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The 29 Features Shot, In Whole or In Part, on 35mm in U.S. Release Year 2023

35mm on a lighted (image by Carolyn Funk)

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in Issues, Line Items
on Dec 15, 2023

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During the NBA playoffs this year, a Miller Lite commercial unexpectedly compelled my attention. The frames’ edges were rounded, the images’ scratches conspicuous—this was either shot on film or trying very hard to look like it. Further digging confirmed the spot (title: “You Never Forget”) was shot on 35mm, perhaps in keeping with its nostalgic world of bars with CD jukeboxes and cathode-ray TVs. I’d often read over the past decade that commercials and music videos have been using celluloid with increasing frequency; collating this year’s (tenth!) annual edition of U.S.-released features shot in whole or part on 35mm [2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022], I found myself wondering how the ways film stock is processed molds our current ideas of what “filmic” looks like. 

Especially over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of 16mm used for narrative shorts and features that, in their final DCP rendering, don’t look so much like “film” as brutally limited parodies of same—fat pixels locked in place, unmissable and nearly unmoving, like Flash animation exported to 8mm and inexplicably projected on an IMAX-size screen. But the 35mm stocks that remain in production are generally low on grain. In that respect, after post is done and the final DCP created, it’s not totally clear what the source format’s remaining tangible contribution is. Grain overlays are getting more uncannily indistinguishable from the real thing—see, for example, Steve Yedlin’s algorithmic grain simulation in Rian Johnson’s digitally captured Glass Onion for an example that, to my non-technically trained eye, looks spot-on. At least, that was the case when I saw it theatrically; friends have told me it looks nothing like that on Netflix’s platform. The streamer’s originals, especially as mediated by the compression techniques used to stream them, have their own widely noted distinctive (read: muddy) look—one some viewers have gotten so used to that anything outside that norm can confuse them. To emulate the ’70s films it used as reference points, Heart of Stone, the platform’s Gal Godot–starring thriller, was shot as much as possible on 35mm, using digital supplementally for low-light situations. “You get so used to the crispness and clarity of digital that it was scary seeing the rushes,” DP George Steel told IndieWire’s Jim Hemphill. “I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is quite soft and quite grainy.’” For all his pains, at least one Reddit user was confused. “The Grainy filter on ‘Heart of Stone’ is super annoying,” “bendi95” wrote on the r/Netflix sub-Reddit. “Just wanted to post this opinion in hopes that Maybe Netflix employees read[s] it [and] maybe [brings it] up internally. […] I know they can’t remove it at this point, but maybe movies won’t include it as often in the future.”

Whether (cheaper) two- or three-perforation or (more expensive) four-perforation 35mm is used also makes a difference because the bigger the frame the less grain is crowded into it and vice versa. (If this is confusing, a simple way to think about it is that the number of perforations defines the height of the frame. The more perforations there are, the greater the frame’s overall area and the less conspicuous the appearance of grain within it is.) Discussing Steve McQueen’s Occupied City with François Reumont on the French Society of Cinematographers’ website, DP Lennert Hillege observed that he shot the film in four-perf 35mm, and “the first few weeks I was very surprised by the feel and definition in the image. I used the full range of Kodak stock available, according to the needed sensitivity, and the film texture became practically unnoticeable. The transfer to digital was as neutral and transparent as possible. I think that this concept of ‘texture’ which we attribute to celluloid film has a lot to do with the use of [three-perf] or [two-perf], popularized since the advent of digital; or, when there’s ‘grain’ in the image, and that it moves, it ‘has to be’ celluloid film.” Cinematographer Norm Li shot Luis De Filippis’ independent film Something You Said Last Night and reached adjacent conclusions. “When Luis and I first met, I was ecstatic that she had already made her decision to shoot on 35mm,” he wrote in an email. “What we did discuss during pre-production was whether we would shoot 2-, 3- or 4-perf 35mm. Luis was really interested in framing for 1.85 for the specific environment and characters. It made sense to shoot 3-perf 35mm for not only the appropriate aspect ratio, but also because 3-perf acquisition provides a perceivably cleaner negative for any low-light scenarios. It was scanned using a Spirit 2K scanner at Kodak Atlanta. We did the 2K DI grade in Switzerland with colorist Patrick Lindenmaier. The scans were so clean that we had to actually add some subtle film grain texture back into the image after we did the final grade of the film.” Conclusion drawn: There are direct, surprisingly simple material reasons related to the literal size of the frame that defines what “filmic” often looks like now.

