Digital and celluloid mediums should be available to filmmakers
January 30, 2016
Filmmakers should focus on making films and telling stories, not whether digital is better than celluloid.
That was the gist of the Sundance Film Festival’s Power of Story Art of Film panel that was held at the Egyptian Theatre Thursday afternoon.
Filmmakers Colin Trevorrow, known for the Sundance film "Safety Not Guaranteed" and the blockbuster "Jurassic World," and Christopher Nolan, whose "Dark Knight" trilogy rebooted the Batman character for Warner Bros., and cinematographer Rachel Morrison, the cinematographer for "Fruitvale Station," "What Happened Miss Simone?" and "Dope," joined in the discussion that was moderated by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry.
The consensus is that celluloid is a tool that should be available for all filmmakers, according to Trevorrow.
"[What’s] important is that people should have the choice to use it," he said. "You don’t go to the symphony to hear the Stradivarius. You go to listen to the violinist and the violinist will choose the best instrument."
When Trevorrow was making his film "Book of Henry," he opted to forgo digital because he wanted the audience to feel a certain way while watching the film.
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"It’s a human drama that turns into a suspense drama, so it was nice to be able to play with the scope when it turns into the suspense," he said. "It’s not how it looks, but how it feels. [Celluloid] tends to remind us of our memories."
So, he uses it when he makes films that take place in the past, or for films that have that undetermined timeline.
"[‘Book of Henry’] isn’t a period film, but it feels like it takes place in a time where you can’t put your finger on," he said. "There is the importance of every shot."
Trevorrow also used 35mm and 65mm when it came to making "Jurassic World," last year.
"It allowed for us to have humans and dinosaurs in the same frame and I wanted a scope to the film," he said. "As an artist I want to take risks. In the end, I am an independent filmmaker."
His next blockbuster, "Star Wars: Episode IX" will also be shot on film.
"Star Wars is a period film," he deadpanned. "It happened a long time ago."
Nolan backed Trevorrow and said there are some compelling arguments, especially from visual artist Tacita Dean, OBE, who works with film, which calls for the use of celluloid.
Especially when it comes in the realm of medium specificity.
"If you’re working on film, it needs to be shown on film, the same way a gallery can’t put up a print of a Picasso and say they are showing a [real] Picasso," Nolan said. "It has to be considered a translation of the work."
Nolan also emphasized that celluloid should not be considered technology but a medium. So, in addition to medium specificity, there is also medium resistance.
"If you like to sculpt with clay as opposed to carving marble, it’s about how that medium feeds back your creative process," Nolan said.
He found that to be true when he was studying filmmaking in college. He ran the Film society and they shared a basement with the Video Society.
"One of the things the video guys would do is run a lot of takes," Nolan said. "The film guys, because we put a lot of money in 16mm film and could hear the film running through the projector, there would [have to be that] magical moment where everything had to run perfectly. And that expectancy and energy was the medium speaking back to you.
"This is the moment we have to do everything and that gives you the creative energy that affects the storytelling process," he said. "For me that focus on the storytelling of that particular shot on that particular moment is very much informed that it’s being laid down as light onto celluloid photo-chemically."
While a director can choose not to film digitally and bring his entire crew on board, a cinematographer who wants to use celluloid has to use some tact, said Morrison.
"I need to have the director on board," she said. "As a DP it’s not enough for me to say we should shoot on film. You need to have the director going to bat for it as well."
She also urged filmmakers to look closely at the project to determine which medium would benefit the story.
"I think what these guys have been speaking about being a choice is so relevant for a number of reasons," she said. "I equate film with humanity. And for the most part, there is this tactile, subtextual, subconscious quality that comes inherently through film.
"Can you achieve that to some extent digitally in postproduction, maybe," Morrison said. "But often that requires so much money that the same people who can’t afford to spend it on film in the first place aren’t going to spend it in post."
Still, Morrison said celluloid film does open up many choices for the filmmaker that aren’t available digitally.
"Film gives so many more options to me as a storyteller," she said. "It’s not just about grain. You can push process. You can pull process. You can bleach bypass. You can flash negative and throw the shutter out of whack."
During the discussion, Nolan addressed the misconception that digital video is the future.
"This artificial industrial distinction has been made that video is practical and the way forward and shooting on film is impractical and the past, but it’s simply not the case," he said. "There is no point in comparing the two mediums, and it’s very important that new talent, like Sundance and those coming into the business, understand that they should shoot the film the way they want to shoot it. And that film is available and practical if they want to use it.
"Now there are plenty of very cool things that video technology enables young people to do that I wasn’t able to do," he said. "But I would hate for kids and new filmmakers coming up not being able to do what I was able to do, and experience the relationship with the medium of film that I [had]."
However, there is the concern over cost.
While Kodak is bringing back the Super 8 camera, the film cartridges are expensive, Trevorrow said.
"Film has been pushed into the realm of the elite and no one has access to it," he said. "That’s part of the struggle."
That’s why film schools should be helping their students offset the price of film, according to Trevorrow.
"Because of the cost that are incurred by even someone, a kid who wants to learn, it puts the responsibility on film schools," he said. "We pay a lot of money to got to these schools and they aren’t teaching that [celluloid] is one of the choices. There has to be a link between these things."
Nolan said the studios could also do more.
"You need a team around you who can balance figures and make the budgets work out fine," he said. "It isn’t any more expensive to shoot on film. Budgets of studio movies aren’t coming down. They’re going up."
Morrison said, however, there are times when film is appropriate and when digital is needed.
"There are occasions where I have found that digital can work to our advantage," she said. "If you have a lot of improv or child actors, you don’t have the budget, it’s more important to have the ability to get more takes.
"So much of what we’re doing is about creating an experience where the whole objective is to put the audience into our main characters shoes," Morrison said. "If you can help the audience to empathize in any way, what better tool can you ask for?"
For more information, visit http://www.sundance.org.