Mar 15, 2008

Save Money! Shoot 35mm Film!

One of the great myths of low budget filmmaking is that the cheapest way to make a movie is by using a cheap camera and a smaller film guage, or to shoot on tape.

But it's not always true, if your aim is to create a film to watch in a theater-- This requires getting to a 35 mm print somehow.
Shooting in 35mm may well be the cheapest way to get to a 35mm finish. It has been in my experience with some type of projects.

Don't be fooled by the cost of tape stock vs the cost of film stock. The costs of making a digital intermediate and then a print out to 35mm can be far more than these costs. Just as the cost of making a blow up added greatly to the cost of 16mm origination.

Is this a documentary project or a scripted short? What do you anticipate your shooting ratio to be? If it's not a documentary, and you're going to have a reasonable ratio, say 7 to one or less, then you may be better off shooting 35mm

A lot depends on the local situation there for renting cameras and buying film. Here in the US, rental facilities always have older cameras, such as an Arri BL2 or BLIII sitting on a shelf, or if you don't need sync dialog sound, Arri IICs. In Italy I'll bet you can find great deals on Cameflexes. People starting out often turn up their noses at "Old" cameras, forgetting all the great films that were shot in the 70s and 80s with these "old" cameras.

Also, here we can get "Short Ends" and "Re-Cans" which are film cans left over from productions, and there are places that specialize in selling that here. It's not difficult to get 400' rolls that are much cheaper than new. The film is snip tested before they sell it to you.

The 35mm film/processing/workprint/neg cut process is very simple and well understood. You could even avoid expensive tape transfers for Non Linear editing, and cut on a flat bed. People are giving away flat bed editors. They take up a lot of space and there aren't many buyers, they'd rather see someone using it then send it to the recycling center.

Several years ago I was DP (and AC, and Loader for much of the shoot!) on a small low budget film, "FLOSS". I convinced the producer, that since he was in this to make a movie that could be shown in a theater, the best and easiest, and even cheapest route to go was 35mm origination.

Then we used the same techniques low budget film producers have used for decades-- getting bargains, getting people to work for little or no money, and as much for free as possible. Because it's the labor and all the other expenses that constitute most of the budget of the film, not the film stock.

Still when you are operating on this level, there are hard costs you usually can't avoid, namely film stock and processing, and camera rental (unless your DP is coming with his own lesson.)

We scheduled our shoot to start right after christmas, when most TV Series and movies are on breaks. This enabled us to get a great deal on a 35mm camera package from a hollywood camera rental facility. A 35mm Arri BLII with 5 lenses, batteries, 4 mags, Video tap, matte box, everything, for $4900 for 3 weeks!

Sure, the BLII is an old camera. But a heck of a lot of great films were shot in the late seventies early eighties with BLII's, right?

Next up, Film. We bought short ends from Dr Raw Stock in Los Angeles. Here was another example of how shooting in 35mm has advantages over 16mm. By choosing a stock that was popular with multi camera sitcoms, we were able to easily get all the 400' "short ends" we needed. The reason for this is that the multicamera film shows change loads when they get below 500' of film in their 1000 and 2000' loads. Whereas it is not nearly as easy to find a short end of 400' of 16mm, since 400' is the largest load almost everyone ever shoots with.

In all, our stock and processing costs were under $35k. We kept to a low shooting ratio as we knew our actors really werent' going to get that much better after 3 takes. We did more rehearsals, instead of the popular fad for rehearsing on film.

Lighting was a lot easier on Floss, because we weren't shooting on Digital Video. (Low cost HD cameras were still a few years away, the Sony CineAlta HDCAM would have blown Floss's shooting budget in 3 days. We basically lit from a couple of kits, with a 1k chimera as our key light, usually no fill light at all, and some accent lighting. To our eye, the scenes looked to contrasty to someone used to shooting on video, but the bounce from the walls provided nearly all the shadow fill we needed in most scenes.

This enabled us to move very fast and quick, yet looked great for a drama like Floss. In some scenes, such as a torture scene in a warehouse, we used a single hard key. But mostly it was just the chimera, and some rim light, and background lights. Locations were picked for their ability to look good with minimal lighting. We were able to paint the Dental Office so that it wouldn't have blinding white walls, as is typical. Then we used a large house for all the home scenes that gave us several different looks, and also had a lot of wood paneling, which looks good with minimal lighting effort.

Just putting an idea in your head. If you have to shoot a lot of footage, then this won't work. But people assume that digital is always cheaper, and yet make that conclusion without running the numbers on a spreadsheet, using real world quotes of what you can find great equipment for.


Obi said...

This was incredibly helpful. I'm a filmmaker from LA looking to shoot a grungy, grainy Inarittu-style film in the forests of Africa and I've been debating on whether to shoot 35mm or on a RED. I have some cash but I don't want to blow the budget on a "standard" 35mm film shoot so finding ways to lower costs is helpful. Any other ideas you didn't mention? Thoughts? Thanks again!

Steven Bradford said...

Yes, a rugged 35mm camera such as an arri bl3 that can use batteries you recharge with solar chargers might be a better choice than a complex and fragile digital camera a long way from parts and service.
Will you be shooting lip sync dialogue sound? If not you might be even better off with an Eclair Cameflex (which is what I used on most of one feature) or an Arri IIc. They're noisy, but very dependable and much lighter weight and smaller than the sound dampened cameras.

Obi said...

Yea, I'll definitely be shooting lip sync dialogue, so I'll check for that Arri BL3. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

Okay I want to learn film. I have shot dv, but I want to now move on to film. Is it true that film is dead? Is it true that is is very expensive to shoot on film?

Eric said...


Film is very much alive. Most theatrical movies released by studios are still shot on film. While it can be expensive to shoot on film, there are many workarounds as presented by the OP to getting it done cheaper. I did a test recently on 35mm w/ the following rates from Deluxe Labs: negative stock(short/long ends)-$.06/foot, processing-$.08/foot, film print-$.18/foot. It's very doable.

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Sam Longoria said...

Steven, I can't agree more. If I hear one more person say the RED Camera has magical powers (It can get people to work for free!), I'm gonna yell. If you want to shoot a movie that can play in any theatre in the world, shoot 35mm film. You just need more guys to carry equipment...

Sam Longoria
Hollywood CA USA