Shooting A New Feature on Super 8: Director Matthew Wade on the Three Years It Took to Complete How the Sky Will Melt
Matthew Wade‘s How the Sky Will Melt premieres September 1st on NoBudge.com. In this guest post, he explains the difficulties of shooting a Super 8 feature and completing post-production over the course of the last three years.
There are two questions I’ve become all too familiar with since prepping my first feature film, How the Sky Will Melt, three years ago (principal photography took place October 2012). The first and most common were “Are you crazy?”
The question is not asked because I want to make a movie, or even a feature length movie, nor even necessarily that I’m choosing to shoot a feature length movie on film stock. It is, rather, usually the response to my saying “…and I’m shooting on super 8mm.”
Super 8? For, like, our grandparents’ home movies?
The inevitable second question that came up at some point in the subsequent, always unexpected, interrogation of why I would do such a thing was “Do they still even make that stuff?”
I found myself defending the choice to shoot this old small gauge film more than I ever anticipated I would have to. This comes, of course, from other filmmakers. The common idea is that you shoot on whatever is newest with the largest sensor and blah, blah, blah. Shooting on film is considered either hipster or pretentious (often one and the same) to a lot of younger filmmakers that grew up in a time where they never needed to shoot film in order to achieve a good image.
These questions of why on earth I’d waste so much time and money shooting on something like film, let alone a generally novice format like S8mm, came each time I pitched the film. That is, until I stopped trying to contextualize the idea of the movie to every person who wanted details and instead responded with the pre-loaded “Just wait until you see it. It will make sense then.” I will try to tackle two things at once in writing this: to explain why I chose to shoot Super 8mm for this specific project and to simultaneously describe the process we went through to shoot a movie on an outdated format whose infrastructure, at least in the U.S., was dying around us as we shot. Let me also preface this with the following, as it inevitably comes up: I am not a film purist, nor am I a gear head. I know what I need to know to shoot the kinds of movies I want to shoot. I hate talking about the newest cameras and resolutions and all of that. I exclusively shot film for all of my projects leading up to and including How the Sky Will Melt. Digital technology has gotten far better and more affordable since I started this movie back in 2012.
There is no way I could make How the Sky Will Melt today. The infrastructure, as weak as it was in 2012, is far worse now for small gauge filmmakers. The price of the stock and processing has become absurd, almost double what we paid then. New film cameras, meant to be part of some revival of Super 8, are more expensive than current digital cameras capable of shooting RAW 4K and the film cameras still require the additional costs of processing, telecine, and hard drive storage space. That was a big part of the initial decision to shoot Super 8 in the beginning; I could see the writing on the wall and knew that if I waited any longer, the opportunity to shoot my movie the way I envisioned it would be out of my fingers. My idea needed to be shot on S8mm; there was just no other way to capture it. We just pulled the trigger and with only a couple grand dedicated to the budget (enough to get us about 1/3 of the stock we would need to complete the shoot) we set everything into motion.
The film takes place in another time, at some point in the not-too-distant past (though it is not what I would call a period piece). This unspecified time is important to the atmosphere and plot of the film. It was also important to me to never say exactly when the film takes place within the actual movie itself. I set a cutoff year for technology, the film’s score, and fashion that we as filmmakers would use as our world’s limits when creating everything that went in front of the camera and into the audio. Along with those self-imposed limits on art and costume design, I also wanted to implement restrictions into the way we shot it, which meant using camera technology that only reached up to a certain point (meaning we had to shoot either on video tape, which I actually used just a bit in post for certain effects, or film).
Why not just use super 8 film filters in post?
I can tell they are filters and they distract me.
They are really good now. Nobody can tell.
They aren’t good. And I can tell.
In writing and then designing the film, I always envisioned it being a kind of artifact, or some memory of a film you’ve never actually seen; as if you were half-asleep on your couch in the middle of the night with some odd, late night cable movie playing in and out of your subconscious while you drifted through the stages of a shallow slumber. I watched many movies this way in my youth, which, for better or worse, informs a certain amount of my current aesthetic.
I wanted to use a film format that had been around for so long because I wanted there to be no discernible time period for the movie’s production and release upon a random viewing. Even digital filters will leave a timestamp of when the movie was made and I just didn’t want that in there. I would always see it and it would always torment me. Another thing, people assume S8mm can or should only be used for making something hammy or as B-roll. It’s never mentioned as an option for “serious filmmakers,” which is sad. I adore the way S8mm, and small gauge in general, looks and wanted to shoot a sincere, thought-out film on it the way one would with an Alexa or RED camera now. It wasn’t an attempt to be camp. It was a real and personal film to me that needed to be expressed on this format and this format alone.
