’d say, ‘Goodbye, day of work!'” (For more from DP Darius Khondji, click here.) A new die-hard: Yorgos Lanthimos, who switched to digital for Alps and The Lobster but returned to film for The Killing of a Sacred Deer, explaining “Having made those have two films digitally, I definitely decided I don’t want to shoot digitally again, if at all possible. I like the fact that film transforms the image into something different, usually more beautiful. But even when film is ugly, it is ugly in a transcendent way.”

No less than Spielberg et al., Ken Loach’s love of 35mm is so well-known that re: I, Daniel Blake, DP Robbie Ryan simply said, “It’s a Ken Loach film, so we shot on 35mm on the Arriflex Studio which is kind of the workhorse for Ken; he has his own personal one, he’s signed it himself.” As regularly noted in previous installments, Tom Cruise is unique among A-list stars in actively being against digital and pro 35mm, which helped out with The Mummy. Even though he wasn’t a producer on this film, DP Ben Seresin noted that while 35mm was the plan from the beginning, director “Alex [Kurtzman] and I had to work hard to convince the studio. The decision to shoot on film became much easier when our lead came on-board. It’s incredible what star power can do!” Even though he didn’t direct Roman J. Israel, Esq., star Denzel Washington also wanted to work on film after his experience shooting it on Fences: “Whatever it is you’re going for, whether it’s trying to lower the contrast or make things more diffused, there isn’t time to do it [digitally]. And we know how to do it on film.” Per Israel‘s DP Robert Elswit, film works better for a movie flashing between the ’70s and present: “We could go further with color temperature. We could have a real contrast between the two worlds that I wasn’t going to have to create later.”

Sofia Coppola had decided to shoot The Beguiled on film before DP Philippe Le Sourd joined, which suited him just fine (“I think everything should be shot on film”). Coppola “had to fight with production to get them to accept 35mm,” he observed. “Not only for budgetary reasons, but especially because they were nervous about having to film a lot of night-time candlelight scenes.” It wasn’t just a question of the film registering as too dark: “The historical context of shortages of goods meant that candles would have been luxury products at the time, and this was in total contradiction with this type of decision. So I tried to light the sets as little as possible, concentrating mainly on the faces with very soft light sources.” Le Sourd’s celluloid-only sentiments are echoed by both Call Me By Your Name‘s DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (“I only shoot film, it’s a principle for me, and that helps with color too”) and director Luca Guadagnino (“It’s an ideological lie of the industry to say ‘don’t shoot on film because it’s less expensive to shoot on digital.’ I see directors that I love, who have been making films forever on film, surrendering to the ideology of digital — it’s ridiculous, it’s a complete lie, and it makes me furious.”)

On a much smaller scale but no less insistent: Eugène Green’s The Son of Joseph. Per Green, “digitization is the Trojan horse of the barbarians.” Oliver Laxe’s Mimosas was mostly shot outdoors in Morocco; in keeping with his 2010 feature debut You Are All Captains, this too was shot on 35mm. Per the film’s press kit, “Nature, that divinity always present, will not be just a setting in Las Mimosas but it will be a character itself, a character that constantly throbs, that vibrates as the 35mm does.” (Another way of putting it, in what seems like an acceptable Google translation: “I am involved in alchemy with humans, animals, nature and the elements. This fits in with the chemical process of celluloid film. it provides the necessary space for mystery, because art without mystery is simply stupid.” [Edit: the production ended up shooting on 16mm, my mistake.]) Two other foreign productions whose IMDB listings as 35mm-based I have no reason to question despite being unable to find much more English-language context: 35mm regular Kore-eda Hirokazu’s After the Storm and François Ozon’s period drama Frantz (“I have a hard time seeing period films in digital”). Not only could I not find much info about shooting the Christian Bale-starring Western Hostiles (“It probably wasn’t much of a discussion. I think film felt right to us” doesn’t really elucidate much), it’s not listed on Kodak’s mostly quite comprehensive list of productions shot on their stock, despite IMDB claiming that was the case. [1]

Marc Webb had two 35mm-based features last year, Gifted and The Only Living Boy in New York, both shot by Stuart Dryburgh. Of the former, Webb had a hard time articulating why 35mm (“I don’t know how to explain it other than that I wanted an analog experience”), while noting that “If I’m honest, a lot of times I can’t tell the difference, or I’ll even prefer digital.” He had more to say about Living Boy: “When you’re projecting digital, sometimes there’s an aliasing in the highlights that bothers me. It can be corrected, but aesthetically I just prefer film.” He also noted that “There are more labs now than there were two years ago […] so the post workflow for film is still very accessible.” If Living Boy got mostly bad reviews, the year’s most vitriolically-received 35mm production was easily Colin Treverrow’s The Book of Henry, for which Webb’s observation re labs is a case in point. Having shot all but six features on film, DP John Schwartzman introduced Treverrow to shooting on film for Jurassic World and wanted to carry the medium over for the much lower-budgeted Henry. Two factors helped: one was, indeed, a new mobile film lab that could be parked next to production base, eliminating shipping costs. The other trick: using Vittorio Storaro’s 2:1 Univisium format on 3-perf 35mm for eventual release in 1.85, saving a quarter of the cost of shooting on 4-perf. Western The Ballad of Lefty Brown also used 2-perf for budgetary purposes: says DP David McFarland, “given our modest budget of around $5 million, the fact that the run-time of a magazine is doubled when you shoot 2-perf — 11 minutes becomes 22 minutes — it is amazingly cost-effective in terms of stock and processing.”

