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The 24 Films (More or Less) Shot on 35mm Released in 2018

Image courtesy of Carolyn Funk

in Cinematography, Filmmaking
on Apr 24, 2019

For five years, I’ve been rounding up the previous year’s US theatrical releases of films shot, in whole or significant part, on 35mm—yes, this year’s tally is lower than any of my previous totals. The total number is unlikely to soar above 40 anytime in the foreseeable future, and every film loyalist taking the year off makes a large difference. Part of the low tally can be attributed to lack of new films from J.J. Abrams, Quentin Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, Ken Loach, Christopher Nolan, Martin Scorsese, Zach Snyder, James Gray—directors who simply won’t budge on working from film. That aside, not much has changed since my last roundup: with some notable exceptions, the bulk of 35mm feature work is being done by established directors with the clout to get the resources they want, often working with a small roll call of DPs (Charlotte Bruus Christensen, Linus Sandgren, Seamus McGarvey, Robbie Ryan, Dan Mindel) who seem increasingly recognized as 35 specialists. (As usual, I’m following a semi-arbitrary set of rules: 16 or 70mm-only films don’t count, and the title needs to have received some US theatrical release in 2018. I’m not including movies long overdue in receiving theatrical release—1994’s Cold Water or that very special exception, The Other Side of the Wind—because that says nothing about contemporary production and isn’t helpful.)

In my unscientific survey, Linus Sandgren seems to hold the record for number of interviews done by any DP last year for their work on single film. First Man was assembled from a complex mixture of 16, 35 and 70mm IMAX footage; for an extremely thorough breakdown of all the stocks used, and how they were pulled/pushed, click here. The gist is that Damien Chazelle’s initial thought was “Let’s do this whole film handheld, maybe Super 16.” That evolved into period-evocative 16mm for the interior of the spacecraft, with 35mm used for its exterior as well as homelife in Houston scenes, finally opening up to 70mm IMAX in outer space. As it happens, Sandgren’s other project last year, The Nutcracker and the Four Realms, “also combined 65mm 5-perf and Super35mm 3-perf film,” per Kodak in a blog post which optimistically continued, “that’s another story entirely. Stay tuned!” There was no follow-up—it doesn’t seem anybody wanted to talk about this particular Disney debacle.

That leads to a broader point which is obvious but still worth reiterating: Kodak is the only source for new motion picture 35mm stock.[1] It was, of course, never their intention to have a monopoly on that market, it’s great that they’re still manufacturing, and they post a number of interviews with DPs that serve as self-promotion while also being genuinely informative. That said, while they’re pretty good about keeping a comprehensive list of 35mm-based projects, it’s not their obligation to be encyclopedic and they missed a few—e.g., F.J. Ossang’s 9 Fingers, which was indeed shot on Kodak stock. A French director with a cult following, Ossang is very much a celluloid loyalist—35mm was “an obvious choice for me, although I had very limited means. Even after finishing the film, I thought that working in digital wouldn’t have brought anything to the film, only removed something from it.” But the prize for the French director with the most dedication to celluloid has to be awarded to Serge Bozon, for whom Kodak just wouldn’t do. “[I was] looking for light that was both soft and colourful, with all the non-shiny texture of Fuji film,” he noted of his latest, Mrs. Hyde. “But Fuji stopped producing it a long time ago. Thankfully, we found some old stock at Cinédia.” Bozon’s DP (also his sister) Céline elaborated in an interview I ran through what seems like a reliable-ish Google translation: “I’ve always loved Fuji and this surprising way of tipping the blues in cyan and everything tinting. I did not want Kodak at all , too red and too digital in its contrast and ‘sharpness.'” Their selection is indeed limited: as Matt Mulcahey observed in an interview with A Quiet Place DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen, “At this point, if you shoot 35mm you’re really limited to Kodak Vision 3 stock.”

Some 35mm loyalists are more rhetorically vehement than others. A few years ago, Luca Guadagnino was emphatic that “It’s an ideological lie of the industry to say ‘don’t shoot on film because it’s less expensive to shoot on digital’ […] it makes me furious.” For Suspiria, Guadagnino reteamed with his Call Me By Your Name DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who (still) only shoots film: “This is my standing point,” he said. “Film cameras talk to me more than digital cameras.” Brady Corbet is equally insistent on the subject; he initially wanted to shoot Vox Lux on 65mm, “but there were a million reasons that ultimately didn’t happen.” Corbet’s vehemence in favor of 35mm assumes an unusually heavy level of antagonism to digital images as a whole; he notes that while most of the film was 35mm, there’s some Hi8 in the mix, as well as footage from a high-def sports camera responsible for “some of the more egregious, heinous looking images from the concert.” Corbet also said that shooting on 35 is hard now because “there isn’t the infrastructure for it that there was even five years ago. Kodak has a new lab in New York, that made things easier.” That Long Island City-based lab, which opened in October 2017, also worked on two other 35-based titles from last year. BlacKkKlansman used a mix of 16 and 35 (including a few reels of expired Ektachrome), aiming to emulate the flashed-film look of, e.g., McCabe & Mrs. Miller. That had to be accomplished using the PanaFlasher because, as DP Chayse Irvin observed, not only did the lab not have the technical ability to do that, but “you have to work with products and ideas that can be insured”—actual lab flashing is, presumably, just now too rare and risky a practice to qualify.

