Tarantino once proclaimed, “If I can’t shoot on film, I’ll stop making movies,”. The prominent director is far from alone in his love for celluloid, with 52% of 2020’s Oscar nominations being shot on film, not digital. With film used in so many of this year’s critically acclaimed features, we ask, are we in the age of a celluloid resurgence?

 

On Monday evening Mark Jenkin introduced the BAFTA-winning film Bait (2019) at the BFI “my love of film was reignited through the medium of it” he told the audience. Part of the appeal of Bait is the authenticity that comes from filming and hand-processing on 130 rolls of 100ft rolls of B&W Kodak grainy stock, captured on a 1976 16mm clockwork Bolex camera. The film was a labour of love for Jenkin, it took three months to be hand-processed at 2’30” per 100 foot.

 

The film tells the story of the modern tensions that arise from the changing tides of gentrification and the build-up of cultural divisions in a Cornish fishing community. Seeing the physical dust and blotches of celluloid film on screen, reminds us of the fragility of celluloid, this contrasted with the fragility of the community at the heart of the film makes for a captivating watch.

 

Adrian Bull, MD of Cinelab, a full-service film laboratory in London, believes that shooting on celluloid can provide creative freedom for directors “Shooting on film has a 130-year history, the process has both evolved and refined over that period. The creative decision is driven by both the aesthetic look and a discipline that is unique to film. Film grain means that even on a static shot, something is still happening visually. The way film captures light, specular highlights and skin tones is still very different to digital.”

 

The natural and organic feel of film is often said to be a part of its appeal: “Every image at twenty-four frames per second exists and is real whereas in the digital world it is synthesised with an array of pixels and subsampled colour channels attempting to recreate the image.” Says Bull “Film falls off gracefully at the limits of resolution and dynamic range whereas digital images can suffer from aliasing and quantisation.”

 

He believes that the demand for high quality digital distribution has been a factor in its current popularity “As an acquisition format, film comfortably delivers both 4K and HDR, ironically I believe the demand

for higher quality digital distribution has had an effect on clients going back to shooting on film.”

 

Jenkin has said that the economy of film can be one of its greatest strengths “So a lot of it’s borne out of those limitations. If I was shooting digitally and I didn’t have those constraints, I never would have considered those close-ups, those cutaways.” he said in an interview (https://www.filmcomment.com/blog/interview-mark-jenkin/). Bull agrees that “Cinematographers often comment on the creative control that they retain more personally when shooting on film and that when they finish for the day, they can focus attention on planning the next shoot day rather than the temptation with digital which is to review what you have shot that same day.”

 

Despite the popularity with cinephiles, less that 1% of studio film productions are shot on celluloid, as digital remains dominant in high-end drama and mainstream cinema. The cost and time constraints of film are often cited for why it is the reserve of top tier filmmakers, Bull contests this "Shooting ratio is the most important influence on budget when shooting on film – film camera hire costs are typically very competitive when compared to digital cameras that have a relatively short lifetime. The efficiency comes from controlling the shooting ratio. Budget for a 2-camera 6 week shoot with 10:1 shooting ratio is comparable between 35mm film and an Alexa – if you shoot a lower ratio then film becomes more competitive and if your shoot time increases then film also becomes cheaper assuming the shooting ratio remains consistent.” However, he admits “Film requires light for it to be exposed, so it is a fair comment that lighting budgets are usually higher with celluloid film.”

 

Film does arguably have more range to its capture “The dynamic range of film though is still tremendous and allows it to excel with highlights, skies and explosion sequences where often digitally acquired sequences require VFX work to add this detail.” states Bull “Film dailies are usually available to production the next day and will often be available in the morning before they start shooting.’

There are many reasons why digital is so dominant in film and television production, not least cost (especially when factoring in lighting), required skillset, malleability and low light performance. And of course there’s the creative execution which requires more choreography and control in film. Film still has a niche and can engage and connect in other ways and with stunning stand-out images. Bait might be an extreme stylised example of this but it’s difficult to imagine the film having the same impact and connection if shot on a digital camera.

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Sam Napthine