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The 27 Movies (More or Less) Shot on 35mm in 2019

(Leader photo courtesy of Carolyn Funk)

in Filmmaking
on Jan 21, 2020

Since I’ve already compiled a shot-on-35mm dossier for each previous year’s US theatrical releases five times, it’s not super-surprising that as soon as the internet learned Detective Pikachu was shot on 35mm, a number of people eagerly tweeted at me to let me know/make sure it wasn’t missed in this year’s edition. Irony poisoning aside, that turns out to be a surprisingly productive place to begin. The official tally of films shot, in whole or part, on 35mm for calendar year 2019 is 27, the total shot solely on 35mm is 18; Pikachu intersects with a number of common refrains. One concerns cost-effectiveness: DP John Mathieson explained to the producers “that when shooting film on set there’s a particular discipline—you roll sound, roll camera, come up to speed and if something goes wrong you cut—unlike in digital where there’s a tendency to just keep the camera rolling and to do takes again and again […] this results in significant overtime costs for the crew over the course of a production, not to mention the hidden dollar costs spent on transcoding, quality control and back-ups. There’s the pricing argument about film versus digital blown straight out of the water.”

This is a variation on a common motif I’ve run into while assembling these lists—working on film makes actors and crew more focused—but arguing that film can actually be more cost-effective than digital in general ups the ante. Mathieson is thinking along the same lines as Rachel Morrison, who shot the period biopic Seberg: “In a weird way, when you don’t have money, the small expense of film compared to what you can’t afford, like picture cars and extras, is a very simple solution. It’s like the second you shoot in film, the moving grain and the softness of the image say ‘period.'” (Another period film, Birds of Passage, considered digital high-definition before co-directors Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego realized, per DP David Gallego, that “35mm would be a better match, bringing the story closer to a 1960s, ’70s, and early ’80s feel.”) Regardless, Ed Lachman was not able to get Dark Waters shot for film, making it Todd Haynes’s first digital feature: “We did tests and I proved to Participant Media that film was cost effective, but there was such pushback.”

Mathieson echoes another colleague when noting that film gives the cinematographer a degree of control digital has taken away: otherwise, “Frames will be lit by committee. You’ll have people over your shoulder, looking at monitors, pointing at spaces to click and change.” Mathieson echoes Rémy Chevrin, speaking of his work on Christophe Honoré’s Sorry Angel: “We live in a day and age when we are seeing the erosion of artistic control, away from DPs and directors, towards other parties who might not share the same artistic vision for a production. […] We must make producers more aware that cinematographers are not button-pushers, and we don’t idly select the equipment from the supermarket of cameras and lenses.”

Back to Pikachu, again (now and forever): in another interview, Mathieson hilariously talked trash on its visual quality versus the misbegotten Sonic the Hedgehog movie: “If all we’re talking about is how these two films look, our film is better than Sonic the Hedgehog and I’m sorry, I don’t care who I upset by saying that, but I think it looks better. There’s no reason why you can’t shoot a film like [Detective Pikachu] or Sonic the Hedgehog on film. If you had, [Sonic the Hedgehog] would look more realistic. I look at Sonic the Hedgehog and I just go ‘yeah whatever.'” Film can make vfx look more realistic when integrated, an argument echoed by Star Wars: Episode IX—The Rise of Skywalker DP Dan Mindel. That this final installment was shot on 35mm isn’t a surprise: the last two were and Episode VII helmer J.J. Abrams is a noted 35mm loyalist, stating unambiguously a few years ago that “if film were to go away—and digital is challenging it—then the standard for the highest, best quality would go away.” Mindel is a 35mm specialist whose name comes up a lot in these roundups, and he echoes Mathieson’s reasoning: “Synthetic CG animated and VFX elements are crisp and clean when they are emitted from the computer and can often look false when combined with digital live action. But the improvements in film scanning, combined with post treatment using grain patterns and filmic emulations, mean that the CG and VFX elements blend incredibly well with the live action shot on celluloid […] you simply cannot see the join.”

