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~64 Films Released in 2015 Shot on 35mm

in Filmmaking
on Feb 18, 2016

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When rounding up all the 2014 movies (as defined by the US release calendar) that I could confirm had been at least partially shot on 35mm, the tally was 39; after posting, I caught a few titles that I’d overlooked, but the number basically stayed the same. In researching this year’s follow-up edition, I was shocked to see that figure increase significantly to somewhere around 64 (I’ll get into the qualifiers in a bit). Was I really sloppy in doing my homework last year, or is the number of productions shot on 35mm increasing? It’s hard to tell, and there’s all kinds of asterisks attached.

This post is kind of a monster, so here are three quick takeaways if you’re in a hurry:

  • When you take out the numerous exceptions detailed below, there were 46 features released last year, shot within the last three years, that are entirely or almost exclusively derived from 35mm. That’s maybe a hair more than last year.
  • Six of these were blockbusters. Period productions (on the assumption that viewers connote past eras with the look of celluloid) also form a significant plurality of 35mm features, although I’m hesitant to pin down the exact number because a number of these films were made by directors who haven’t leapt to digital yet, so that wasn’t the sole reason.
  • In the case of productions shot in lots of exterior daylight, 35mm is still preferred, even if mixed with digital for darker interiors.

The tally of ~64 doesn’t reflect the total number of productions being shot on celluloid, period: 16mm is still semi-common, and 2015’s highest-profile release on film, The Hateful Eight, drew attention for its opening week, 70mm-only wide-ish release. Not so long ago, 70mm blow-ups of big titles were not uncommon; 20 years ago, even an unexceptional film like the live-action 101 Dalmatians got a 70mm print. The Hateful Eight‘s release unwillingly served as an expensive experiment to see whether the switch to digital projectors — with its attendant decimation of projection as a specialized profession — means that the knowledge base to project 70mm widely has disappeared entirely. Tarantino upped the ante by shooting in the super-rare Ultra Panavision 70 format, whose ultra-wide ratio most multiplex theaters simply can’t mask for, and for which special lenses (heavy, and causing some projectors to tip or wobble) were necessary. Anecdotal evidence suggests The Weinstein Company did, more or less successfully, manage to show the film on 96 screens — that this was a formidable achievement demonstrated how much projection knowledge has eroded over the last 20 years.

A famed celluloid fetishist for whom having his work projected from film is a must, Tarantino chose 70mm because he reasoned (correctly, I think) that The Hateful Eight would be more widely seen on film from that format. 35mm, once a default, is still not “spectacular” enough to roll out as a release. (This year’s 35mm-only release of Too Late will test that.) Tarantino had a 35mm print struck, and it’s been playing for two solid months at his New Beverly Theater. If he’s heard, I suspect DP Jody Lee Lipes might be jealous. He shot Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck on 35mm, but “it’s almost impossible to watch something that was shot on film projected on film,” Lipes said. “I was sort of saddened by the fact that the theatrical premiere of Trainwreck was at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, one of the most important film centers in the world, but it wasn’t shown on film.” Lipes also shot Bluebird on 35mm, making him one of several DPs on this list to have two 35mm credits on it: Oliver Stapleton (Hot PursuitUnfinished Business), Andrij Parikh (Mississippi GrindMadame Bovary) and Masanobu Takayanagi (Black MassTrue Story) all join him in this club.

I’d love to know what kind of contract negotiations meant that Apatow couldn’t get a print, but that the first-time director of a lowish-budget Holocaust drama was able to ensure that his debut be released on 35mm wherever practically possible. In interviews to promote Son of SaulLászló Nemes has been very clear on both his love of 35mm, and the importance of making sure that both the negative and projection be in that format. “The fact that the chemical image is unstable, also that the contours are much less precise, gives it a shroud of uncertainty, whereas the digital image is crystal clear and has no depth,” he insisted. “We didn’t project our film digitally, either. I think this is a disaster, a disaster and a betrayal.” His care shows: the oddest thought I had during Son of Saul (which ducked a digital intermediate) was that there were particular shades of green I hadn’t seen in a new release in a long time. (Which is probably not what I should be principally thinking when contemplating the Holocaust, but there you have it.)

Four of the year’s top 10 domestic grossers were 35mm. At the top there’s JJ Abrams, one of the directors involved in persuading the major studios to purchase undisclosed amounts of Kodak stock for an undisclosed number of years. Abrams likes film to begin with, but for Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens, he had the added excuse of arguing for visual continuity with the original trilogy. “This was really important, that the movie, in a way, go backwards to go forwards,” he said. “These are brand new characters that we’re meeting, but I wanted it to look and feel the way the original trilogy did.” (There was at least one theater that actually showed it on 35mm; others are unconfirmed.) The Force Awakens is trailed by Jurassic World, which used a mix of 35mm and 65mm. (I’m guessing continuity with the earlier film’s look was again a consideration.) At number nine there’s Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, with DP Haris Zambarloukos noting a wish to showcase the production design and “echo the feeling of 70mm.” The top ten is rounded out by SPECTRE, which returns to 35mm after Sam Mendes worked in digital on Skyfall. He liked that film’s look overall, but “digital felt less romantic, less textured in many of the exteriors. And under bright light I felt it was difficult to control, harsh on actors, less forgiving.” Mendes also enjoys the dailies routine of 35mm: “Film takes a leap up from your slightly shitty monitor screen to the dailies, where it starts to really have richness. Watching dailies on the big screen for the first time is kind of like Christmas. With film, there’s something to look forward to, whereas with digital, I’ve always felt that the best version of the image is standing alongside the DIT on set.”

