Thursday, February 19, 2004

"This Movie Ain't Gonna Shoot Itself (revisited)" part 002.

Part Two: Big Decision #1

All you really need to shoot a movie is a camera and something put in front of the camera. I would say you need light, too, but that's not the case with some of these "night vision" cameras that are available these days (see the Paris Hilton sex tape for an example of this technology in action). The script to Hide and Creep pretty much dictated what we'd put in front of the camera. It was up to co-producer Chuck Hartsell and me to decide what kind of camera to use.*

Film Is dead

I hate to get all controversial in my second column for the 'Shoot, but you can't get far into making an indie feature without considering the "film or video?" question. Make that the "film or video?" argument. If you follow the movie business at all, you've probably heard different pundits offer their opinion on the matter. It often seems that old school guys like Spielberg and critic Roger Ebert love film, while all the young guns are pro-video. Well, I'm a relatively young shooter, and I prefer film. Also, if film is dead, what's inside all those bright yellow Kodak boxes in my fridge?

Film -- it's not just for breakfast anymore.

I think video has its place, too. In fact, Chuck and I originally considered shooting Hide and Creep on video and having our actors improvise most of the scenes. All that improv would have meant a ton of takes, and all those takes, using film, would have meant more raw filmstock and more film processing. It'd mean more tape on a video shoot, but tape costs significantly less than raw stock and processing.

Tape cost varies depending on the specific video format. Standard definition, consumer-grade digital video starts around seven cents per minute. Standard definition, professional-grade digital (like many news stations use) starts around 42 cents per minute. High definition video, like George Lucas used to shoot Attack of the Clones, is around $1.24 per minute. Raw stock and processing for shooting film is probably going to run at least $20 per minute. Yes, twenty dollars per minute. Maybe more. Ouch.**

So, given the cost, why isn't film dead? Why would any sane person bother with it? Well, it just looks better. That sounds like a pretty objective statement, but it's true. Because for all the talk of the digital revolution, for everybody saying it's just a matter of time before all the big box office flicks are shot on cheap cameras and recorded on cheap tape, it seems like everybody who shoots video spends a huge amount of time and effort trying to make their video look like film. There's even a company called Filmlook that takes video footage and digitally processes it using a bunch of fancy equipment so it looks more like film. And they charge a bunch of money for this service.

Old pal Rick Snyder shoots with my old Arriflex 16BL 16 mm movie camera

Another thing to keep in mind is the cost of the camera itself. In many areas, you can rent a wide variety of cameras, from cheap consumer camcorders to tricked out 35 mm film cameras. That's not the case here in Birmingham, Alabama, so I bought a 16 mm camera, an Arriflex 16BL. The 16BL was a great camera, except that it weighed 22 pounds. Not bad for tripod work, but murder if you want to go handheld. Earlier this year, I sold the 16BL and bought a slightly more modern 16mm camera, an Aaton LTR 54, from Whitehouse AV in California. The LTR 54 is also great. It runs a little quiter than the Arri did and weighs about half as much. Also, it's paid for, so it's not a burden on the Hide and Creep budget.

Honorable mention

If Chuck and I had decided to shoot our feature on a video camera, I would have borrowed, bought, rented, or stolen a Panasonic AG-DVX100***. I love my Aaton, but, bang for the buck, the DVX100 is pretty hard to beat. Tape cost is the previously mentioned seven cents per minute, and the camera retails for $3,795. They rent for around $150 a day.

The DVX100 has lots of nifty features, the coolest being the frame rate. The DVX100 is the first standard definition video camera available that captures images at 24 frames per second, just like a film camera. Standard def video is usually captured around 30 frames per second. Actually, it's captured at 60 half-frames per second, but I'd rather not get into a discussion of the obscure technical aspects of the American NTSC video standard. The DVX100 captures images more like a film camera, and that makes whatever you shoot on it look more like it was shot on film.

As far as I'm concerned, to get a better video camera than the DVX100, you're going to have to start looking at high definition cameras, like those made by Sony and Panasonic. But high definition cameras are pretty cost-prohibitive to buy these days, and they don't really rent them in my neck of the woods.


There are two major manufacturers of motion picture film: Kodak and Fuji. Each offers a variety of different film stocks, each with its own look and speed. "Speed" refers to how much light the stock needs to get a clear picture. Faster stocks require less light than slower ones, but they are also "grainier" (the picture is not as sharp).

Before choosing a stock, Kodak and Fuji recommend you test a few and see what you like. Of course, that costs money, so I went to and asked a couple of questions on their message board. Quite a few pro camera guys frequent that site, and they're usually happy to offer advice to the less experienced.

