College rant – Top 10 Reasons I hate shooting on film

James / July 24th, 2013

When I was in film school, (well technically, it was an art university but I majored in film) we were encouraged by all our film professors to shoot our movies the old-fashioned way, on actual film stock. We weren’t just encouraged, we were required for many of our assignments. We used 16mm black and white reversal. (That means there’s no negative. When the film is developed in the lab, that’s it. No need to print it onto another strip of film.) Not only did we shoot film, we edited with it too. It was worse than editing video with two VCR’s. You had to physically cut the film by hand and tape it together. I could never edit film without getting tangled in it. I’d end up with film strips hanging all over my body like a celluloid mummy.

 

In the beginning, I was attracted to film stock because it’s how all my favorite movies were made. The look of it best suited all my horror movie ideas. But nostalgia aside, it made shooting a lot more difficult. I soon realized I could accomplish much more by sticking to shooting on video. Digital video was out by then and kept getting better year after year. (HD was around the corner.) I felt that digital video was going to take over, and I was right! Most theaters nowadays are projecting digitally. Film still looked better, but it wasn’t worth the price. Film was so expensive that it consumes the entire budget for your movie. I’d rather put the money into things that go in front of the camera, then wasting it all on the film stock.

 

It seemed everybody else was all about shooting film or nothing. Film festivals would never accept anything unless it was shot on film. Nobody took me seriously when I wanted to shoot my projects on video. Sure film looked better, but I think the most important thing is STORY. Even to this day, everyone’s always obsessed with the image quality. Everyone’s always raving about the Red cameras. It doesn’t matter what you use as long as you have a story that’s worth telling. You could take a pile of dog shit and shoot it with a Red camera or a VHS camera. It doesn’t matter. It’s still a pile of dog shit. Would you rather have a movie that’s shot on the Red, but is crap, or something that’s shot on a less expensive camera that doesn’t have as insane a resolution, but has a great story that engages an audience.

 

I was the rebel of the film class. This was back in 2003, when I started shooting on the Panasonic DVX100, the first video camera that shot in 24 frames a second, instead of 30, giving it a more film-like feel. The class was impressed! After that, everybody started using it.

 

Anyway, what got me started on this topic, I found something I casually wrote when all this was going on. I don’t know how this piece of paper survived. It’s one of those things that just randomly turns up after several years. It brought back all these bad memories of using film, and how many times it ruined my projects. My last movie shot on film was Curse of the Cat Lover’s Grave which, luckily, I shot video simultaneously as a back up, just because I didn’t trust film. Well, it turned out. When the film came back from the lab, it was 100% black. There was no image whatsoever. Sounds like a simple mistake, but there was nothing wrong with the camera. There wasn’t a lens cap on, or anything stupid like that. Nobody could explain what happened. I wasted hundred of dollars. I guess you could say my experience with film stock was quite “negative.”

 

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Let me take a moment to interpret this, what I wrote about 10 years ago.

 

“TOP 10 REASONS I HATE USING BOLEX FILM”

The crossed out word, Bolex, is the name of a camera. I guess originally I was going to make the top 10 about that particular camera, but decided to go with film in general. The Bolex sucked ass! It was  the most awkward design for a camera humanly possible. It was heavy, bulky and with a strap on the top. There was no conceivable way to hold it and shoot comfortably. Anyway, onto the top 10.

 

“10 – LOADING. RISK OF LIGHT.”

Yeah, wasn’t that always fun? Anytime you had to load the camera, you had to go into a dark bathroom. Simply, the reason for this is that if the film gets exposed to light at all, it’s ruined. The worst was when you were out shooting somewhere and you had to change the film when there wasn’t any dark place around. You had to bring a bag to change it in. It’s like being a magician. And with a camera that could only hold 3 minutes of film at a time, you had to change it pretty often.

 

“9 – HAVE TO WIND UP”

This is one that’s specific to the Bolex. It didn’t use batteries. Instead it was operated by winding a lever! Every time you wind it, you might get about 10 seconds of shooting time before it snaps off again.

