A few weeks back I went to the screening of Zacuto’s huge Single Chip Camera Shootout in London, hosted by Phil Bloom. After the screening Phil kept us in the theatre to ask what we’d taken from what we’d seen. The Sony F3 came out as the surprise package, quickly followed by the Phantom which performed extraordinarily well. What was surprising was how beat up and crap film looked in comparison to all the other cameras. Like most of us I watched the great shootout film last year where the testers were assessing whether a DSLR could stand up to any kind of comparison at all with 35mm, for so long, the gold standard of production. They did, pretty well. If they hadn’t we wouldn’t have experienced this so-called revolution. This much we know. So, why did film look so shabby this time round?

Shot on Super 16mm by Ed Wilde. Directed by myself and Gez Medinger. Love the way the water looks in the bath. We shot with Swing-Tilt lenses.

The tests were incredibly rigorous and detailed, rudely exposing defects, shortcomings and strengths of all the formats. Watching the clean signal from the digital cameras you become attuned to a different kind of aesthetic. The digital cameras look best when they’re noise free, packed with detail in the highlights and kind to the skin. That’s a huge amount to ask from a digital sensor but in several scenarios these cameras delivered. The audience were asking for perfection, both visually, but also empirically. The stats, the data, the charts, all the information gave us quantifiable ways to evaluate what we were seeing. This approach, however, doesn’t really take into account the fact that film does a pretty shoddy job of being perfect. In fact, film delivers a highly unrealistic, imperfect version of reality. It’s precisely this unreal, stylised aesthetic that has given film its appeal for so long. You simply can’t compare these digital cameras with film because it’s not fair at all. Chris Jones, guerilla filmmaker extraordinaire and the guy who inspired me to do this in the first place, stated that he thought this test spelled the death of film. He might be right, but I think it’s sad.

It’s been said many times that film has its own aesthetic of course, and it’s prohibitively expensive for most. The fact is, RED looks very very different to DSLR, which looks very very different to film. In an ideal world you’d be able to choose absolutely the right camera and lens package for the job you’re doing. I’ve become pretty sick of the DSLR look now, and actively try to shoot on other cameras because I need something different to look at. That’s just because I’ve become oversaturated with it but it also highlights how ubiquitous our super shiny, shallow aesthetic has become.

Shot on Super 16mm. Directed by me.

A DoP friend of mine has lucked into 100mins of S16mm stock recently and he proposed shooting a short film together. I can’t tell you how excited that makes me. Talk to any aspiring DoP, focus puller, camera assistant and they all want to be working on film. Tell people you’re shooting on film and they instantly sit up and take notice. It commands respect. On set it’s different too. Everyone’s just that bit more on it, just that bit more focussed, because you have to get it right. Shooting on film requires discipline because every frame that rolls through the camera equals money. When you call ‘Turn Over’ you hear the camera get up to speed, the camera op calls ‘Speed’ and that’s exactly what they mean, the camera’s up to speed. You’re crucially aware that the moments between the camera starting and you calling ‘Action’ are frames that you can’t use. I love it. There’s nothing quite like knowing that you only have a single can of film left to shoot everything you need. Rehearsal suddenly becomes incredibly important.

Then there’s the moment you get the rushes back and you see just how wonderful film can be. S16 has a unique look, grainy, earthy, almost dirty, and I love it. The story we’re shooting suits that aesthetic perfectly. People will say, why bother, when you can save so much money shooting on DSLR. Well, the fact is, I have the opportunity, I have more crew available to me, I have more favours available to me, and I will have a more disciplined set because I’ve shot on film. I’ll also enjoy the credibility of having shot on film, people take that seriously. This is still a snobbish business and such stuff still counts. Most people will never get the opportunity to shoot on film and I’ve not had that many opportunities but every time it just makes me feel like a real filmmaker, whatever that means. For all that we now live in a super modern, social media empowered world of super cheap production, there’s a grand tradition to old skool filmmaking with each department invested with such craft and talent that it lifts the whole production. We’re losing that these days but if you stick your neck out and say ‘we’re shooting on film’ you can bring attract the kind of talent that will happily invest their time in your project, giving you the old skool one again. Such moments are to be treasured.

Jared Abrams is a cinematographer based in Hollywood, California. After many years as a professional camera assistant he switched over to still photography. About two years ago a new Canon camera changed the way the world sees both motion and still photography. He just happened to be in the right place at the right time.
  • Steve

    I remember a 16mm project I did in college. I was the DP and miscalculated the time on the remaining footage, letting the camera roll out so we could change mags. When it came back and we watched the footage in class and I saw the 45 second shot of a light I felt so embarrassed. My prof had us watch the entire clip (it felt like an eternity) and I learned a hard lesson about the precious nature of filmstock.

  • mediaphile

    Film still has a much more natural look than digital.  And higher resolution, with no square pixels.  And no problems with motion.  Digital still has a long way to go.

  • jason v

    the only reason im at the university i am at is because of the opportunity to shoot on everything from super 8, 16mm and super 16mm as well as edit on steenbeck… just somehting about the old skool craftsmanship involved that makes you appreciate every take, every frame that little bit more.