Based on feedback, I decided to go with Kodak's Vision2 7218, a very fast stock, for interiors, and Kodak's Vision 7246, a slightly slower stock, for daylight exteriors. The 7246 looks a little better to my eye, but I've been very happy with both. The 7218 is fast enough that we've lit many interior scenes using only available light. Which is great, because we don't have to drag around heavy and expensive movie lights. Kodak and Fuji have tons of information about their various motion picture stocks on their web sites.

Aaton LTR 54 and friend (our Director of Photography, Robb Rugan)

I briefly considered shooting Hide and Creep in black and white. I love the look of black and white, and the raw stock costs about half that of color film. Unfortunately, black and white movies are seen as less marketable by video and theatrical distribution companies, so I decided to stick with color stock.

When it's time to order film, I either go straight to Kodak or call Film Emporium. Film Emporium deals in short ends and recan -- film left over from other projects. I've saved as much as $32 per 400 foot roll buying recan instead of ordering from Kodak. Unfortunately, you can't always get recan. Kodak's 7218 stock is particularly hard to find in recan.

Speaking of saving money, I didn't realize until after I'd started shooting the movie on Kodak film that Film Emporium has much better prices on Fuji stock. A new 400' can of Kodak 7218 costs $132, 400' of Fuji's 500T stock costs $104. $28 per can would really add up over the course of a long shoot. I think I'll do a couple of tests before I start another project and see how some of the Fuji stocks look.**** Or ask some of the guys at


After we decided to shoot our first feature on film, we had to figure out how we'd be showing the finished movie -- on film, through a projector at a theater, or on video, via DVD. First, we looked at cost. Finishing on video is, not surprisingly, a lot cheaper than having a film print made of a movie's final cut. My best estimate is that getting one 35mm film print made of the final cut would add at least $15,000 to to the project's total budget.

We also had to decide if we had a shot at getting theatrical distribution. I hate to be pessimistic. Really, I do. But I doubt Hide and Creep will ever play on the big screen, at least outside the festival circuit. From the limited research I've done on theatrical distribution, I've gotten the impression that it's almost impossible to do on your own, and it's not very likely someone else is gonna do it for you.

According to Project Greenlight, that Battle of Shaker Heights movie almost went direct to video.***** And Ben Affleck was one of the producers! If Affleck has trouble getting a movie into theaters, I can only imagine how difficult it is for a guy no one's heard of.

Also, we're shooting a zombie comedy. Probably not what the art houses, who show most indie movies, are looking for. So we planned to go direct to video from the start.

Would this shot have looked this cool on video? I doubt it.

Wait a minute -- if we're never going to see our movie on the big screen, why shoot on film in the first place? Because film looks better, even after it's transferred to video. You can see for yourself. Pop in your Raiders of the Lost Ark DVD. You do have Raiders on DVD, don't you? Watch it for a few minutes. Now, flip over to the local news or a daytime soap. Or public access. The DVD will look better than the others for many reasons, one of the main ones being that it originated on film. The colors, the contrast, the frame rate... even if you're going direct to video, there are still advantages to shooting on film. Plus, you still have the original camera negative if you ever need to assemble a film print.

Film is dead?

As I said earlier, shooting on film might not be right for every project. Some days, I wonder if it's right for this one. Like those days I get a bill from Kodak. But when we're looking through our footage and a beautiful shot comes along, one I know wouldn't have looked quite as good on video... I have to say, "Long live film."

Originally appeared at on February 19, 2004.

*This potato is hotter now than when I first wrote this article back in 2004. And with the rapid evolution of imaging technology, you could reevaluate the "which camera?" question every week and come up with 52 different answers in a year. Here is my general answer to the question for today, April 22, 2008.
  1. 65 mm or IMAX film
  2. 35 mm film
  3. Super 16 mm film
  4. "Good" high def (Panavision Genesis or Sony's top of the line CineAlta camera, maybe the Red One?)
  5. Standard 16 mm film
  6. "Prosumer" high def (HVX200, XL H1, etc.)
  7. Enhanced def 24p (XL2)
  8. Standard def 24p (DVX100)
You can swap out 3 and 4 depending on whether or not you like film grain. I don't care how good digital gets in the next few years, if I have a choice (read "budget"), I'll shoot my next movie on 35mm. I'd really like to shoot a 2-perf feature, actually.

**Doing some quick math based on Interplanetary stock and processing, I'm coming up with $35 per minute for straight-to-disk HD transfers.

***Even four years later, the DVX is still a great little camera.

****Fuji looks great and is approximately $20 cheaper per 400' 16 mm roll. Don't even bother with Kodak unless you can talk them into a special deal, and don't bother with recans.

*****And now Battle star Shia LaBeouf is in the upcoming Indiana Jones flick. Go, Shia.

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