Skywalker intersected with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood by getting a crucial gear assist in motion. On Tarantino’s production, Robert Richardson wanted to use Panavision’s T Series lenses, but those had been designed solely for digital—fortunately for him, the company’s Dan Sasaki had just retrofitted the rear halves of a set of lenses for Skywalker: as he says, “We realized we’d made a mistake by not making them film-compatible. It’s amazing how much film work we’re doing.” For me, what makes Hollywood the 35mm feat of the year is how right the two fake ’60s films Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton starred in look—the grain, colors et al. precisely emulate long-dead film stocks in a way I know longer thought technically possible. How did they do it? No live grain digital overlays here: as f/x supervisor John Dykstra explained in an email:

All the period imagery was captured on film and then taken through a dupe process by FotoKem film lab. We made an element off the original negative using print stock, instead of inter-negative that is normally used for this duplication step. We then made a new negative off that print. Using print stock instead of inter-negative increased the grain and contrast of the new negative. We varied the exposure and processing of each step of the duplication to amplify the grain, compress the saturation and increase the contrast. In some cases we added a little degradation, scratches, dirt and gate hair to complete the illusion.

Tarantino screens dailies, as did Star Wars: per Mindel, “The proximity of the lab meant we could process and scan the negative overnight, and then review and color the dailies in the 007 Theatre [editor’s note: !!] next morning […] It allowed me to make any adjustment to the on-set lighting for the coming day’s shoot, and for all other departments to evaluate and adjust their work accordingly as well.” Sorry Angel graded its dailies as well, making post-production more cost-effective. For Queen & Slim DP Tat Radcliffe, getting re-acquainted with doing dailies on film was a learning curve, but the real challenge was finding crew “who understood the film cameras, like the loading aspect as fewer people know how to do it. [1st AC] Chris[topher Flurry] was my point man on that.”

In previous years, I’ve noted that few new directors seem to be shooting on 35mm unless they’re working on huge studio productions, but this year there are more. One is Queen director Melina Matsoukas, another is Greta Gerwig, who went from Lady Bird‘s digital to 35mm for Little Women. There were five more sophomore feature filmmakers working on 35mm. László Nemes managed to get his debut Son of Saul not just shot and partially released on 35mm, but press-screened that way, so it’s no surprise he shot Sunset on 35mm as well—the format, he says, is  “how cinema should defend itself rather than trying to be television and beat it at that ground game. It’s not gonna happen.” Robert Eggers went from digital on The Witch to not just 35mm for The Lighthouse but black-and-white at that. Per DP Jarin Blaschke, “Double X is available, just not hundreds of thousands of feet, which is what we needed. At least we knew the stock we were getting was fresh, so that was an advantage. Kodak needs about a six-week lead time. We gave our first estimate, saw how much we were using and somewhere in the middle of the shoot we put in another order which we hoped they would get to us before we ran out of the first batch.” (The year’s other 35mm black-and-white production was The Painted Bird, for which I can only find the not terribly-illuminating comment from director Vaclav Marhoul that “Film negative is very special […] This is a psychological thriller and if you want to stay true to that form, color will damage that. Black and white is correct, absolutely correct.”) And it’s not surprising that Louis Garrel’s A Faithful Man was on 35mm; so was his first feature, and in that artistic respect he is very much his father Philippe’s son (the elder Garrel has repeatedly said he will stop making films altogether if he can’t shoot on film). Yann Gonzalez’s Knife+Heart was mostly 35mm, although its recreations of vintage gay porn were appropriately shot on 16mm. An extra level of difficulty was added when, for a sequence taking place in a movie theater, the production “decided to play the analog game 100% and screened all the footage that appears on screen with a real 35mm projector that we brought specially to this soon-to-be destroyed movie theater. Synchronizing the screened reels with the action taking place in front of them was a real chore.”

