In between the time when I first started capturing images to today, I’ve worked on a lot of different types of projects that required different cameras for different reasons.
While working with the most expensive or the most well regarded camera can be a great feeling from a professional standpoint, there are times when it’s not necessary or possible. I used to snap photos of an Alexa or a RED every time I was using one on a project, even if it was a talking head interview where other cameras could handle the job just fine and look practically as good.
Based on my experience, I can absolutely say that the skill of the person using the camera is more important than the actual brand of camera in their hands. A camera can only record what’s in front of it. You have to decide how to make what’s front of the camera look good, and it requires way more than just the camera itself.
I routinely read discussions on professional forums/groups/etc about how different lens and camera brands are mixed on a project and they ‘cut together pretty well’.
Why aren’t my images better yet? My camera is expensive
The best example I can give you is from my own experience. When I was ready to move on from DSLR video quality images to cinema camera images, I bought a used Red Scarlet MX. The images were better than what I was used to, but I didn’t understand why everything I was capturing wasn’t automatically looking cinematic.
This was not the camera’s fault. People who I knew personally who had the exact same camera were creating incredible content, so I started to realize it had to be me that was doing something wrong.
Over the next couple of years I delved deeply into the camera system, learning more about color grading, lighting, etc., to make the camera really shine. Turns out that I still had to do a majority of the work to make an image look good on my new camera: I had to light a scene well, make sure the colors were treated properly in camera and in the color grade, and generally increase the overall production quality of what I was filming. The camera did help. It gave me sharp, pleasing images that I liked to look at, which motivated me to to make sure I was giving the camera what it needed to look good.
Slowly but surely, my images started getting better. I started to get more work because my work was starting to stand out. Then I began using multiple cameras, (sometimes different brands) on my projects and started recognizing that the images were matching pretty well. There were some differences, but if I lit something well and took care of white balancing properly, it would often translate on different brands of cameras.
This gave me confidence that I could walk into different projects with different camera systems based on the budget and the client’s needs that I could create images that looked good. And I’ve been doing just that for the past several years.
Cameras are still important
Make no mistake, the type of camera you use is important at the end of the day. Dynamic range, highlight roll off, out of the box color, skin tone rendition, sharpness, ease of use in post, etc. I prefer shooting on a high end cinema camera. However, I try not to let the technical dictate everything I do. There are times when a production is tied into using a certain camera for various reasons.
This is why I often tell productions I’m pretty flexible with the camera choice if they say the budget is capped at a certain amount, or that their production company owns a certain type of camera and I’m mandated to work with it because that’s how it’s done. It’s my job as a director of photography to inform people which camera to use based on their needs. It’s not always the top shelf camera.
Reasons to use a higher end camera
There are still reasons to use a higher end camera. Let’s take the Arri Alexa, for example. Once you reach a certain level of production, this camera is the standard in many respects. A great sensor that has incredible dynamic range, great out of the box colors, and a very robust and easy to use codec that post houses are used to working with. From an operator’s perspective, it’s ergonomic and has the majority of the tools that make jobs of ACs and sound people easy. With all of these in mind, it’s a no brainer to make everyone’s job easier by using the tools everyone is familiar with.
When I was still working at a very indie level, I didn’t understand this perspective. There are standards that make people’s jobs easier, which translate to more efficiency, which translates to a smoother production overall.
More and more of the projects I work on have many different teams handling different parts of the project. If I know I am giving the post team something that is easy for them to process, I know there’s a fighting chance that what I intended the footage to look like will actually end up looking that way.
This is the main reason I select a certain camera – when handing off footage and having little to no control in post. Many times you might have a great workflow for a camera system when you’re managing everything; but if you end up giving the footage to someone else to handle, they could not be as familiar as you and your end result will be less than stellar. This has happened to me many times, which is why I am a big proponent of getting a look as close to final “in camera”, so that there’s less to tweak later on.
The reason gear exists
Cameras, lenses, filters, lighting, etc. are what help us create our images. As I become more experienced as a director of photography, it is important that I know the technical information to serve one purpose – to make sure the tools I’m selecting will capture the essence of the content I am shooting.