 

“8 – NO LCD SCREEN DOR TURNING CAMERA IN WEIRD ANGLES”

LCD screens were the best invention ever! With them, you don’t need to have your eye always glued to the eye piece. In fact, I don’t use the eye piece on my cameras anymore at all. I can’t remember the last time I did that. LCD screens spoiled us. WIth them, you can get the camera in all kinds of angles where your body couldn’t normally contort itself into. Not to mention, filming yourself. How could you see what you’re shooting without being able to flip that LCD screen around? The film cameras we used had no such luxuries. Even with the older video cameras, all my old home movies were a guessing game.

 

“7 – LIGHT READINGS (WHAT YOU SEE VS. WHAT YOU GET)”

WIth film, you have to use a light meter to gauge how to set your iris. If you screw up, you’ll end up with overexposed film, or underexposed. With video, you just look at the screen and see what you’re getting. If it’s too bright, close the iris. If it’s too dark, open it up. I’m a visual person. I like to see things. Not use mathematics.

 

“6 – HEAVINESS OF CAMERA”

Already mentioned. Can’t think of any light weight film cameras. Unless maybe 8mm.

 

“5 – ORDERING OR OBTAINING FILM”

You can’t just walk into any store and buy 16mm film. You had to always plan in advance and order it, or buy it from a classmate.

 

“4 – HAVING TO SEND OUT FOR PROCESSING”

This is the worst! Today, I would put this at #1. Why is this not my number 1? Every time you shoot something, you have to send it out to the lab to get developed. When my class would send out our film, we’d usually have to wait at least A WEEK before we got to see our footage. Imagine waiting that long to see if what you shot turned out right or not. With video, you can see it INSTANTLY.

 

“3 – NIGHT SHOOTING??? JUST USE DIGITAL”

I think I meant how unpredictable the light meter readings were whenever you were trying to shoot outside at night. What are you exposing to? That distant skyline? Yeah, right. Good luck getting the light meter all the way out there.

 

“2 – HAVE TO PLAN AND RESERVE”

Nobody owns their own film camera. You have to plan in advance, and rent them. I hate renting equipment. Always have. Always will. Filmmaking already involves a lot of planning as it is. Renting and returning equipment is one more thing you have to do. Usually, whenever we tried to reserve equipment from the school, it would never be available, unless you planned at least a week or two in advance. Then the shoot date comes, and one of your actors bails out and needs to reschedule.

 

“1 – EXPENSES – $17 FOR 3 MINUTES OF FILM. $12 FOR PROCESSING”

Yep. Film is A LOT more expensive than video. Plain and simple. Is it worth it?

 

With all that said, here are some of the movies I shot on film.

A New Night of Total Terror (1999)

Poltergeist in an Alleyway (2001)

It Came from the Toilet (2001)

Moron Marathon (2002)

Even though I have so many bad memories with film, I still feel nostalgic toward it. One day when the time is right, and when I have the leisure time to experiment, I’ll make a creepy horror film that would benefit from the antique look of film stock. One day, I will do it again.

 

 

 

Comments

  • taykel

    July 24, 2013 at 10:44 am

    I never shot anything on film before, but I had my own problems shooting videos on my small red digital camera. I have to upload the videos on YouTube first to get the picture in. Then I download them on to my editing software to make them into one video blog. Finally, I upload the final video onto YouTube. Sometimes it takes a few hours to upload them because they’re in HD.
    I can see why not that many people shoot film anymore. That might have been so much pain. But I think you rather be in my situation than taking longer than expected to get your movie perfect on film prints. No matter how you shoot them, your short films are interesting. What it matters is just do it and get it done.

  • July 24, 2013 at 11:48 am

    I honestly think that Poltergeist in an Alleyway is your best work that I’ve seen.

  • Dr. Breakfastmachine

    July 24, 2013 at 12:45 pm

    Your rant about a piece of shit being a piece of shit no matter what camera it’s filmed with is golden, man. So many filmmaking sites and Youtube channels act as if you absolutely cannot start making films unless you have a $20,000 camera, a $5,000 microphone, and $30,000 of camera rigs. Who the fuck has that kind of money lying around just to make their videos look “more professional”? I use a $250 piece of shit camera and I’m not shelling out enough money to buy four new cars in order to upgrade any time soon.