Abel Ferrara’s Pasolini premiered in 2014, the first year covered for this survey, but only got release now. The most I could find on its 35mm aspect, via a Google-Translated Italian interview with Ferrara, veers philosophical: projected film runs fast at 24 fps, but the darkness between each frame totals around 10 minutes, “so when we sit in the room and experience these 10 minutes of black, this is the experience of cinema. We all find ourselves dreaming in the dark. With digital, on the other hand, you don’t have this moment—it’s a different experience.We all have a precise memory of the films of the past […] but we don’t know if the digital memory will be the same, if it will have the same power.” Julius Onah made his first feature, 2015’s The Girl is In Trouble, on 35mm, and to date has only shot his features on it: “That’s not to say that there aren’t movies that have been shot electronically that don’t look great or do something really interesting”—The Social Network and Mad Max: Fury Road are the hyper-digital-looking examples he cites—but especially for Luce, adapted from a play and hence “a movie like this where it’s easy for it to feel a little flat because there are a lot of conversations, I love just feeling that grain dancing.” (And, he notes, he won his DP, Larkin Seiple over: he hadn’t done it since film school, but since shot Childish Gambino’s “This is America” music video on film and, Onah speculates, “loves it. I don’t think he might even want to go back now.”)

Noah Baumbach has shot both digital and film but prefers the latter: Meyerowitz Stories and Marriage Story are 35mm (and were exhibited on prints as well). Of the latter, DP Robbie Ryan says that “Noah is obsessive about digital fades to black not being very good, so we ended up [practically] doing the fades to black […] Quite a lot of stuff is done in post these days, so you’d leave it to that time, but when there’s fingers on the triggers of the iris, I was like, ‘Ooh! You have Scarlett Johansson crying. I’d better fade at the right time, or she’s going to have to do it again.'” If Baumbach’s digital films (Frances Ha and While We’re Young) still try to look filmic, Harmony Korine leans heavily into whichever format he works with, embracing lo-fi digital enthusiastically in Trash Humpers; for The Beach Bumhe reteamed with Spring Breakers DP Benoit Debie for more saturated 35mm Florida footage. Debie enthused that “the outstanding merit of using LEDs with celluloid film is that you can see and feel the separation of the colors you create on-set. With digital, it’s very difficult to see any layers of color. Take green for example, you can record green digitally, but it’s hard to register the cyan, yellow or red inside this green. But the nuances are all there on film.”

A similar enthusiasm for using new technologies to create fresh possibilities for celluloid was taken much further in vociferous 35mm advocate James Gray’s Ad Astra, which faced a logistical problem in capturing enough light to make a lunar chase sequence seem realistically dark without resorting to CG: as DP Hoyte van Hoytema explained, “Our challenge was the inability to light up a big area with a single light source. We needed to cover enough distance to be able to shoot a ‘car chase,’ but double shadows or soft light would be a big giveaway.” Solution: a 35mm camera and an Alexa infrared mounted on a 3D rig, their parallaxes exactly aligned. When only infrared spectrums are captured, daylight skies come out darker, so “shot in natural sunlight, with a slight contrast boost, it will result in images that are brightly lit; however, the skies will be dark, even in helmet reflections. This way, when shooting in a desert that resembles the moon surface, you will get a step closer to the lighting character on the real moon.” But these infrared images come out black-and-white; overlaid with the 35mm capture, the two cameras provide “all the color information and texture needed to complete the final image, by compositing these two together” (plus a CG assist).