It sounds corny and it is very cliché when DPs say the purpose of a DP is to serve the story. I used to dislike that saying, because I thought it implied that we’re just cogs in a machine. But the more projects I work on, the more I see that sometimes all the gear can be a distraction. It could be fitting the proverbial square peg in a round hole.
So I take the approach of listening to what a project needs first from a creative standpoint. Then I take stock of my favorite tools and see if it’s a good fit, or if other tools make more sense. For example, if someone wants to follow a trend of using anamorphic lenses, or using film over digital, does it make sense? Will it give the content the right feeling and texture? The content could be incredible, but if the aesthetic around it does not fit, it will not feel right.
This is part 2 of shooting on 16mm film for people having little to no experience shooting on film. Before looking at the mechanics of a film camera, I thought it would be worth mentioning the factors that affect the images you capture.
Film is Film
Everyone who shoots on digital cameras understands that the choice in camera affects the image you get. An image from a 5D mark IV looks different than that of an A7S II. RED’s Helium sensor looks different from ARRI’s Alev III sensor. And so on.
On multi-camera shoots where for whatever reason not all cameras are the same make/type, mixing cameras in the edit can be problematic because they may not look the same. Although it is possible through the use of lenses, filtration, post, etc to get cameras to match, it’s generally preferable to have the same type of camera, or at least the same brand, on projects. More work in production means less headache in post.
This does not translate the same for film. Your choice in camera will not affect the image quality if you use the same type of film/lenses/filters across your cameras. In other words, whether you decide you’re using a Bolex, Arri, or Aaton camera, using a roll of a certain film stock, say 16mm Kodak 500T Vision 3 7219, will make the image look the same across each camera. This is assuming your lens/filters/exposure are the same.
The reason being is that the particular type of film stock you use determines the qualities of the image. The camera is just a vehicle for the film to get exposed and capture its images. If you want a different ‘look’, you change things like the film stock and the lenses. The film stock can be thought of as your ‘sensor’.
Why are there different cameras then?
Different cameras have different capabilities. Some film cameras are light and compact, but sacrifice on the number of features like electronic readouts of things like exposure, fps, video taps for monitoring the image, etc. Some smaller cameras like the Bolex have a hand crank mechanism to power the camera.
Other cameras are larger and more cumbersome, but have the ability to include high speed capture (higher fps), hold larger amounts of film (more rolling time), etc. Some cameras were made for larger studio productions, and others more handheld for run and gun or documentary style shooting. Some people say that certain brands are more reliable than others.
How to modify your images
So if film cameras are just vehicles for film to get exposed in, how do you modify or bake-in certain looks on film? The answer is through selecting different film stock, lenses and filters.
Different film stocks have inherently different properties. Kodak looks very different from Fuji. Even Kodak 250D looks a little different from Kodak 500T from a grain structure perspective. Selecting your film stock will set the base look for your image.
Lenses are a big determining factor for your image creation. In digital cameras, sometimes you want an image to look really modern, so you’d use something clean and sharp like an Ultra Prime lens. Other times, you want the image to look softer and not perfect, so you’d use a vintage lens like a Zeiss super speed. Your mileage may vary, based on the image quality of the sensor itself.
16mm is similar concept, but I would say it’s the opposite mentality – since it already has a ‘soft’ and vintage image quality, the sharpest lenses possible are preferable. For me at least.
Filtration is also another way to modify your images. There were a lot fewer options in post in previous years – there was no Davinci Resolve, Tiffen Digital filters, etc to help alter your images. So you’d have to do everything in camera.
A word on exposure
There are different levels of ASA/ISO for film stock. In a digital camera, you have control of ISO at your finger tips through a menu in the camera. If things get too bright or dark, you can change the ISO at will (even though that’s not optimal). Not with the film camera. One of the fun, and also challenging things shooting on film is that once you select your roll of film, you are stuck with that ISO until the next roll.
So you only have aperture and shutter speed to change your exposure in camera. Seeing as how the shutter speed should remain the same in most scenes for consistency in motion blur, that leaves the aperture. When working on certain projects you also may want to remain consistent on your f-stops in each scene, so that means you shouldn’t change anything in the camera.
This situation is where your mastery of lighting (or that of your gaffer’s :)) comes into play. I’d guess this is one of the reasons why cinematography was much more of a mystical art before the age of digital cameras. Not just anyone could look at a digital monitor and move the lights around until the image looked decent. You had to know how the lighting exposure and placement would actually look on a developed roll of film.