As for 35mm’s color properties, those are similarly rendered less conspicuous by the limitations of the DCPs making up the majority of the contemporary theatrical experience. Among other problems, they can’t render a true black, only a substitute milky grey, hence cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto’s frustration when discussing his work on Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon with The Film Stage’s Nick Newman. Minus a few scenes, the film was shot, per usual for Scorsese, on 35mm, but the final version you see will be compromised unless you shell out for a premium viewing format. “I think my favorite version of the film is Dolby Vision,” Prieto explained. “The main reason for that is that it has the deepest, purest black, and more detail, also, in the shadows and the highlights. The film has some pretty dark scenes or dark moments—let’s say ‘dark backgrounds’—and so on a regular DCP that’s actually not pure black. And that’s [laughs] a little frustrating to me.”

One of several older auteurs dedicated to still using the format, Scorsese’s presence on this list any year he has a new narrative feature is a given. Other longtime 35mm loyalists with new work this year include Aki Kaurismäki (Fallen Leaves), Christophe Honoré (Winter Boy) and Wes Anderson, who’s been using not just film but the same tungsten stock (Kodak Vision3 200T 5213) since testing a number for 2012’s Moonrise Kingdom. The goal is consistency of look, although the introduction of black and white in The French Dispatch meant that Eastman Double-X 5222 is now also in the mix. That stock was back in this year’s Asteroid City, as was digital capture for stop-motion sequences shot by Anderson’s regular stop-motion DP Tristan Oliver (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Isle of Dogs); Anderson’s regular live-action DP Robert Yeoman told Zoe Mutter in a British Cinematographer interview that “as ever, matching digital stills shot spherically to anamorphic 35mm was interesting.” 

Newer to working on 35mm only is M. Night Shyamalan, who went digital for years before returning to the format for Old. That continued with Knock at the Cabin, shot by both Jarin Blaschke and Lowell A. Meyer. Speaking with British Cinematographer’s Helen Parkinson, Meyer said the choice was in part motivated by Shyamalan’s desire to have the film look like a ’90s thriller. While the film’s most-used stock was VISION3 250D 5207/7207, the final scene was shot on VISION3 500T 5219/7219. As Meyer explained, “We shot this final scene breaking the fourth wall using the EyeDirect Mark II, this prosumer documentary device. It’s a little mirror box that you put in front of the lens that’s used for documentaries so that the director can sit next to the camera. But employing it eats a stop of light: so, not only were we trying to make this feel like a dark scene, but the camera needed more light than normal just to get to a healthy exposure. I thought, ‘Okay, why don’t I break the rules we’ve established? If everything else has been shot 250D and as bright as possible, why don’t I shoot 500T and make it feel a little bit moodier, milkier and scarier?’”

Robbie Ryan is one of the cinematographers whose name most often recurs in these roundups for his work with 35mm loyalists including Ken Loach, Noah Baumbach and Yorgos Lanthimos. On Poor Things, Ryan shot Ektachrome. Speaking to Awards Watch’s Daniel Bayer, he explained how the previously discontinued stock, which had been recently brought back into production on 16mm, became available again on 35mm thanks to a large order from Euphoria DP Marcell Rév when the show switched from a digital first season to a film-based second: “They only brought it out in 16mm stock. So obviously they have it on a big roll. And Marcell asked them, could they cut it to 35mm because he was doing Euphoria, and they said yes. He shot on that and there were a couple of rolls left of that. So we were able to test on it, and the results we got back were really fantastic.” Because Ektachrome processes as a positive rather than a negative, you can “literally look at the roll and you could see all these positive images […]. And because of the nature of that, when you scan it’s a bit more colorful, a bit more contrasty.” Not only that, Ryan shot Emma Stone’s reanimation scene in the VistaVision 1.66 format, a first for Ektachrome. “I don’t know why VistaVision died away as a format,” he said. “It’s the only time I really think you [use] 35mm to its full advantage, because it’s effectively shooting it like you would an SLR camera. You get twice your size of negative space.” Rév also shot Christos Nikou’s Fingernails “on 35mm because we tried to create something that looks timeless,” as the director told Hammer to Nail’s Jack Schenker. “That’s why we also kept even all the scratches and dirt that [are] on the screen. We kept it and we tried to make it look like an old film. I believe that it’s like a movie that was shot probably at the end of the nineties and somebody put it in a time capsule and right now people are discovering it.”