  • johnpseudo

    July 24, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    Damn right, James ! I can relate to some of it. Some years ago I was into the nostalgic feel of Super 8 cams, just to find out one casette / roll lasts only 4-5 min and there was hardly any laboratory still developing those for an affordable price. So I just bought a cam, roll of film, shot some minutes testwise. Had it developed. Bought a projector, took it along with me to a fried some hundred km away, put the film on – just to find it completely black except for the last seconds when I filmed the ceiling lamp. Lesson learned – don`t use daylight film for inside shots … d`uh !
    Scrapped the whole shit for simple inconvenience !

  • July 24, 2013 at 1:51 pm

    I’ve only shot on mini-DV tapes, which can be a pain its self. Still, nothing looks quite so good as film. It just has a life to it you don’t get with digital. Digital makes everything look too clean and too sanitized.

    • July 24, 2013 at 8:46 pm

      I think it depends on what kind of film you’re trying to make. I do agree that film (and vinyl, when talking about music) has a wholly “organic” quality to it that you just cannot duplicate digitally. Analog has things like wow, flutter, pops, hisses, stuff that just gives the work a certain…character. But like I said, it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Creepy thriller or horror film? Go with film stock. Making a technical demonstration video on “how to desolder motherboard components” go with digital (to give a clean, crisp look, like a freshly starched dress shirt).

      But hey. That’s just like my opinion man.

  • Allen Lucas

    July 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    I know this is WAY off topic, but please hear me out James!

    I just read that there’s a new Rocky movie in the works except it’s not Rocky 7! It’ll be a spinoff about an elder Rocky training the grandson of Apollo Creed, and it’ll be titled Creed. The film will be made from the same team that made the acclaimed Fruitvale Station with the film’s star Michael B. Jordan playing the grandson Creed.

    I think it’s a great idea! What do you think James?

  • July 24, 2013 at 4:40 pm

    Great story! You don’t let bullshit stand in your way. You seek and destroy. Can’t wait to see your 16mm film one day.

  • Syph

    July 24, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    James Rolfe… Making top ten lists before he even had an audience to show them to.

    I love your top ten lists, though. Always good to see one, even from a decade ago!

  • Jake Westbrook

    July 24, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    I looked up that camera. that thing just looks weird. I’d hate to have to use one.

  • Kenshiroh

    July 24, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    t doesn’t matter what you use as long as you have a story that’s worth telling. You could take a pile of dog shit and shoot it with a Red camera or a VHS camera. It doesn’t matter. It’s still a pile of dog shit. Would you rather have a movie that’s shot on the Red, but is crap, or something that’s shot on a less expensive camera that doesn’t have as insane a resolution, but has a great story that engages an audience.

    I read that Tommy Wiseau shot digital and film simultaneously for The Room.

  • July 25, 2013 at 1:23 am

    James, you have no idea just how much I can relate to this. I started 8mm last semester. I loved and hated it for all these reasons. Especially when we (my film group and I) took about 8+ hours to shoot one in camera film, and it came back mostly dark. Another thing that was a pain in the ass was our film being devoured by the projector ON THE DAY OF OUR FINAL. It was perfect. You know, just what you want. But hey. Such is life?

  • July 25, 2013 at 2:29 am

    I like viewing movies shot on film but completely agree that it doesn’t matter if it is the greatest camera in the world if you are only capturing crap.

    the film makers who exclusively shoot their movies only on film are down to Chris Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, Ron Fricke and a couple other people but that is it. everyone else in the industry shoots digital.

    Im glad you are shooting the AVGN movie on digital though. the movie will better for it.

  • ToadRoad

    July 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

    I think it’s such a funny list to make because it’s like “what’s the purpose?” It’s not like he’s going to send it to film companies so they can right their ways. Awesome.

    On an unrelated note, there is going to be a spinoff to Rocky!!!! It’s called Creed, and Rocky will train Apollo’s grandson.