A quick roll call of notable 16mm 2019 release—including The Souvenir (a 16/digital hybrid), plus the all-16mm Chained for Life (which had a 35mm print made for release) and Give Me Liberty—before covering some 35/digital hybrids. The film which had the most formats this year was almost certainly Jia Zhangke’s Ash is Purest White, whose three parts span the 1980s to 2017. Its middle segment is shot on 35mm, but its opening act goes from miniDV to HD, 2K and 4K, while the third segment is Redcode RAW 6K. For Jia, this ramping up isn’t just to separate periods with time-appropriate gear, but a way “to really recount the evolution and the histories of the DV technology […] you can really see that the quality of the image is somehow getting better and better or sharper and sharper in terms of resolution.” Less overwhelming in its sheer number of formats, director/DP Beniamino Barrese’s documentary portrait of his mom, The Disappearance of My Motherused both a Sony FS7 and Canon C300 to capture her present life, 16mm for a “casting call” sequence and archival recreations and 35mm for the finale. “That was a big struggle,” he noted. “The producer was always like, ‘Come on, this is such a spoiled film school attitude to just want to shoot on film.'” But, as Barrese observes, that allowed him to use “the ‘mother’ of every filming format, 35mm, for the imagination of my mother’s future.” Two more nonfiction films: assembled from static tableaus of Chinese life captured over 10 years, Wang Xiaoshuai’s Chinese Portrait has precisely 28 35mm shots to go along with its digital component. Todd Douglas Miller’s Apollo 11 was assembled from 16, 35 and 70mm archival footage, although the 35 component was entirely on-the-ground. This year’s weirdest, and most dubious inclusion is Joker, all-digital except for its opening titles, shot on 35mm over an animation stand—as Todd Phillips explains towards the end of this video, this creates grain dancing within the letters of the title and around it, visually connecting back to the late ’70s/early ’80s films Joker is aspiring to emulate. [Edit: there is one 35mm shot in Knives Out, shot on Rian Johnson’s birthday as a present from DP Steve Yedlin, who knew the writer-director was bummed about switching to digital.]

To make the de-aging scenes in  The Irishman (real title, c’mon: I Heard You Paint Houses) work, 35mm loyalist Martin Scorsese had no choice but to shoot them digitally—the film’s extended epilogue sequence, though, is celluloid. To make digital and film match, an ILM team led by Pabro Helman applied proprietary live grain onto the digital image, though, as DP Rodrigo Prieto (correctly, in my opinion) notes, “There’s a big difference between applying layers of grain on top of an image versus creating an image with grain, so that’s the struggle we sometimes have. I feel it and notice it, but I think that’s irrelevant. For the audience, I think the grain and the LUTs made it pretty coherent.” Less noted as a film/digital hybrid was the Safdie brothers’ Uncut Gems, whose aggressively grainy, overtly “filmic” look is the result of heavily pushing tight 35mm negative one stop. But there’s digital in there too—I’m not sure how much, but one example is the scene of Adam Sandler outside a nightclub. Per colorist Damien Van der Cruyssen, “There are a fair amount of digital scenes in the movie and we really wanted everything to feel cohesive, so we had to have a pipeline and color journey that worked well for digital and film.” That meant, among other things, asking the crew (as Daron James writes) “to shoot additional grain elements that were then scanned at 4K and sampled over the digital scenes.”

Let’s finish this year’s round-up with Her Smell, Alex Ross Perry’s first on 35mm, leaping up from the 16mm of his first five features. Most of this was shot in 2-perf, with its concert scenes in 4-perf (“full-on Verhoeven style,” per this interview). As Perry explained in an email:

I wanted the aspect ratio that 2-perf would inherently get us, and yes, financially it essentially makes shooting 35mm close(ish) in terms of shooting ratio and cost to shooting Super 16mm. I believe even into the shoot we were still trying to pull off shooting the concert scenes in 65mm, mostly because I have amassed a supply of 65mm short ends and thought they would be fun to use.even wondering if we could change aspect ratios in an extreme way for these scenes. The only thing that prevented us from doing this was camera availability. So then we figured, “Let’s just do full anamorphic 4-perf (which were all at the end of the shoot).” But it is not like we lit 20 days differently in order to match 3 days of 4-perf shooting. We just knew that it would be weird to have flares only present at first and then, despite being a super-wide frame, albeit a flat one, no flares of any kind which is kind of what your eye is trained to want from a frame like that.

The dark punchline: the Safdies’ Good Time was the first time Sean Price Williams shot 35mm, while Her Smell marked his first time shooting anamorphic 35mm. The same 2-perf camera bodies were used for both productions, and both were destroyed in a fire last May on the set of Derek Cianfrance’s limited HBO series I Know This Much is True.

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