Got Film?

Did we abandon film too fast? Filmmaker Lawrence Walford thinks we should still be dreaming celluloid dreams
September 1, 2004

When Technicolor was invented it was considered a bogus medium – too undignified to exhibit the moving image. Then came magnetic video, which did more to wax the porn industry than facilitate home viewing on a cinematic scale. Next was digital, which in turn spawned dvd and finally hd technology – which has plunked itself on top of the set as the incumbent air to the throne.

All of these changes have occurred because of market demand, but it’s the viewer that has benefited, not the producer. These market permutations have resulted in downsized budgets and dwindled delivery times, and now the producer is under pressure to provide cut-price, bargain-basement programming. Which raises the question: Is there a place for shooting on film in this digital video age?

It wasn’t so long ago that all documentary budgets included lines that said things like film stock, processing and telecine. Now directors are either very plucky or very privileged to suggest shooting even their title sequence on film, and production managers treat film like an inexperienced mother feeding her baby for the first time – it’s a messy business and it usually ends in tears. Mention the words Super 16 or 35mm to the young upstarts at the large factual and lifestyle production companies (where PD150′s must be carried at all times), and it’s more likely a look they attribute to something rendered out in After Effects.

But, it’s not a dead art. There’s a whole world of young film aficionados out there producing promos and adverts on a daily basis that can handle the stuff like they were born with clapper loaders on.

Very slowly, doors are being reopened into the dream world of celluloid. Take fundraising, for example. Depending on your subject matter, if you’ve already taken steps and actually shot part of your doc or made a teaser on film, it’s far more likely to raise awareness in the marketplace. It also immediately raises your profile, prolongs the longevity of your product, and what’s more, means the film can complete its journey to the cinema without complicated reverse telecine and blow-up expenses.

In terms of kit and postproduction deals, there are facilities with underused telecine machines and film post rooms begging to be used. A prolonged deal that a series commission might bring in is like gold to them. If you’re willing to sit down with a facility before you shoot to tell them what you’re up to and what you’re trying to get out of the project (especially if you’re trying to get a series commission), they will sometimes allow you to defer any premium payments, and any transfer costs can be added as a line under your actual commissioned budget.

And the film stock? There are now companies whose sole purpose is to sell re-canned stock – film that has been loaded into a magazine, never used, and then put back in the can. Using re-canned stock used to be a risky business, but with the advent of proper suppliers, reputations are on the line. As long as the used-by date hasn’t passed and the tins aren’t damaged, the film should be in perfect condition.

If re-canned film doesn’t sound appetizing there’s always the option of going straight to the manufacturer. With video threatening to take over the market, suppliers are ready and willing to do deals. Failing that, it’s even possible to buy film stock on eBay at rock-bottom prices.

So, where does film sit in the digital multi-format food chain? For the producer, write it off as a cost-effective alternative at your peril. There are deals out there to be unearthed. For the director, it’s impossible to say that film is superior than video – the two are like chalk and cheese and both have their merits, depending on genre and subject matter. Economically, video has a short-term advantage, but in the long run film is the winner, in part because more thought and effort have gone into the preparation and execution of the production.

Larry Walford is an indie producer working in London. His company, Century Aspect Films, is now developing series for UKTV.

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