  • JGanthor

    July 25, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    James, I can completely relate. I went to film school in Michigan back in 2002, and back then HD technology was just being pioneered for professional use. We used to sit around and argue about which was better, shooting on 35mm or digital video.

    Part of the tuition paid for 500 ft. of 16mm film stock so we could shoot our thesis projects – that translates into about 12 minutes of film, and then we had to buy our own film. I shot a horror spoof, the majority of which was shot on 16mm, and I have all the complaints you talk about.

    As a matter of fact, I had two rolls of film come back with nothing but static – apparently, whoever loaded the magazines didn’t leave enough of a loop at the bottom, and when the film was threaded through the camera, it rubbed up against the film gate and nothing was captured.

    I ended up shooting the rest of the film on standard DV. With a trained eye you can tell the difference, but in thed end, the story still gets told.

    Lloyd Kaufman is one filmmaker who, at least in the past, has always stood up for the film medium. I would love to experiment with film when I someday get the cash for it, but I’m really glad that it’s a technology of the past and that not as many filmmakers are hung up about it.

  • diegowar

    July 25, 2013 at 3:30 pm

    Ahah, thanks for sharing these memories with us, very interesting. Looks like you were born at the right time (or slightly too soon) ^^

  • Rick

    July 25, 2013 at 9:08 pm

    James, man, I love this stuff! 😀 Being an indie-filmaker who wants to go to film school next year it’s nice to get such a cautionary tale XD Oh yeah, and I JUST BOUGHT A PANASONIC HDC TODAY! WHOOOOOOOO!!

  • erik37

    July 25, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    Nice story man thats fucking ridiculous they have college students try an shoot that way i would have never made it with being broke an all lol

  • CannedParadox

    July 26, 2013 at 12:36 am

    Taping film together while editing would have been a dream. We had to use a technique called wet spicing. That’s where you scrape the emulsion of the off between last sprocket holes of the film that’s about to end and the first sprocket holes of the film you’re about to splice to. You overlap the scraped frames (only 1 sprocket deep), glue them together with some film cement and press it in a special heated plate to set the cement. After about 30 seconds to a minute you remove it and prey to the cruel film gods that they stick, if not you have to cut the frames and start again. And you had to do this for EVERY. SINGLE. SPLICE.

  • sloth-machine

    July 26, 2013 at 12:58 pm

    Ah, I remember the days of physically cutting film and taping it together. I was in a film school in 1999-2000. The splicers where so gunked up with tape adhesive that it never gave your film a clean cut. When your edited film would roll through the projector, your image would jump between edits…it was annoying. I may be nostalgic for many things and really miss them but film is one thing that can just go extinct, including photography (there are some insanely nice digital SLR point and shoot camera out there these days).

    There are hundreds of missing theatrical films today because of your very reasons James.

  • frostare

    July 28, 2013 at 4:08 am

    Call the film “The Celluloid Mummy”

  • JayRam

    July 28, 2013 at 10:56 pm

    James,

    How likely are you to recommend film school, what with the cost most institutes are asking for? I’ve been on the fence about it for a couple years. Over this last year I’ve come to believe that pretty much everything you need to know can be learned through trial and error. Of course, talent also helps. What say you?

  • July 29, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    Hi James , big fan here , it is mostly true what you say about digital vs film , but nowadays you can get a cheap rig with something like a 5d mk3 or blackmagic 4k , the thing is , it does matter from one perspective , the lenses , back when you were filming on 16 mm the range of lenses for digital was weak , and you couldn’t get the same look and feel of a film with digital , i am a director of photography , and i can tell you , that you as a director , don’t have to deal with this sort of problems , it is usually the DoP’s job , i’ve only shot on digital , all my short movies , my commercials and music videos , all on the RED , but I must emphasize that i does matter what you shoot on , beacause the look of a movie shot on a handheld “vacation” camera will alwats look cheap and unprofessional , beit a pile of shit , be it a great story . Lenses ftw!

  • July 31, 2013 at 4:16 pm

    I’m also shooting on the DVX100B and I think it’s great. But if anyone knows of anything that shoots a little better or where I can locate the 35mm adapter for the DVX it would be much appreciated.

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