In early 2012 I had a script, commitments from a very small but talented crew (lead by my friend Chaz Gentry, a super solid gaffer with his own grip and electric company), my friend and recent AFI graduate Yong Jin Kim as D.P., and a solid cast, all my first choices (Sara Lynch, Annika Karlsen, Scott Alonzo, and Mike Webster, none of whom had ever been in a feature film before) coming in from LA, Vancouver, and Toronto. I had also scrounged a little bit of starter money from friends in the production itself (no outside “investors” were ever involved) to buy some of the initial film. We all showed up in Idaho in October 2012 and began to do the fun stuff, aka, shoot the movie.
The actors were well aware that the film loads were short (shooting at 24fps on Super 8, the longest take we could do before changing rolls was about 2.5 minutes). This is a stressful situation for actors to be in because they could literally hear the film running out (those little cameras are very loud, which is why Yong Jin Kim, my DP, had to wear a coat fastened over his head and the camera during all of the dialogue scenes) while trying to focus on their performances. I kept emphasizing (though they were too smart to take me at face value) that they shouldn’t worry about the film or how many takes they needed. Honestly, I allocated most of the footage to dialogue scenes so that we could be comfortable with getting what we needed. On that end, the actors were rock stars; prepared, rehearsed, made great choices, and took direction with no issues. Though they had the stress of the film running out roll by roll, they kept their heads in the game. We also all feel in hindsight that the stress of time and money on the film’s production lend to its tense feeling throughout. The actors were the smoothest engine on set. Again, it’s all about whom you bring into the movie that makes it work or not. Shooting with no budget, good people are all you’ve got. Meanwhile, 2012/13 saw the closure of some several film processing/telecine houses around the U.S. and we watched one after another shut their doors, all while cartridges of our film sat on my in-laws’ (acting as home base for the production) living room floor. We had no money to rush it out before it was too late. We just had to wait and hope.
So you somehow got all the film you needed to finish shooting.
Yes, I took off my hat and asked for money from various other people to pitch in to buy more film, and to my delight, they did. Over the course of a couple months of pickups and some specific location travels, we got the film to finish the shoot.
Great, so your struggles shooting Super 8 were over and you moved on to editing.
After you shoot film stock, you then have to send it to a lab to have it processed. Because we spent all of our money on the film itself, there was no money left to process the stock as we shot. No dailies. I’m used to shooting this way but Yong Jin was not. We went ‘round and ‘round on this, but it came down to one simple thing: there was no money or time for dailies. We were doing this all in, no turning back. Even if we’d had the money to mail the film to Seattle or Los Angeles, have it developed, sent back, loaded onto my projector, watched (all in negative, since we shot Vision3), evaluated, and so on, we wouldn’t have the actors or location to reshoot any of that stuff we might want to try again. It was not that kind of shoot.
Most unsettling, and the remembrances of which still give me stomachaches to think of even now, is that we would not see any of the footage from the film for a year after principal wrapped. Yes, it was a long, painful year. In the end, film processing is easily as much, per roll, as buying the initial film stock. It doubled our costs in one fell swoop. I knew it was coming the whole time, but again, I had to wait until money could be scrapped together to do it; a whole year’s worth of scrapping.
Technical side note: film needs to be processed right after it’s shot for best results. It should never sit for a year in the dark, undeveloped but exposed, unless you have absolutely no other option. Even then, don’t. Our first rolls of exposed film were clearly the oldest once we got the telecine back. The last stuff we shot looked the freshest.
Jacob Kinch, one of the producers/lead sound designer (a very “everyone wearing many hats” kind of production), dropped off our exposed film at Alpha Cine, a huge film processing lab that used to be located in Seattle, WA, after they had decided they had to close up shop; moving boxes were already getting stacked in the hallways. By the time he went back several weeks later and picked up the developed cans of film, our nerves were completely frayed. In my mind, the film was going to end up in a moving box shipped to the middle of the sea. But they did fine work and there was no issue picking it up when he did.
As Jake picked up the film I was on the phone with him as he left the building at headed into the parking lot. It started with me frantically giving him directions on how to check the film.
Are you at your car?
With the film?
Okay, open the first and last cans.
Just a ‘sec…OK.
Now there is going to be a bunch of white leader. Pull it out until you get to the film.
Just a ‘sec…Yeah, little squares?
Yes! Does it look like anything is on them?
I…I think so? (S8 is very small, each frame about 5.5mm horizontally, and the individual images are very difficult to make out with the naked eye.)
Okay, good. I think.
I’m going to check the other can.
Okay…looks like more squares.
I’m just going to check all of the cans. Do you think I should?
