“Cineaste” #7: Digigeddon, pt.2

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste”
Digital Armageddon Part 2 –

Gut Instincts in the War on Celluloid

Our columnist comes full circle with his convictions in regards to the best shooting medium

by Tyler Tharpe


“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” follows contributor Tyler Tharpe as he balances the business of running a drive-in theater in the Midwest with the long and arduous process of filmmaking.

In my previous Cinéaste column from six months ago, I talked about the importance of archiving movies on film stock, even ones like the TRANSFORMERS franchise. For general presentation, however, the Digital Armageddon is real and has taken over the majority of cinemas in the United States. Just how bad is this takeover, I wonder? And, will film as a shooting and delivery medium hold steady in the immediate future?

As for origination, I came up with shocking results after researching on the Internet Movie Database. Looking at the big live-action tent pole films coming this summer – about a half-dozen, all of which I dare not miss playing at the Centerbrook – I wanted to know how many were shot on film.

All of the following will be lighting up my 75-foot-wide outdoor screen. The season kicks off May 3 with IRON MAN 3 … shot on digital. (Come on, producer Jon Favreau, you were at Christopher Nolan’s “save film” presentation last year!) Two weeks later, things start looking up with STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS … shot on 35mm and 65mm. (Here’s to hoping J.J. Abrams does the same or better with STAR WARS.) Late May, in will roll FAST & FURIOUS 6 and THE HANGOVER PART III … both shot on 35mm. Then in June, MAN OF STEEL flies high … native to 35mm. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence, with Nolan as an executive producer.) The next month, THE LONE RANGER doles out justice … beginning on 35mm. Then, THE WOLVERINE slashes through late July … shot on digital. Safe to say, 35mm as a shooting medium is still going strong.

Is it possible more major directors are going back to 35, having now shot with digital? A few minor releases with potential were shot on digital, including GROWN UPS 2 with Adam Sandler and M. Night Shyamalan’s AFTER EARTH, but overall more Hollywood productions seem to be originating on digital than film. The directors behind the tent poles – Abrams, Zack Snyder (MAN OF STEEL), Gore Verbinski (LONE RANGER), Todd Phillips (HANGOVER III), Justin Lin (FURIOUS 6) – must be very serious about film or they would have thrown in the towel and gone digital. I find it very encouraging that major productions bound to leave a wake behind them and set trends have fallen into the film camp.

I saw the extended STAR TREK trailer at the head of THE HOBBIT: AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY last December and it had some of the best damn image quality I have ever seen, even though it was projected in IMAX digital. This alone proves to me that originating on film, even though a movie may end up shown digitally during its theatrical release, is the best way to obtain the best image, period. That 10-minute trailer, incidentally, blew away the 48-frames-per-second digital format debacle Peter Jackson was goofing around with on THE HOBBIT. Just awful.

Film as a delivery medium is also still going although I hesitate to say “going strong.” I plan to run 35mm the entire season this year. After that, no one really knows. If you perform a Google search on drive-in theaters, you’ll discover story after story about many of the roughly 360 surviving outdoor theaters scrambling to pay $70,000 per projection set-up and keep afloat after this season. The Centerbrook is no exception.

Shooting film is definitely an art form, but what is it like to shoot on film? I would say the majority of people who have tried it on their own realized very quickly how difficult it is to capture a good image. The auto-exposure feature on my Super 8 camera was the only reason my films looked halfway decent when I was a kid. I shot most of those outside using available sunlight, including clay animation.

Unless you attend a real film school like those at the University of Southern California, the University of California–Los Angeles, or New York University, you really have to experiment with film on your own accord. A professor teaching one of my film classes at Ball State University proposed an experiment shooting 16mm. He wanted to prove to us that we could shoot a scene with candlelight as the only light source and still get an acceptable image on film. After we got back the roll of developed film, we watched it. Something was missing even though the footage looked good.

For my senior film project in the same class, I decided to stick with good old reliable, auto-exposed, black-and-white Super 8. All the outdoor images looked great just like in my childhood films. But the indoor scenes, which I attempted to light with a simple three-lamp set-up, came out underexposed. I had to re-shoot everything. The scenes turned out better the second time, but they looked far from perfect.

A few years later as I geared up to shoot my first feature film, FREAK, I made color tests with my Super 8 camera. The Kodachrome footage I shot had too much of a “home movie” feel. It didn’t take long for me to realize that if I wanted FREAK to look professional, I should consider shooting 16mm and hiring a real cinematographer.

