Why I Love Film and Why I Miss Filmmaking

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I showed up on set the other day and was met by the sight of an old friend who’d I’d not seen for a very long time and who, thanks to many rumors, I had assumed was dead. I couldn’t believe my eyes, but there it was: an entire box of Kodak Super-16 film.  

It turned out that the network TV pro-mos we were shooting were going to include some footage shot with a Super-16 Bolex — and it had been so long since I’d worked with one that I almost enjoyed the camera noise. In case you’ve never worked with a Bolex, you really can’t record sound with them because of that unique, lawnmowery, train tracky rattle and whirr that they make. (The cameraman I was working with on our behind-the-scenes crew said, at one point, “I’m getting the Bolex in the shot, by the way, in case you want to get the sound of that,” and I just laughed because it was impossible to not get.) But even the supposedly “silent” film cameras you could pretty much always hear in an interior, to the point where we often said that there wasn’t really any point in recording room tone (for non-film people, that’s the sound of the room when it’s silent that you record for use by the editor) because it wouldn’t match the rest of the sound without the camera noise.  

So, given that I often come at these things from the sound perspective, you might think that my attitude toward film would be “Good riddance.” Film cameras are noisy, they’re heavy, they take forever to load and can be harder to light for and that slows down the day, that’s all true. But from the filmmaker-whose-favorite-outlet-is-still-photography perspective, I grew up with film, and I will always feel that the image is superior.  Not to mention that it’s really strange to me to think that a lot of kids growing up today will have no real sense of what film was all about. On last week’s shoot, one of the young actresses, who was maybe 20, was looking at the Bolex and trying to find the screen where she could watch what was being shot – and thinking about that makes me realize how different the entire way we look at the creation of images has become.

Film’s precious immutability formed a key part of the process of using it. With filmmaking and still photography, you started with the actual negative that you’d loaded into the camera. That means you only had one copy — no backup, no second chance. So if your negative got scratched or left on the curb by a PA instead of getting transported to the lab (yeah, that happened), that was it, you would have to reshoot — which, given the cost of film and processing, could be prohibitively expensive for an independent filmmaker (not to mention potentially impossible if you were making a documentary). Overall, it made you take an incredible amount of care with your work. It wasn’t just that camera assistants had to be super careful, keeping the insides of those cameras pristine to ensure nothing would scratch or get on the negative, fastidiously checking the gate through which the film passed to be exposed by the lens for “hairs” — tiny shavings of celluloid that could stick there destroy your best shot. The cost also meant that you couldn’t just shoot and shoot and shoot the way people do today, rolling endlessly on every take while the director tries to get the actors to improvise or doing a thousand of everything in every frame size, just to be absolutely sure you got it. You had to really think about not what you wanted to get but what you needed, in advance, and plan it out, shot by shot, by considering how you were going to edit it together. Sure, that could limit spontaneity, but it also meant that directors and DPs and ADs were sure to go into a shooting day well-prepared — which you really appreciate when you are the crew person whose time is being wasted by someone who doesn’t. Film was possibly more expensive to waste than time, which has now become the primary commodity on a set — and I think that, along with the fact that you no longer have to stop to change rolls every ten minutes, is why we have the expectation of  go-go-go move-move-move, particularly on a television set, that also just wasn’t there in the same way before.

That fully-prepared and more painstaking way of working was the method I learned as a filmmaker, and I think that has had a huge impact upon not just the process but the finished product. I don’t ever go into any situation where I’m directing without a plan — period. When I was doing fiction, I shortlisted and storyboarded, and when I do docs, I have at least a list of questions that I want to start with and an idea of what action or b-roll I’d like to capture – all of which may change on the fly, but, for me, it’s the box that makes thinking outside the box possible. Granted, this agrees with my particular personality, which, as I explained already, doesn’t take easily to improvisation. But it also means that I know how to prepare. I sometimes feel like a lot of directors these days just don’t. 

Many also don’t learn to trust their own judgment, or those of the people they’re working with. When I started out (and now you’re really going to think this was the stone age), most of the indie productions I worked on didn’t even have video monitors, so nobody other than the DP could watch the shot, and you couldn’t play it back. On my first professional job in the sound department, a union feature called Fresh on which I spent a few days as sound intern (read: unpaid third), the director requested a monitor. They told him that, oh, remember that super big expensive zoom lens you also wanted that we couldn’t get? Well, the monitor came in the same case, so it’s not available either. Granted, he was a gullible first-timer, but yeah, you could get away with that then because monitors were far from being the staple of production that they are now. But the reason they told him that lie was because not having a video monitor or a way to play back footage meant that you had to really watch the live action of the scene as it took place, focusing solely on the acting and trusting the DP that he or she was getting the shot the way you wanted it. Of course, this way of working went away long before film did, but I still include it in the trend of how the care and collaboration that used to be part of the process has disappeared as we move away from the era of the media that defined it.