Yeah, sounds good.
So the film got shot and processed and was in cans. You guys must be relived and finally ready to edit.
Relieved, yes. Ready to edit, no.
After the film is processed it goes to another place where it gets a telecine (transfer the processed film to digital or tape for editing and/or archives) and maybe even a color grade.
Why not edit old skool since you shot old skool?
Because that’s silly. I’m shooting for a final feel and atmosphere, not trying to play Thomas Edison or become a first-hand film historian along the way. Also, making working prints would have been far more expensive than digital post. That said, along with the rules for production and shooting, I also did not allow myself to use any fancy editing techniques. It was a straightforward edit. Cuts, cross-fades, and that’s about it.
A good telecine by a reputable company in the States was far out of our reach. The “indie-friendly price” we were quoted by a couple of the larger houses was about double our entire film’s budget up to completion of the processing. We decided that we needed to raise yet more money, from outside the production, as all of the filmmakers were now sucked dry. I sent out a couple of emails to telecine houses I thought might be a good fit to help out a low budget project like ours, trying to get them to give me some good deals, arrangements, free illustration or animation work (my job when I’m not making films), anything to help get the movie onto hard drives. I heard nothing back. One thought was to buy a small telecine machine and do the transfer myself. The specs on all of them left me feeling it would not be the best route, but it seemed the most feasible and I could customize elements of it to get it right. My lack of experience doing transfers or color correction made this seem like a good way to ruin the movie we had worked so hard on, too.
Time to do a Kickstarter campaign, our second one (since the first failed pretty badly right before production), which we launched on August 21, 2013, calling it Finishing ‘How the Sky Will Melt’ to try and raise $5,000. We were lucky enough to become an instant Staff Pick in feature films and get a nice plug on a handful of websites, including a little piece I wrote up about it for NoBudge.com (a site run by filmmaker and actor, Kentucker Audley, that has been tremendously supportive and important to a number of independent and no budget filmmakers, myself included). Toward the end of the Kickstarter campaign, as everything looked like it was falling into place to raise the $5K, an email hit my inbox from Frame Discreet in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, telling me that they would indeed help me out. They gave me a spectacular deal on both the telecine and color grade (the details of which I withhold only because they did me a solid and I don’t want everyone knocking on their door for the same deal). It was more than the Kickstarter amount, but low enough that we could fill in the gaps ourselves and get a really nice product that wasn’t a compromise, done by very experienced hands.
When I got the film and hard drive (containing all of the scanned and color corrected footage) back from Frame Discreet in March of 2014, Sara Lynch (lead actress, co-producer, costumer designer) and I immediately sat down and watched all of the raw footage. It was a rewarding and simultaneously emotionally draining experience. The images were beautiful 2K scans, the detail of the grain and the color both spectacular to watch on a Hi-Def screen. They were exactly what we had set out to make. At the same time, we hadn’t seen any of the footage since we began shooting a year and a half earlier. This child that had been our lives to realize for so long finally had a beautiful face.
So, now you could edit?
Now we could edit.
All post took place April through December 2014. We had it finished by that Christmas. This quick turnaround was due to a number of goals we had set for ourselves and fueled by the fact that we had been going crazy waiting to get the footage back so we could work on it. Post was a blur. I did the rough cut in 3 weeks and then started to fine-tune it after showing people and getting notes from close collaborators. We had to ADR the entire film (again, very loud motor on those old cameras), and almost all of the sound was built from scratch, then mixed and mastered by Jacob Kinch and Jeff Dombkowski in the whirlwind speed of a few months.
At the end of December I went to Seattle for a 48-hour final mix and polish marathon. At the end of it, Jake, Jeff, and I sat back, exhausted, full of a lethal amount of pizza, chips, and coffee, and watched the finished, final cut with final sound and music. I realized then finally that yes; this was the movie I had intended to make from the beginning. It was the film I saw in my head while broke and trying to make a deal to get a few boxes of S8mm. I’m stoked with how it turned out and I feel it represents the film it was intended to.
I’m so happy we did it this way and would probably never do it again, is the long and short of it. But now there is at least context for it. The takeaway, for me, is that while film is beautiful and given the option I’d likely always shoot on it, it is not a format for the little guy. Too bad, because as great as digital cinema cameras are continuing to get, the powers that be have really cast off the last supporters of that old format by making too expensive to use and far too difficult to follow through with. I’m glad I shot my first feature on film; it was something I’d always wanted to do.
So, then, are you crazy?
Likely not. Haunted, and rather persistent, but not really crazy. Crazy would be trying to do it again. Speaking of which, I still have eleven rolls of S8mm in my closet I need to do something with. Maybe.