Charlotte Bruus Christensen is another avid 35mm cinematographer. “I always fight for film,” she told her anonymous Kodak interviewer about working on Sharper. “We are way beyond the crisis when people thought film was dead.” One of that thriller’s visual reference points was Klute, and director Benjamin Caron told The Film Stage’s Dan Mecca that the production held a medium-specific screening at MoMA: “We managed to get a 35mm print and we invited all the cast.” Mátyás Erdély shot 35mm for The Iron Claw, just like he and Sean Durkin did for their previous collaboration, The Nest. “Film is my first choice,” Erdély wrote in an email. “I try to work with directors who share a similar taste with me. With Sean Durkin it is not even a discussion.” Perhaps foremost among Hollywood’s 35mm-specializing cinematographers is Linus Sandgren, who since relocating from his native Sweden to the United States, hasn’t shot a single feature digitally, beginning with 2012’s Promised Land. That streak continued on Saltburn. “[Director] Emerald [Fennell] wanted to shoot on film, as did [producer] Margot [Robbie], and I was in complete agreement,” Sandgren told his Kodak interviewer. “Of course, we could have gone with 16mm, but it was pretty clear that 35mm would deliver more beautiful and much crisper images, rich and juicy looking with deep contrasty blacks. To me 16mm would have been too naturalistic and too close to human emotions. Shooting 35mm, with its finer grain, would allow us to heighten the luxurious elements of the set and costume design.” Another British production, The End We Start From, was shot on two-perf 35mm, cinematographer Suzie Lavelle confirmed in an email. “I just kept asking for us to have it and didn’t stop,” diretor Mahalia Belo wrote in a message. “I’d shot my graduation short film Volume on 35mm and knew what feelings it could evoke in the viewer, and knew for this film specifically it was justified. […] The producers did a comparison on a recent digitally shot film of the same budget and discovered that 35mm didn’t bring up the cost particularly. So, retrospectively, it wasn’t more expensive.”

One esoteric use of 35mm in an otherwise all-digital production came in Fast X. The franchise made the transition from film to digital starting with the hybrid capture of 2015’s Furious 7. Fast X has a flashback in which Jason Momoa’s character is retconned into alternate takes of a scene in 2011’s Fast Five. “It was completely essential that we looked at all the dailies,” director Louis Leterrier explained to The Hollywood Reporter’s Brian Davids. “Universal Studios has an amazing archival department, and so we dug it all out and looked at everything. Our movie was shot digitally, because most movies are shot digitally now, but Fast Five was shot on 35mm. So we transferred all the footage and realized afterwards what unused footage that we could use and tweak. So we put our characters into pre-existing footage through motion control and CG, and then we also shot new bits with the same film stock and cameras as Fast Five. Stephen Windon was our DP, and […] he also shot Fast Five, and he remembered exactly what he did and what his light meter read back then. So it looks and feels seamless.” 

A 35mm camera was also used for one flashback sequence in the otherwise digital Creed III, an Arri 2C operated with a hand crank during a scene where Adonis Creed remembers the abusive foster home he grew up in. “You can remove the motor and then put a gear on,” DP Kramer Morgenthau explained during a phone call. “It drives the movement with a hand crank, the way the original movie cameras were before electric motors were added, like Billy Bitzer. This is a modified camera, so it gets an inconsistent motor speed, which gives fluctuations in the exposure, and you can do things like backwind it and wind it through again and get double exposures. You can play with this frame rate by hand and by feel, speeding and slowing the motor and getting a feeling of a memory fragment. It would be a particularly hard thing to do digitally.” Andrew Haigh’s All of Us Strangers was shot on 35mm, minus the LED backdrops used for the set of Andrew Scott’s apartment. Those were captured on the Sony Venice 8K, “a decision partly based on the idea of this kind of collision of technology between 35mm real film and digital,” DP Jamie Ramsay told No Film School’s Jourdan Aldredge—“the idea that even in his apartment, there’s something slightly off about the presence of reality.”

