Why Shoot Film?

Steven Spielberg used 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm for his 2022 feature film, The Fabelman's.
Stephen Spielberg used 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm for his 2022 feature film, The Fabelman’s.

If I can’t shoot on film, I’ll stop making movies.

Quentin Tarantino, KCRW Interview1

Let’s face it. It’s the digital age. When I was in film school, we sounded just like the old folks who said that automobiles would never replace the horse–“Digital will never replace film.” Nowadays, you only see horses in pastures (unless you’re Canadian and have Royal Mounties patrolling your streets). But has film been “put out to pasture”?

No! And here’s why. Most obviously, cameras don’t eat grass. Just as obvious from a visual perspective (albeit less known) is that 35mm analog film has been achieving the equivalent digital clarity (approx. 4K2) since before computers were invented.

The Five “W’s” of Why You Should Shoot Film

  1. Learning “Why” helps you accomplish “What.” There is a reason leading film schools still offer classes shooting film. Understanding why cameras and film work the way they do–traditional filmmaking method–will, believe it or not, help you understand how things are done now. (E.g. Digital frames captured with pixels is a different form of the same function of capturing an image on celluloid via film grain.) Understanding how cameras function, exposure, film formats, terminology, and even traditional editing work is a great foundation. Film schools still may encourage film cutting! We live in a fast-paced world; but honing your craft means picking up tools. Roman aqueducts weren’t built with computer engineering. Tools in the hands of master craftsmen build lasting monuments. Take the time to do it. You will be rewarded by being better equipped to accomplish “What.” What do you want to be? You want to be a filmmaker. So… buy a camera and a few lenses, learn to install a roll of film (without scratching it), shoot it, edit it, and voilà. You’re a filmmaker. Or at least you’re on your way.
  2. Learning “How” develops patience and proficiency. Filmmaking is visual storytelling, which is an art. It is showing more than it is telling. And learning to tell a compelling story visually is a requirement of excellent filmmaking. This takes lost of practice. And patience. But the seeming constraint of not having limitless film can accelerate your development of proficiency by forcing you to think through your shots before you shoot. How will you stage the scene? How will you position your actors in the frame? Would a close-up or a medium shot better communicate the tension or passion between characters? How should light best used? Telling a story through the lens of a camera is where cinema becomes art. And learning to shoot film develops you as an artist.
  3. “When” it comes time for production and post, “proficiency” (as it becomes “Mastery”) pays dividends. It may be tempting to argue that you’re not paying for every foot of film shot with digital. But time isn’t free. And filmmaking requires nothing if it doesn’t require time. Not everybody has blockbuster budgets. When you have carefully planned what you will shoot and how, having gained the experience and ability to do it well, you will save yourself (or your investors) lots of money! Not that you have to rehearse every scene Sydney Lumet style. But proficiency will pay dividends during production and post. Whether shooting analogue or digital, filmmakers would be wise to reason out the budget ramifications of what the master planner of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, had to say about planning: to have a “completely preconceived idea of how the film is to be cut, and…shoot accordingly.”
  4. Marketability. “Who” gets the job depends on who has the skill.
    • If you are for-hire filmmaker, you will absolutely gain clients because you’ve demonstrated you can tell their story with a Bolex. You will not be limited to digital. And here you thought digital was limitless! Sorry. Not true. There are some things even digital can’t replicate. Clients know it. And they’ll pay for it.
    • If you’re aiming for the stars and want to be the next Christopher Nolan, look no further than Christopher Nolan. I mean, do look further–there are so many filmmakers to learn from! But from digital, to 35mm, to 70mm, to IMAX 65… you can’t diversify more than that. I don’t think he’ll be out of a job any time soon.
  5. “Where” to begin can be daunting. You don’t need to “go big, or go home.” In fact, you shouldn’t. But you should begin with basic tools: a camera, lenses, and film–and an idea for a short film wouldn’t hurt.
    • Pick up an excellent and affordable used 8mm and 16mm cameras (be sure to pick one that has been serviced and runs well).
    • Add a few affordable prime lenses (25mm, 50mm, 75mm, or a 12-120mm zoom).
    • Hundred-foot rolls of Kodak film run around $65.3
    • Processing + scanning to digital can range from $65-$120, and some labs may offer student pricing.4
    • If you don’t have access to a splicer and projector, edit your short on your favorite software.
    • You may also wish pick-up the latest edition of The Filmmaker’s Handbook.
    • Begin with a short film (under 3 minutes). It doesn’t sound like much, but you will quickly discover how much time it takes! And you can achieve a lot of excellent visual storytelling in three minutes.

A note on cameras:

  • ($) 8mm cameras are least expensive, including the D-mount lenses that fit them.
  • ($$) 16mm non-reflex cameras can begin at $499, depending on the model. Be sure to understand if you are buying a reflex or a non-reflex camera; this may impact the lenses you buy.
  • ($$$) Super-16 cameras cost “most,” but one advantage is that their aspect ratio (1.67) is close to widescreen video (16:9); so you can transfer to HD or UHD with little cropping. Just plan for the crop-factor when doing framing in production. You will also need Super-16 lenses.
Today’s Leading Filmmakers

Need any more proof that shooting film is valuable (necessary) to have in your the bag of tricks? Look no further than today’s leading filmmakers–they still shoot on film. Here are a few of our favorite recent movies shot on film:

  • Oppenheimer (2023, by Christopher Nolan) – used IMAX 65mm and 65mm large-format
  • The Fabelman’s (2022, by Steven Spielberg) – used 35mm, 16mm, and 8mm
  • Old (2021, by M. Knight Shyamalan) – used 35mm

I don’t guess at what we are going to put on the screen and shoot a lot of material and then see how it works out… I like to have a completely preconceived idea of how the film is to be cut, and I shoot accordingly.

From Alfred Hitchcock’s Working Credo, by Gerald Pratley, 1950
  1. https://www.kcrw.com/culture/articles/you-can-watch-movies-from-quentin-tarantinos-personal-collection ↩︎
  2. https://letsenhance.io/blog/all/film-renessainse-or-back-from-dead/ ↩︎
  3. https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/buy/Movie-Film/ci/341/N/4093113313 ↩︎
  4. https://www.cinelab.com/pricing ↩︎