I called a few production companies in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where I planned to shoot FREAK, and one quoted me north of $10,000. For about five minutes, my dreams were dashed. A representative from the company then called back and suggested I contact one of their freelance cinematographers, Tony Hettinger. Long story short, he just happened to have his own 16mm cameras, lenses, and lighting. Therefore, no costly rentals would be necessary! Tony read over my script and agreed to shoot the film. We wrapped FREAK the summer before Tony went on to shoot Neil LaBute’s IN THE COMPANY OF MEN on 35mm, followed by several indies originating on film, video, and RED ONE digital. But Tony, like me, is a true cinephile

I recently asked Tony what sparked his passion for the film medium and cinematography. “Back in the early Eighties, I landed a gig at a local video production company,” he says. “The cameras were pretty crude by any standard. I bought an old Bolex H-16 at a camera store and, the following weekend, shot a hundred-foot Kodachrome roll of my nephews playing in a park down in Muncie [Indiana, also home to Ball State]. When the film came back from the lab, I borrowed a projector and watched it on a white wall. Reversal film at 25 ASA, there was no grain [in the image and] just this amazing, living color. I was hooked.”

Soon after seeing the first 16mm images from FREAK, I realized that I had made the right decision to splurge and hire Tony. But, why wasn’t I able to shoot quality film footage myself? Why can’t the average Joe simply “point and shoot” without hesitation? Tony explains, “It’s funny, nobody listens to Mozart and says, ‘I could do that.’ Nobody reads Elmore Leonard and says, ‘I could do that.” But now, especially with people carrying iPhones and the like, everyone thinks they can make movies. They don’t know an f-stop from a truck stop. They might capture interesting images but they have no idea of the art and science, the how and why, of those images.”

One of the great pleasures of shooting film is watching the cinematographer at work. In between set-ups, when I’m able to look up from my shot list for even a brief moment, it’s great to see Tony adjusting the lighting and getting it just right, checking with the light meter, or sending someone back outside to move the light just a hair. Sure, it takes time, but you know it will look damn good in the end. A favorite night on the last film, RETURN IN RED, involved only myself and Tony. We were doing a full evening of indoor and outdoor pickup shots at the old farm house without actors. The pressure was off, so I was able to breathe and help Tony adjust the lights and so forth. It was pure film-shooting pleasure.

For people like the two of us, what is so appealing about shooting film? Why is it so much more exciting than working with a video camera? “I go back to that first roll of Kodachrome,” reasons Tony. “Every frame is a photograph, a fiftieth of a second of life or fantasy or whatever we can imagine. It’s not magic, but it’s pretty damn close. You just can’t get that feeling from a bunch of ones and zeros.

“When I work with any given film stock long enough, I get to the point where the light meter is just a formality,” he goes on, “especially with the amazing stuff Kodak is making. I’ve shot tons of digital and I just can’t find that comfort level. Look at the great films that were released in 2012 [and] forget about the 3-D blight. Most [major productions] were shot on film. There was one scene in [the otherwise great movie] ARGO shot with the ARRI Alexa, a digital camera, and it was painfully obvious. The shadows in LINCOLN [captured on 35mm] were amazing. Again, every frame is a slice of life.”

On television, THE WALKING DEAD is shot on 16mm and they actually use the same lab we used for RETURN IN RED. “Part of what makes BREAKING BAD and THE WALKING DEAD so great is that they are shot on film,” Tony notes. “I love JUSTIFIED but I’d love it even more if it was shot on film. HELL ON WHEELS is just insulting, a Western shot digitally.”

After hearing Tony’s answers to my questions, I realized the big difference between film and high definition video is color. HD cannot reproduce the rich colors you find in film. Even on the smallest film format available today, Super 8, the colors blow away anything shot on a RED Epic, ARRI Alexa, and so on.

I’ve included a link below to a company in Burbank called Pro8mm that manufactures, processes, and transfers Super 8 film, cut from professional 35mm film stock and then perforated. Due to current HD scanning technology, Super 8 has never looked better and is a far cry from the analog Super 8 tests I attempted 15 years ago. Look at the clips of their Super 8 film stock and judge for yourself. One cannot capture that kind of richness in color on any all-digital system, whether attempted by Joe Schmoe with his cell phone or Peter Jackson with “cutting edge” equipment.

Last Cinéaste, I said I would discuss with Tony the possibility of shooting HD and how to survive it. I’ve since decided that I will never shoot on HD as long as film is still available, and my third feature will be shot on 16mm just like the first two. I shoot movies because I love shooting on film. The mere thought of shooting on HD causes me to lose complete interest. Film as a shooting medium is still going strong, no matter what anyone else may believe. Tony sums it up nicely…

“There are a lot of cool things about digital. But if you want to live it, and for it to live, shoot it on film.”


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Tyler Tharpe is an Indianapolis resident who has a B.A. in Telecommunications with an emphasis on film from Ball State University. He is currently an independent filmmaker and drive-in theater owner/operator who can be reached at tylertharpe [at] yahoo [dot] com.

RESOURCE: Beautiful Super 8 film stocks can be ordered from Pro8mm in Burbank, CA.

“The Double Life of a Cinéaste” no. 7 © 2013 Tyler Tharpe.

CUBlog edit © 2013 Jason Pankoke

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