Two all-analogue-but-different-formats movies pair unexpectedly appositely. Pietro Marcello’s Scarlet was largely shot on 16mm. “It is a story about an artisan, literally handcrafting his way through life,” cinematographer Marco Graziaplena wrote in an email, so it was “natural to shoot in an analog way.” While the 16mm was used for a “documentary style,” 35mm was used for VFX shots; as Graziaplena noted, “35mm [has] less grain, and it is easier for VFX to work [in] 35mm.” (This is roughly the same logic used by Steven Spielberg, who went from 35mm to 70mm in Close Encounters of the Third Kind to make the introduction of stop-motion effects less noticeable.) Oppenheimer also used 35mm for special effects, but stepping down from 65mm and IMAX, as Hoyte van Hoytema explained to Matt Mulcahey, “for extreme high speed shots of all these tiny atomic particles. We didn’t use 35mm on the main unit at all. With an IMAX camera, we can shoot up to 60 frames per second or something like that, but if you want to shoot 120 frames per second or higher, you very quickly have to resort to 35mm, which was absolutely adequate for what we wanted.”

On the opposite end of the budgetary scale: to get the go-ahead to shoot Sick of Myself on 35mm, Kristoffer Borgli told his anonymous Kodak interviewer that his producers initially said it was “out of the question given the low budget. Rather than capitulate, we proposed to them that we cut three days off the schedule—from 33 down to 30 days—and shoot 2-perf on 35mm to help with stock and processing costs.” Another cost-cutting compromise, he told Hero’s Arijana Zeric, was that he “volunteered to edit the movie for free.” Less drastically, on Léa Mysius’s The Five Devils, “our shooting time was pushed by a year because of COVID-19, and so we lost a lot of money,” she told Isaac Feldberg in an interview for The Playlist. “We had to rethink the film in many ways, in terms of production, because we no longer had the money that we planned on. And the first thing that I was told was, ‘Well, you know, cut out the 35mm film because it’s expensive.’ […] But I had worked together with my cinematographer and co-screenwriter, Paul Guilhaume, on a short that was on film. And we realized that, because of my way of working on set, it was not going to be that much of a problem because I don’t shoot that much. […] For The Five Devils, I had agreed to an hour and a half of rushes each day. And I would just do an hour and just a few minutes. Sometimes it was a little more, sometimes a little less, but on average, it would be an hour a day. All of a sudden, because of this style I had, it worked out really well because it wasn’t a constraint after all.”

While making his five-year passion project, Ryan Stevcns Harris shot Moon Garden on a variety of 35mm stocks—it’s the only film on this year’s list to include the long-defunct Fuji. “We were hunting for film stock for a while, gathering it through a variety of sources,” Harris wrote in an email. “But the most notable find came when my producer John Elfers discovered a treasure trove of over 100K feet of film stock that was stored in an old filmmaker’s basement in Omaha, Nebraska. Much of the stock was from the ’80s and ’90s, and it included Kodak 5212 (100T), 5201 (50D), 5205 (250D), 5246 (250D), 5218 (500T), 5274 (200T), plus more eclectic stocks like 5245 (50D EXR) and black and white stocks (5231 and 5222). It also included a batch of Fuji, mostly 400T (8582 and 8583). We negotiated the price and arranged delivery through family I had out in Nebraska and were able to secure the entire amount. The stock, however, was not well cared for. The tape on the rolls was brittle and crumbling, and many of the cans were badly damaged. Other short ends could be heard scraping around inside the cans. First, we got the primary stocks snip-tested at Fotokem, which revealed all the stocks were ‘unusable,’ meaning they had slowly exposed over time, where the top layer of blue had seeped into the negative. So, we shot some tests and indeed the footage came back heavily tinted in deep midnight blue, punctuated by heavy grain and film artifacts. With modern color techniques, however, we were able to yank the footage back into its correct spectrum, which resulted in this deep, rich, hypersaturated and heavy grain aesthetic which I truly feel in love with. Overall, we relied mostly on Kodak 5212 (100T), as it maintained its integrity over time, being the least damaged as it’s the slower film stock. We then would overexpose it by a full stop and a half, which meant we were pumping in heavy high wattage lights into our sets, and still retain deep dark shadows. In general, we avoided the Fuji, as when their stock ages it gets gummy around the core of the roll, so the lab would have issues cleaning off the remjet [a protective layer at the base of the film] even with multiple passes in the bath. This causes white remjet specks to dance over the image, as they couldn’t be cleaned off as the stock was so gummy, clinging to the negative.”