Edgar Wright is a 35mm loyalist, though a small portion of Baby Driver was shot on the ARRI Alexa and Mini for reasons of extreme darkness and restricted mobility. On this podcast, DP Bill Pope noted a conversation with one producer who offered a reason I haven’t heard much before against 35mm: “I don’t see the dailies for a day. That means I have to leave the sets up for an extra day.” (Pope’s response: “‘You’re 70 years old, dude, and I know you know how to do this. What, were you going to take the sets down? Cut it out.”) He also voiced a common observation about how film’s limits impose on-set discipline: “It becomes sort of flaccid in the digital world. It becomes a millennial picture, where everybody is on their phone.” Indeed, on I, Tonya (almost all 35mm save for interview segments shot on the Alexa 65), DP Nikos Karakatsanis said that “Film gives you a nice sense of rhythm […] Unknown to me, [director] Craig [Gillespie] kept a private log of the shoot, and I was quite amazed when told me after we wrapped that we had averaged one new set-up every 20 minutes.” (Song to Song interpolates an incredible number of formats, including 35mm, so it’s included here on a technicality.)

Most of film loyalist Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck was shot on 35mm, both color and black-and-white (DP Ed Lachman says he got Kodak to manufacture the latter anew for him), with some portions on the ALEXA; balancing the grain between film and digital sources was the main challenge. Notes colorist Joe Gawler, “a good portion of the film takes place inside the Museum of Natural History and there are a lot of limitations on lighting in the museum, so they were able to move faster and I think get more exposure shooting Alexa than shooting film.” And of course there’s Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi, which was mostly film in keeping with both franchise continuity and Rian Johnson’s filmography to date. A mix of IMAX’s 15-perf 65mm,  35mm film, Alexa and Alexa 65 were used. It’s well worth watching this film vs. video test by DP Steve Yedlin; he’s clearly thought about this as much as anybody. Period piece Battle of the Sexes went all 35mm; per DP Linus Sandgren, the goal was to look like a film made in the ’70s, so celluloid was a starting point. As for the 16 vs. 35 choice, “we ended up liking 35 best because we could have a lot more lens choices, which also was important.” One more historical drama: the Partition-era Viceroy’s House, with a dash of black-and-white 16mm for faked archival footage. [Edit: I forgot to include Porto, which went all out and divided its three sections into 8, 16 and 35mm film.)

When Sean Baker started work on The Florida Project, he intended from the get-go to shoot on 35: not just because he loves it or because “I didn’t want to become ‘the iPhone guy'” (after Tangerine), or just because “I was trying to capture a very particular beauty that I felt like I just could not find digitally.” Baker is the only person in this round-up to cite preservation issues as a factor: “We’re going to have issues with digital films, at least the ones that haven’t been film out-ed. With Tangerine, Starlet and Prince of Broadway, I’m still dealing with those issues […] There’s no studio for any of those films, and I’m basically the person who’s solely responsible for their long lives. It seems like it’s an endless thing, but I’m constantly spinning drives. I’m making sure all of my masters are backed up properly, and that there’s redundancy everywhere on two different coasts. I have [them backed up on] LTOs, and still I feel it’s not enough. I just lost a mezzanine file of Starlet the other day — a top-quality, uncompressed QuickTime of the film with all of the properly broken-down 5.1 audio tracks. That drive stopped spinning. So, now I have to go back to my LTOs. I just want to get these films all transferred to 35mm and give them to the Library of Congress and be like, ‘That’s it.’ So, this is something I didn’t want to deal with again with Florida.”

Finally, the award for most unexpected 35mm-originating project is the Rose Marie documentary Wait for Your Laugh; this is the first time in my four years of writing this feature that a theatrically released doc had some part originate in 35mm (the film is a mix of that and 16mm), with as many screenings as possible in that format. There were a few reasons for this: to match the home movie footage drawn upon in the film, and an idea (according to director Jason Wise) to try to control the otherwise uncontrollable variables of a documentary and create a better “workflow.” I’m not quite sure what he means by that word, but good on him.

[1] I didn’t see After the Storm or Son of Joseph listed there either, which is kind of strange and arbitrary. I’ll note here that in some ways Kodak’s list is better than mine: it doesn’t discriminate between 16mm and 35mm-originating productions, which I’m continuing to do because of outmoded ideas about default theatrical presentation format. That doesn’t account for 70mm films like Dunkirk and Murder on the Orient Express or 16mm films like mother!, which Darren Aronofsky also used for The Wrestler and Black Swan. Neither Kodak nor I are indexing experimental work being done on (mostly) 16mm or 35mm, though they do list TV shows shot on the latter. I’ll also note a UFO here: Louis CK’s presumably-never-to-be-released I Love You, Daddy, which otherwise would have been listed here.

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