Dreams of Celluloid

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A couple of weeks ago I went to Finish Post in Boston to digitize my 35mm short film The Perfect Gooseys. Watching the colorist Rob Bessette tweaking Technicolor’s orginal grade, I observed the specs of emulsion, dirt, and the occasional hair at the edge of the frame. I kept thinking, “What the hell was I doing shooting this on film?!”

But this film was made in 2001. High Definition was nascent technology back them, and the cameras were far too expensive to rent. We shot The Perfect Gooseys on an old MoviCam that hadn’t been particularly well maintained. I recall a lot of downtime on set with the camera crew poking flashlights and screwdrivers into various parts of the machinery. A light leak in a backup camera magazine destroyed a roll, making us add half a day for re-shoots. But the headaches I remember most were the costs associated with film. I had received a Kodak grant to buy the raw filmstock, but the costs of having it processed and getting dailies made began to add up. Not to mention the negative cutting, and numerous answer prints which I needed for festivals. In the end, it cost maybe twenty thousand dollars more than the same film, shot digitally, would cost today.

Walking out of Finish with a 4K MOV file on my hard drive, I thought about how easy we filmmakers have it now. I once lamented the death of film. Today I was whistling good riddance. I put my 35mm reel back in basement storage, thinking I’ll probably never look at it again (my future grandchildren will marvel at it though!)

Yet there is one thing I do miss about shooting on film. It had a reverent quality about it, something that was tangibly felt by cast and crew. The sound of film spooling through the magazine. The snap of the slate. The dailies being rushed off to the lab at the end of the day. When we shot film, we rehearsed, and then shot it once, twice at the most (I couldn’t afford anything beyond two takes.) The pressure of so few takes focused the actors’ performances, I’m sure of it. Nowadays shooting digitally, I tend to do far too many takes. I’m even guilty of filming the rehearsals (if you’re rolling on rehearsal, then it’s not a damn rehearsal!)

I don’t really miss working on film. Too much money and hassle. And unless you’re Nolan or Spielberg, it’s not something that can be sustained. But I do wish younger filmmakers could have the experience of shooting and editing on celluloid. It puts the pressure on, keeps you on your toes.