Bubbling under at number 11, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation maintains franchise continuity by being shot (minus the underwater scene) in 35mm. “We didn’t consider going digital, as neither Tom nor Chris really like the look,” noted DP Robert Elswit. “You can shoot digital and find a LUT that will mimic the film look, but they both wanted the real film look. And Tom just doesn’t like the way digital capture looks, even when it’s manipulated.” Along with Taken 3 (the entire trilogy was shot on 35mm), there’s another unlikely addition to the visual-continuity features: Entourage: The MovieThe show was shot on 35mm, DP Steven Fierberg is a big film fan, and there’s a oft-cited practical upside too: “If you have money, and especially if you’re shooting a lot of day scenes, which we did on this movie, you should consider shooting on film.”

There were a few 35mm films on the opposite end of the budgetary scale, including a few debuts. Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala’s first joint feature Goodnight Mommy. “Everyone encouraged us to do digital, but we felt strongly that the look of our film needed to be a certain way,” Siala said. “Also, concentration on the set is much more focused because with film it’s not so easy to just do retakes or do it later. It lends a feel of importance.” Perhaps even more impressive is Zeresenay Berhane Mahari, who was convinced his Difret needed the textures of 35mm; in pulling it off, he became only the fourth director to shoot on the stock in Ethiopia (with no labs in the country, dailies were processed in India). Also noted: Hernán Guerschuny, who gave no reason in English I could find for why his 2013 The Film Critic was originated on 35mm (though for the title to be taken literally, you’d hope that was the case). Stephane Lafleur’s Tu dors Nicole was also shot on film, and though I couldn’t find a quote from him as to why, the shimmering black and white speaks for itself. (Sticking this here: I have no information as to why the Japanese film The World of Kanako was shot on film, but the specific stock is listed on IMDB, so that seems reliable enough.)

Several 35mm-based productions were from directors who haven’t made the digital switch yet, like Lisandro Alonso (Jauja), Cameron Crowe (Aloha), Jaume-Collet Serra (Run All Night), Xavier Dolan (Mommy) and François Ozon (The New Girlfriend). Ditto Ken Loach, who could only find one 35mm projector to run a rough cut in London while working on Jimmy’s Hall; he thought it was there at Christopher Nolan’s behest. Some still-solely celluloid practitioners are outspoken fans, like Steven Spielberg (Bridge of Spies) or Nolan (who released Quay, a short documentary on the sibling animators in that format). Olivier Assayas has shot digital before, but he still wants to work with film; for Clouds of Sils Maria, he was enabled to do so by funding from Chanel. Woody Allen’s annual production Irrational Man was on film as usual, though possibly his last such: DP Vittorio Storaro persuaded him to go digital for his next film. .

The visually beyond-meticulous Hou Hsiao-hsien may go digital, but it won’t be an easy process. The Assassin was shot on 35mm as usual, but he thinks it might be too expensive to continue in this way, which means he needs time to adjust: “I need to grasp the essence of this digital medium first—to find its limit. Only then will I be able to determine whether it works for me.” For Futuro Beach, Karim Aïnouz wanted to replicate the feeling of watching photos projected from a carousel slide, i.e. to use film to explicitly show what film looks like: “the film is shot on Kodak 35mm film so that sensation is very precise and it is exactly the way I wanted it.”

Other 35mm films by directors who haven’t made a digital feature yet include Christian Petzold. Of his post-WWII Phoenix, he cited a wish for “color” that could express both “the noir and the realistic.” He also likes not having a reliable playbook monitor to refer to: “There’s one camera and you can’t see the rushes until two days later. You have to trust the things of what you saw.” That’s an aspect of shooting on 35mm Andrew Haigh didn’t enjoy while making 45 Years, his first celluloid feature (both Weekend and his HBO series Looking were digitally shot). “You have these amazing monitors on set and you’re like, ‘Wow, I can see everything,'” he told Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “You back to shooting film and you’ve got this shitty little monitor and you can’t see anything. I use a lot of long lenses, so I can’t even be near the actors. I can’t see their faces, so it’s quite a challenge.” Still, it was worth it for the ability to shoot actors wearing minimal make-up in naturalistically lit or entirely unlit settings: “Video is really difficult to make look good when you’re not lighting it.” Plus, “I figured this might be the last chance I’d ever get to shoot on film.” Ditto Joe Swanberg, re Digging For Fire: “I just know that it’s a ticking clock on how much longer the medium can last and so it felt like it would be a shame for me not to shoot something on 35mm.”