The mechanics of using a film camera
Now that we have a base understanding of what affects your images, on to the fun part for your tech heads out there. Part 3 is about the mechanics of using a 16mm film camera – selecting a camera, loading the film, filming, and processing the images.
|CONTACT | ODAY RASHEED
Film vs Digital
If you’ve been following video production and media over the past couple of years, you may have noticed a big resurgence in using actual film celluloid as a medium to tell stories (commercial, music vids, narrative, etc). I jumped on this trend in early 2017 and it’s been one of the best moves I’ve made in my career thus far. Let’s talk about why.
First, I’m not interested in the debate of “film vs digital”. As a director I know once said to me, “I don’t think one is better than the other. It’s just a different medium in which to express your art form. Just like how people paint with water, and other people paint with oil.” That’s the best way I can describe it. Now that you know my stance on it, let me tell you “the why”. But first, I think it’s important to tell you my background so you get a sense of the perspective I’m coming from.
One of my favorite inspiration vids shot on super 16:
How I got into shooting film
Prior to 2017, I had only shot on 16mm film in one film class I took at SVA (an art school in NYC). When the results came back, I died. I couldn’t handle how amazing the footage looked. The way the highlights rolled off, or blew out, the grain structure, the feeling of it, etc. This was the time when I had just purchased a RED Scarlet and still shooting on Canon 5Ds. However, practically speaking it did not make sense. The cameras still were a little pricey, the film stock and development didn’t make sense. And back in 2012-13 the DSLR rage was pretty much at full force with cinema cameras just starting to replace them. So I put it in the back of my mind that film was this great thing at one point but no longer a viable option as a means to create images.
Fast forward to the beginning of 2017, my career had been chugging along slowly but surely, and I had just come off a series of commercial campaigns for some beauty brands. I had some down time and wanted to try something new. I started looking at film again because I had seen so many projects come up lately with super 16. A DP I know, Justin Derry, had just purchased an Aaton XTR Prod film camera and offered to have me come by his studio to check it out. This seemed like providence, so I took him up on his offer. He showed me how to load a magazine with a dummy roll of film (which I will show you how to do in part 2 of this article), and we shot some test footage and got it developed. I was now ready to go out on my own and shoot film.
Here’s the first project I shot with 16mm. I worked with one of my favorite directors Sam Shannon on this piece, a fashion editorial mixing RED, super 16, and super 8. It was key to me to start on low key projects, get used to exposing the film certain ways, how various light intensities and quality affects the image:
Why I shoot on film
So now you know my brief history with my contact with film, here’s why I shoot film:
It makes me a better DP.
I’ve found that because I’ve shot film I have to be more conservative with each take, my framing, etc, because there’s a limited amount of time to film. Every second you roll is costing you or the production money. This makes me look at the scene as a whole and be more selective, and has carried over to my digital shooting. I scan for angles and framing before committing now, vs rolling as much as possible which has sometimes been the request of some directors.
Film also is teaching me how to memorize light intensities without the use of a light meter or an in camera meter. When you shoot on a film camera, you are looking through an optical viewfinder. If you don’t know what this is, it’s essentially like a DSLR where you’re seeing the real life image of the object in front of you.
It’s not like an EVF or an electronic monitor that interprets real life and the image you see when you view the footage in post. You don’t see what your lighting will look like in post until you process the film. It’s a little nerve wracking at first, but when you start to get a few rolls under your belt, you start to remember the camera’s settings, what the film can handle exposure wise, and you get a better sense of what type of lighting does what to the exposure, all without having to look at an electronic monitor. Because it’s so visceral, you remember what the images look like. This helps expand the knowledge of how light looks to your eye vs looking at a camera monitor on any digital camera.
The second, obvious reason I shoot 16mm film is because it’s an aesthetic preference. It has its own unique look. You can mimic this in post with the right tools and color grading, but that also comes with already knowing the qualities of what 16mm looks like.
Some stills from an upcoming project. The images get better as you improve over time:
To be continued
Now that we have the why, I will discuss the “how”. The next article covers things to think about when creating your images, followed by part 3 in which we’ll talk about the mechanics of actually using a film camera.
|Director: Sol Goode|