For Celine Song on Past Lives, “the joke is that I had two divas on set,” but, as she told Collider’s Perri Nemiroff, neither were actors—“it was New York City and my 35mm film camera.” Speaking with Above the Line’s Daniel Eagan, she expanded on one dimension of the latter: its bulky size and attendant implications for locations. She said, “My crew would complain that the camera wouldn’t fit on the staircase. Okay, we’d find another shithole and I’d be like, ‘This is perfect.’ Everyone would say, ‘It’s too small, it’s too shitty.’ Finally, we landed on this railroad flat where at least you could get a little depth with the camera. It was the right solution for the picture, but because it was a shithole as well, the floor creaked every time the camera moved. Our poor sound editor had to delete all these creaks.” Another first-time feature director, Raven Jackson, told Miriam Bale in a Film Comment interview that she and cinematographer Jomo Fray were always going to use film for All Dirt Roads Lead to Salt but had also considered 16mm, deciding on 35mm after a week of tests prior to preproduction. Fray added that “we only used one stock, even though this movie takes place in different time periods. For Raven and me, these are not flashbacks or flash-forwards. Every single moment, every single frame in this movie, is about [main character] Mack dealing with the present-tense stakes of her life at that given moment.” 

Choosing instead to heighten the contradictions for Bradley Cooper’s Maestro, Matthew Libatique shot 35mm in black-and-white and color and in two aspect ratios—“I think Bradley liked the conflict,” he told Deadline’s Zac Ntim of the switch from Academy ratio to 1.85. Shooting Godland in the Academy ratio, Hlynur Pálmason told Loud and Clear’s William Stottor that his previous “A White, White Day was shot in super 35mm. It isn’t a large format, but it is a very wide format. It fitted for that film, but I had difficulties working with it and didn’t feel that excited to frame with it. I was looking and testing other formats and tried the old Academy format. I tested it and it is a larger format. I found it depicted landscapes and nature a lot better.” It also matched the large-format photography camera used by the film’s protagonist, a 19th-century priest, to shoot the landscape. As reported by Danny Leigh in the Financial Times, Pálmason himself keeps a 35mm still camera in his car, “used as a visual notebook.” For Andrea Pallaoro’s Monica, cinematographer Katelin Arizmendi wrote in an email that for this “extremely intimate film with a first-person perspective into a woman reconnecting with her family […] we were very closeup on Monica and her mother Eugenia, and because 35mm is more forgiving than digital, it provides a level of relief for the actors, focusing their conscious less on the superficial.” (The only movie this year for which I really don’t have any meaningful 35mm info is the Italian action movie Last Night of Amore, although I did check to confirm my hunch that the lead character is named Amore.)

I want to give the final word this year to James N. Kienitz Wilkins. When I started assembling this list a decade ago, I made some basic eligibility rules to work from—but I never specified that the 35mm images in question had to be moving. Therefore, Wilkins’s Still Film, whose title is obviously remarkably convenient for my purposes, is eligible, its visuals consisting entirely of 35mm slides from press kits ranging fro 1982 to 2001, before the era of EPKs and easily downloadable publicity stills. Still Film imagery is composed of 140 such slides, each one standing in for a whole movie; the number matches the number of slots on a Kodak projector carousel. Wilkins acquired the slides for the film and scanned them in 4K, but their acquisition was sometimes a fraught process. “Some sellers way overvalued their slides and refused to take a ‘best offer,’” he wrote in an email. “I exchanged some spicy words with a pompous European ‘collector’ and argued that not only the slides, but the very movies depicted were literally not worth what was being asked—Renaissance Man, in particular. Who else but me wants a slide of Renaissance Man? ‘Take it or leave it, buddy, I am the Renaissance Man,’ I wanted to scream. A fun fact about the BAM screening [where the film had its initial theatrical run] is that I acquired a rusty old print of the theatrical trailer for Renaissance Man (35mm flat w/optical). Jesse Trussell of BAM was amazingly game to screen it before the four Hollywood movies we selected as a sidebar. It looked great, and surely confused audiences into expecting more ’90s DeVito than BAM could provide—we couldn’t trace the actual movie.”

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