This applies perhaps even more to the editing room. When I learned to edit, I did it on a Steenbeck. I threaded the actual film from one plate to another, passing it through a maze of rollers and past a lit prism in the middle that projected the image on a small screen that I could watch. When I wanted to make a cut, I marked it with a grease pencil, pulled out the the film and actually cut it on a splicer, as in into pieces. Granted, this particular piece of film would be just a work print, the guide for the negative cutter to use when they cut the final version of your negative from which your final prints would be struck (your one and only negative, remember, so yes, you had to hire someone you really trusted to not to screw that up. My first negative cutter did).  Still, the more cuts you made, the more tiny pieces you had — so if you made too many changes, you’d be stuck with a million little bits of acetate that were hard to keep track of and extremely easy to misplace. You hung them in a crazy, medieval-looking torture device called a bin as some sort of pretend “organizing system,” but it still took forever to find anything, and inevitably at least one piece you wanted would be filed on the floor. And if you decided to put too many of those bits back into the film, your work print would evolve into one big ball of splicing tape that was guaranteed to jump around in the projector and make it impossible to screen. So you became very, very careful about the cuts that you made and thought about each change you made before you did it, a lot — and you had extra time in between to think too, because finding the pieces and putting them in the splicer and pulling out the film on the flatbed and taking off the old splicing tape and then taping it all back together took a while. Now as you might be able to tell from my description of this, I love, I mean LOVE digital, non-destructive editing, it has literally changed my life, and I would never wish it on anyone to have to go edit on a flatbed. But I’m also somewhat glad I learned how to edit that way, because, again, it informed my view of the process and made me think of it as something that was considered, painstaking and time-consuming — which, really, at some point it kind of should be if you want to end up with a well-made film. And I think you see the results of that in a lot of what’s made today: everything is expected to happen faster and with the easy ability to go back and reshoot and recut endings, particularly after test-marketing screenings — and even though they did that before digital, now it’s that much easier, making digital something of an enabler to what was already a shitty addition to modern studio filmmaking. It also enables the filmmaking by committee that also seems to be such a part of the Hollywood work these days. The fact is, when you’re not forced to think about your choices and commit to them in advance, you often don’t make choices at all. And rushing a film to meet a deadline, just because you can, will always do that film a disservice as well.  Even in the doc world, I’ve seen things go awry when filmmakers decided they had to make a certain festival, so even though the film wasn’t ready, they rushed it out there, sometimes with disastrous results, sometimes just with ones that made the film just a little less than it could have been.

Now, I’m not a nostalgia freak. Digital has done something amazing to the film industry by putting the ability to make films if not actually in the hands of everyone with an idea then within their reach, simply because the tools are so much cheaper. I remember seeing Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, the first Dogme 95 feature made with a couple of little mini-DV handycams, and thinking, “This is the beginning of the revolution.” Because it was the first film that was made that way that I remember thinking looked like a real film; with hand-held, fast-moving camerawork enhancing the jagged drama of the plot, it created something that didn’t look like a documentary exactly but was appropriate to the light, cheap tools being used. Now, we have digital cameras that are just like film cameras, so you don’t necessarily have to do that, but you still can. The explosion of documentary film of recent years just wouldn’t have happened, and I personally would never have been able to make Flat Daddy or any of the projects I’ve directed since film school. And when it comes down to it, I know that’s more important than the aesthetics or the changes in process that I’ve been yammering on about here. I just would love to see more of the care that film forced us all to apply to filmmaking become an integral part of the process that we use now, so that the work that we do on set and the work that ultimately results reflect that. I still want filmmaking to be filmmaking.

And of course, I’ll always miss the absolute best part of shooting film: the surprise. When I shot black and white stills with my 35-mm SLR, it was always thrilling, after loading the film canister in complete darkness, then spending half an hour or so adding and pouring off chemicals, shaking and turning and turning and waiting, to finally pull the reels out and put them in the bath — and see that your images were there. It really was magical, and even more so when you made your prints, because every time you set one up on the enlarger, dodging and burning to get the exposure just right everywhere (but never cropping — that was frowned on by my framing-purist professors who would also say things like, “The best substitute for a zoom lens is a good pair of running shoes”), you still didn’t know what exactly you were going to get until you got to watch the image bloom up out of the paper’s whiteness in the developer — and then you really still didn’t know 100% until it had been in the fixer long enough for you to go outside and look at it in normal light, so blinding after all the time spent under one red bulb. I loved the darkroom so much that I even came to love the smell of the chemicals I associated with it, because of the excitement of those moments, when you finally got to see, for better or worse, what you’d created.

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