A Quiet Place also passed through the lab. That was an entirely 35-based production; Christensen checked in first with the VFX department, but they didn’t have a preference about film vs. digital. A common split of digital for night exteriors, with film for interiors and day scenes, was proposed but, says Christensen, “it’s not about the intensity of light as much as it is about the spread of the light. […] It’s not like with digital we could’ve shot with no lights. We’re going to need those big lights either way just to cover the field, so why change formats?” Eduard Grau inverted that mix for Boy Erased, using 35mm for exteriors that set “the base texture for the film” and an ALEXA for (frequently very dark) interiors. Similarly, Christopher Robin deployed 65/35mm primarily for warm and welcoming exteriors in the Hundred Acre Woods, weaponizing digital to render ’40s wartime London in a gloomier vein. Like Christensen, DP Matthias Königswieser needed to check with the VFX department (the film has some 1400 CG shots), but 35 didn’t pose an obstacle: “Every time I would set up a shot [… I would ask], ‘Is it okay that I leave the fern in the foreground?’ ‘Is it okay that the sun is flaring the lens?’ ‘Is it okay that now I’m pushing through something that might interfere?’ […] It was incredible [to see] how much you can do now — how uninhibited you can film and still integrate CG.”

Having assembled this round-up for a few years now, certain smaller points keep recurring; I’ll skip reiterating the most-sounded notes (it makes the crew and performers concentrate more, everyone works harder and respects the process more, etc.). Of shooting green forests on film, Königswieser noted film’s superiority: “To shoot color on film is very simple because film has infinite color depth. It just records everything and becomes what it is. On digital, it’s a yes or no situation, and sometimes greens and reds can be problematic.” That echoed (among, I’m sure, many others) David Ayer on 2014’s Fury, when he complained of digital’s “very muddy greens,” and Phedon Papamichael on the same year’s Monuments Men, when he flagged digital’s trouble capturing “green trees and green grass,” and balancing that with skin tones. As far as reds go, Seamus McGarvey flagged the same problem while discussing his 35 work on Bad Times at the El Royale: “It’s the way Kodak film responds to color that I particularly love, and in this case its gentle, faithful registering of red, which is recurrent in the movie. Even the latest digital cameras have not yet got that sorted, but on film red is gorgeous, translucent and alive. Also, on sequences involving fires, I could not have properly registered the correct shape, nor the color, of the flames on digital, but on film the results look spectacular.”

More familiar refrains: Philippe Garrel, who has said he’ll quit filmmaking if he can’t shoot on film, stayed true to form with Lover For a Day. Ditto Radu Jude, who maybe hasn’t been quite as actively vocal on the subject but has shot all his features since 2009 on 35; Scarred Hearts even had a print, which I saw projected at a press screening at Anthology Film Archives. (It was the only 35mm print of a new film I saw last year and looked fantastic.) According to DP Ryûto Kondô, despite the “limited budget” of Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Shoplifters, “shooting on film is something Kore-eda cannot compromise on. I got the impression that the film workflow, such as changing the film roll on the set, aligns with Kore-eda’s style.” Per Kore-eda himself, he actually did shoot The Third Murder on digital, so while he can compromise he’d really rather not: “I realize that even if you do it on film, it will ultimately be shown in a digital format. Maybe someone will say, ‘Well, it’s not going to make a difference.’ To me, the visual perspective is somehow different with film than with digital.” Spielberg is a film loyalist, but made the formally logical choice to shoot the “real world” sequences of Ready Player One in 35mm and the OASIS VR world segments in digital. Tom Cruise’s name has recurred as much as any director or DP in these roundups (he prefers 35 for its motion capture properties, among other things). When Mission: Impossible — Fallout DP Rob Hardy came onboard, Cruise and Christopher McQuarrie made it clear that “The prerequisite was to shoot on 35mm film,” a challenge he enjoyed (he hadn’t shot on it since 2013’s The Invisible Woman) after some initial readjustment jitters. As with previous installments, limited use of digital was required—in this case, “although we could have shot [the helicopter stunt scenes] perfectly well on film, the flight logistics of the aircraft and extended takes, meant it was not feasible to keep landing to reload.”

