At a time when many top-shelf Hollywood directors -- names such as Michael Mann, Steven Soderbergh, David Fincher and Francis Ford Coppola -- are proselytizing the advantages of shooting on high-definition digital video, a small, dedicated band of independent filmmakers is championing the seemingly outdated idea of actually shooting on film.
"Beeswax," which opens in L.A. on Friday at the Nuart Theatre, is the third feature by filmmaker Andrew Bujalski, all of them shot and edited on film. His latest project tells the story of twin sisters (played by real-life twins Tilly and Maggie Hatcher) in Austin, Texas, one the much put-upon co-owner of a vintage store, the other a seemingly tetherless free spirit.
The film captures the oblong pacing and offbeat rhythms of emerging adulthood as it explores the things that bond people together, and its naturalistic, lived-in feel comes across in its slightly washed-out yet warm color palette and gentle visual textures.
"The main reason I want to shoot on film is because it feels great. I love how it feels on-screen, I love how it feels on the editing table," Bujalski said this year shortly after the film's U.S. premiere at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. "Having been around video, having acted in some things that were shot on video, there isn't that same sense of, you've got to sit up straight, hold your breath and do it right because we're about to film."
Particularly at the level of ultra-low-budget, genuinely independent filmmaking, it would seem that the efficiencies of shooting on video -- lower costs, less equipment, fewer crew members and the ability for essentially limitless takes -- make for an obvious choice. Yet Bujalski isn't the only purist, as Azazel Jacobs ("Momma's Man"), Alex Ross Perry ("Impolex"), Jeff Mizushima ("Etienne!"), Frankie Latina ("Modus Operandi"), Ronald Bronstein ("Frownland") and Joshua and Ben Safdie ("Go Get Some Rosemary") have all also opted to actually shoot their movies on film. Most are working on 16-millimeter or the slightly larger Super-16 but with the occasional foray up to 35-millimeter or even dipping all the way down to Super-8.
"When I look through the film camera and it starts rolling, especially on the first day of shooting, and it starts flickering 24 times a second, it's still a very exciting feeling," said Matthias Grunsky, cinematographer on all three of Bujalski's features. "Compared to a video camera, where when you turn it on you see the image in the viewfinder whether you're shooting or not, there is a totally different energy when you shoot on film. Not only for me, for everybody, they know there is something precious going on."
Far from a simple nostalgia craze, the trend is perhaps analogous to the recent resurgence in sales of vinyl records in the age of the MP3, as filmmakers come to terms with the increasingly digitized future.
"I used to think of it like DVD versus VHS, but that's not really correct," said cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who has worked with filmmakers such as Bronstein and Perry, of the difference between working on film and video. "It's just photochemical; there's no computers involved. Although it's a struggle now to try to make a movie without some sort of digital step, even if you're shooting on film."
Many filmmakers who shoot on film nevertheless still edit on a computer, then create a digital intermediate for color correction. Bujalski's decision to edit his film old school is perhaps the most unusual step of his process; it's also something that is getting more difficult to accomplish, because there are fewer technicians to work on the equipment and even the basic tools are becoming scarce. "It's harder to get decent splicing tape now," Bujalski lamented. "They discontinued the good tape."
"It is such a far cry from making your movie on Final Cut Pro at your kitchen table," said Dia Sokol, producer of "Beeswax" and Bujalski's film "Mutual Appreciation." "Andrew's very traditional, and I hope he can always have the option to shoot on film."
At this budget level -- these films are mostly being made for well under $1 million -- even seemingly simple choices regarding specific lenses can be cost prohibitive. Although the price difference between shooting on video and film, though varying from project to project, can sometimes be less than one might imagine. Film stock itself is relatively inexpensive -- a feature can be shot and developed for less than $7,000 -- but the cost of then having a single 35-millimeter print made can reach up to nearly $30,000.
The reasons to shoot on film are a mixture of definable aesthetic decisions and a certain indescribable something, perhaps tinged with a slightly sentimental contrariness. "It's not just a retro thing," said Williams. "I just really like the way film captures reality more than video. It's closer to what I see, but it's still a slightly beautified version of reality. Video makes the world look even worse than it already does."
Sokol recently directed her own debut feature, the relationship comedy "Sorry, Thanks," working with Grunsky as cinematographer but shooting on video. After her experiences shipping Bujalski's film prints all over the world, the result was startlingly anti-climactic.
"It's kind of weird after you spend three years on your project and someone hands you a tape," said Sokol. "You think, 'That's my movie, huh?' All that work feels very small. When you think about it too hard you start to ask, 'What is a movie? Is it this object?' "
"Shooting on film makes your movie something permanent," said Perry, director of the metaphysical World War II adventure-tale "Impolex," who went the added step of having his film blown up to a 35-millimeter print, an increasingly rare move even among those who shoot on film.
"My movie exists on the 16-millimeter negative, the 35-millimeter negative and the 35-millimeter print. Shooting on video, at no point does your movie exist as anything physical and theoretically could be deleted instantly. This is troubling and strange and another reason for me that video feels much less legitimate than film.
"The print was expensive, but when I held the big tin carrying case in my hand and felt how heavy it was, that felt like a completed film. It felt like money well spent."