It’s still generally understood that digital does better at night and in darkness, film better during the day and in full light. Carlos Catalan — DP of the only Bollywood film on this list, Dil Dhakadne Do — “decided to mix formats and blend the best of both worlds. I’d shoot digital for nights and interiors and film for day and exteriors.” For A Walk in the Woods, Ken Kwapis and DP John Bailey similarly shot all interiors digitally, and all exteriors in 35mm. Practically, “the equipment’s actually more portable. You don’t have all the electronic umbilical cords that you do when you’re shooting digitally.” But it’s also easier to control light on film: “In many of our scenes in the woods, we couldn’t control those moments where the two characters would suddenly walk into an open burst of sunlight through the trees. Because it’s 35mm, that information may blow out, but it’s there, in the negative. In the digital realm, it’s not there. There’s nothing there.” I’d guess (in the absence of other information) that similar reasoning applied to Desert Dancer (lots of bright exteriors, with portability in the desert a bonus).

Another large asterisk for productions in which 35mm was a significant but far from-total capture source, notably Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobswhich uses 16mm for its 1984 opening, sharper 35mm for 1988, digital for 1998, a march-of-time progression that makes sense. Ditto Love & Mercy, which has grainy 16mm for the ’60s and calmer 35mm for the ’80s, while still retaining period-appropriate grain and texture. Miguel Gomes’ Arabian Nights trilogy likewise differentiates the fantasy sequences about Scheherazade from the other parts of the 16mm multi-story narrative by shooting her segments in sharper 35mm. Several films used a jumble of all kinds of formats with prominent 35mm elements, including Edward Zwick’s Pawn SacrificeLearning to Drive and possibly some portion of Furious 7. 

Bertrand Bonello hasn’t leapt to digital yet, though for both period and costume reasons Saint Laurent is an obvious choice for 35mm. “It gives more sensuality, you know? To the fabrics, to the clothes, to the colors,” he said. “And also people have to be aware that it’s not that much more expensive than digital. So when you make a very cheap film, I understand you go to digital. But when you have a little money, you can think about 35.” For his French ’70s crime drama The Connection,  Cédric Jimenez “had a hard time imagining the film shot digitally, because you never really have the same smoothness that you have with film. The 1970s were a little bit garish; colors were bold, suits were very particular, the hair… Digital cameras make the time period seem false.” But Jimenez estimates his reasons were 50% aesthetic, 50% technical, notably when it came to allowing actors freedom of movement: “The focus is really easy, so if an actor goes off in one direction, the camera can follow them — the focus stays on them. That’s harder with a digital camera.”

A number of other period films made the budgetary case for 35mm. “We wrote a letter to the producers explaining why 35mm would be important for” Far From the Madding Crowdsaid DP Charlotte Bruus Christensen. “It was obviously the texture and with Thomas Hardy it’s all about texture. And maybe an audience can’t see the different but they can feel the difference.” Ellen Kuras gave similar reasoning for her work on Alan Rickman’s A Little Chaos: “Because the film takes place in the 17th century, we wanted the warmth, depth and roundness that film emulsion offers.” DP Masanobu Takayanagi (who also shot True Story on 35mm for no obvious reason) thought along the same lines re: the period mob drama Black Mass: “We didn’t even discuss digital versus film. We already knew that film was what we needed — the grain, the texture made it the clear choice for creating the look and feel of a gritty Boston during that era.” Absent further information, I’ll assume (corrections welcomed!) concerns about representing a past period in a way that looks right applied to the following titles: The End of the Tour; Our Brand is CrisisMcFarland, USA (lots of outdoors daylight in that one too); Child 44Madame BovaryEscobar: Paradise LostThe Big Short. I could find no stated reason why the offensive Christian title Little Boy (in which God answers a young boy’s prayers to bring his soldier dad home safe from WWII by dropping the big one on Hiroshima) was shot on film, but it had name actors and a higher budget than much of its competition. Titles like God’s Not Dead et al. generally look awful; Little Boy got a few nice review notices for looking comparatively glossy, which was presumably the whole point.  

The only person to have two 35mm-originating features in 2015 was David O. Russell, albeit with two large asterisks. Joy continues his film-only features streak (“I love shooting film”), but that means something different in 2015 than the cobbled-together (with Russell’s name removed) Accidental Love, a recut of 2009’s never-completed Nailed, which would by default have been shot on 35mm. A bunch of other movies fall into this very-belated-release category: Veronika Decides to Die (first screened in 2009), the late Alexei German’s 13-years-in-the-works Hard to be a God, Asghar Farhadi’s 2009 About Elly, the long-buried John Cusack movie Shanghai (released in China in 2010), the 2012-originating Black November. One particularly technical inclusion: Everest, which is all digital except for 35mm footage of the mountains shot back in 2004, when Stephen Daldry was beginning work on an abandoned version of the project.

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