Yorgos Lanthimos shot Alps and The Lobster digitally “out of necessity,” then decided he didn’t “want to shoot digitally again, if at all possible.” After shooting The Killing of a Sacred Deer on 35 with his regular DP Thimios Bakatakis, Lanthimos worked with Robbie Ryan on The Favourite. Ryan is another 35 specialist—among other credits, he’s been Ken Loach’s DP since 2012—so it’s no surprise he’s in line with Lanthimos. “35mm really likes black as a color,” he noted. “The density of the whole nighttime footage is really important in that respect and lovely for it.” Steve McQueen and his regular DP Sean Bobbitt have shot all their features in 35, and that continued with Widows. “On a film you have three different color layers so you’re getting a lot of information in the red, blue and green on every single frame,” Bobbitt says. “Whereas on a digital camera, you only have surface of the chip, so what you get in each pixel is what you get. […] Colorist Tom Poole at Company 3 is the best in the world and knows how to find the hidden stuff in the negative. […] There’s this crazy battle going on about 4K versus 6K versus 12K. At the end of the day as a cinematographer, I’m much more interested in color information and exposure latitude.” (Side-note: McQueen and Bobbitt’s first two features, Hunger and Shame, were shot on 2-perf 35mm. At the time of the first film, Bobbitt was clear on why: “The primary benefit of using 2-perforation is cost, which is of paramount importance to the production, particularly on a low-budget film. For Hunger we were able to shoot 2-perforation with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on 35mm for an additional cost of only £12,500, compared to Super 16.” Their budgets upgraded, both 12 Years a Slave and Widows were accordingly shot on 4-perf 35mm.)

For Vice, Adam McKay (who’s less vocal about it than his colleagues but who’s stuck to film nonetheless) and DP Greig Fraser used a mix of 16 and 35mm. Here, the common reasoning about using film for period reasons applies: “it felt like something you were watching from the period that it was being shot in.” (In this interview, the question is raised whether changing bags and darkrooms are even still being made. In Fraser’s recollection, “I think we had to build a darkroom or at least get rid of all the spare tires and the stuff they stored in the darkroom on the camera truck.”) Jason Reitman applied the same logic to making the Gary Hart drama The Front Runner his first film in 35mm since Up in the Air: “We wanted the film to have a vintage quality to it.” The initial plan was to use 16mm but, says DP Eric Steelberg, “we had such a large cast and so many scenes with lots of people in the background. Unfortunately, the resolution of 16mm, particularly with a higher speed film stock, doesn’t resolve faces in a crowd like you want in a wide shot. It made us nervous, and the producers more so.” One of the lower-key productions on this list, the British horror film Possum, also opted for 35 over 16. Because, according to DP Kit Fraser, the BFI supports shooting on celluloid, the main question became the stock rather than the format, and since director Matthew Holness’s references were “mainly 35mm-originated horror movies from the 1970s, it seemed a natural step for us to shoot Possum on 35mm too.” (The mix of references, including Witchmaster General and Magic, is a refreshing change of pace from the usual ’70s staples.) Another period piece: Michel Hazanavicius’s biopic Godard, Mon Amour, which attempted, among other things, to replicate the look of its subject’s ’60s work. Understandably, per DP Guillaume Schiffman, “we absolutely couldn’t imagine filming in digital.” And it would probably have been foolhardy to shoot a movie named Kodachrome on anything but film (unless, I suppose, the goal was to be formally and conceptually dialectical).

I’m extremely reluctantly including Bohemian Rhapsody, because I think the amount of actual 16/35 in it was tiny (and probably confined to recreating the “I Want to Break Free” video). That factors into my count of 24, while movies shot on 16mm (A Bread Factory, The Old Man & The Gun, Mid90s, Let the Corpses Tan) don’t; director Ted Fendt actually made and showed a print of his 16mm Classical Period, which seems like a greater contribution to celluloid than…Bohemian Rhapsody. Still, self-imposed rules are rules. I’ll close with the biggest honorary mention for a title that doesn’t figure into the number: Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox, shot on 35mm for $43 million. The movie ended up getting an infamous post-Super Bowl Netflix drop, but DP Dan Mindel dropped a salient budgetary insight before Paramount sold it off: “We priced the production for digital versus analog film, and the Paramount executives were convinced it was going to be cheaper for us to shoot it digitally. We estimated that we would shoot between 10 to 15,000 ft of 35mm per day. The overall figure for shooting on film actually came out $150,000 cheaper than digital. This was in part due to the fact that film cameras and film lenses are a fraction of the cost of the digital equivalents, which are rented at top dollar. Additionally, with film you don’t have the expense of a DIT or data storage on set. It was a really good exercise in economics and demonstrated that film production can be perfectly reasonable financially.”

[1] This isn’t strictly true: it seems FilmoTec GmbH, the successor to ORWO, still manufactures a 35mm black and white stock. It just doesn’t seem to come up a lot.

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