The Honest Reality of 35mm


Photo by Meghan Marchetti ("Darkness There" Production Still)

Introduction

35mm motion picture film has reliably been there to capture and preserve the art of moving images since the very beginning!  Without it we would not be able to witness the early experiments and milestones in cinema like Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery or Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon. We owe much to this high fidelity medium as it has preserved and continues to preserve more amazing works of art each year.  Film has the largest dynamic range (15+ stops of exposure latitude as opposed to digital’s 11), infinite color space versus digital’s limited compressions, and can be scanned at 8k resolution (7,680 × 4,320) as opposed to High Definition Video (1920×1080).  The honest reality of 35mm is that you obtain superb image quality, retain archival properties, and have a medium that is universally projected worldwide.  On top of these elements is the fact that you can shoot it for the same cost or less than shooting 16mm.

Myth

Many new filmmakers believe in the myth that 35mm is for the big Hollywood studios and not for the little art film or independent narrative.  If independent filmmakers choose film for origination, they typically select 16mm or Super 8.  The smaller gauge films have come a long way with the advancement of stocks and lenses, and are great formats for creating images.  However, 35 offers that extra bit of verisimilitude.  The extra scope it brings does not merely function for epic films like Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, but also brings that magic touch to films like Albert Lamorisse’s The Red Balloon or Kenneth Anger’s Rabbit’s Moon.

Photo by VCUarts BFA Photo Student Eric Carlson

The magic in the traditional celluloid process can be obtained by anyone who seeks it. One amazing advantage of the motion picture film camera is that the upgrade is in the film stock, not the camera.  This means that a properly running camera from any decade can be used successfully to make a film.  There is a wonderful Kodak article, Chaplin’s Camera Still Being Used, that illustrates this point clearly.  The article describes how cinematographer Carlo Piaget recently repaired a 1918 Bell & Howell 2709 camera (once operated by Charlie Chaplin), and shot a short film titled Circus with Chaplin’s son Eugène.  What a brilliant and romantic notion – to be connected to early film artists via this tangible medium and the creative process it fosters.  No waiting for updates or firmware upgrades necessary!

Cameras

Photo by Jacob Dodd

There are very few inventions that have stayed true to its original design like 35mm motion picture has. The same size film that ran through Charlie Chaplin’s cameras can run through today’s advanced 35mm motion picture systems. Nearly any 35mm camera will suffice, but there are models readily accessible at camera houses and ebay. Some models include the Stanley Kubrick’s favorite, the German Arri(2C, 2B) and the Russian Konvas (1M, 2M, 8M) cameras used by Andrei Tarkovsky. These are considered “MOS” or silent cameras because they are louder (about 55db) than their more expensive equivalents (23db). This may turn some folks off who like to write lengthy dialog, but the noise should not be an issue for most. After all, cinema is not theatre or radio – it is a visual medium of moving images. A wonderfully detailed sound design can be wed to the picture later in the post production process. There are crystal sync motors available for both the Arri (Visual Products motor) and the Konvas (17EP/19EP motor) that run at precisely 24fps for those that need to loop dialog. Just talk to a camera house representative to receive information.

Purchase

Reputable camera houses include Visual Products(Ohio), Duall(New York), Slowmotion Inc. (California), and RafCamera (Belarus).  For those that spent a lot of money buying a Canon XF300 ( $6,800) or the RED ONE Package ($30,000) you might want to hold your breath.  These wonderful little 35mm cameras will cost you approximately $3,500! That’s right, it is about the same price of buying a Canon 5D MarkII DSLR.  Actually, you can buy the camera with len(s), motor, and magazines under $3,000 and have $500-1,000 to clean, lube, and adjust the whole outfit.  You can make roughly three, ten minute short films in the savings from not buying the XF300 and about twelve twenty minute shorts by not going RED.

Turret Primes vs. Single Mount Lens

Deciding on which camera may be your hardest decision.  Should you go for portability and buy an Arri2C or Konvas 1M? Both cameras have a three prime lens turret design. The turret uses light weight glass and allows for guerrilla style filmmaking.  Arri’s use the Arri Standard Mount fitting and the Konvas 1M uses the OCT-18 size.  You can switch from wide(18mm) to normal (50mm) to telephoto (100mm) very quickly.  The smaller prime lenses are also great in low light and can open up to T2.0.  The other option is to spring for a single mount zoom lens (25-250mm) which can be found on a modified Arri2C (PL-Positive Lock) or Konvas 2M/8M (OCT-19 or PL).  A zoom is heavier than a prime and often slower (T4.4), but gives you various focal lengths that are convenient when framing. Many filmmaker’s like the Konvas because anamorphic (2.40:1 scope aspect ratio) optics are inexpensive.  The anamorphic format is a fine grain 35mm process that increases resolution by 55%.  Mounts and lenses are a matter of personal preference.  It all depends on your shooting style.

Still Image from “Tide” (a short film shot in Super 35mm)

Modification

Camera modification allows one to customize a camera to his/her needs.  For example, if you plan on shooting commercial projects on top of your own, you might want to consider converting your mount to PL which is the mount that all of the newest Zeiss and Cooke lenses use.   This gives you the option to rent the best glass on a given project. In Richmond, Gearhead Camera (Owned and operated by Max Fischer) in Shockoe Bottom provides high quality Zeiss and Cooke rentals.  Another common modification is to widen the camera gate to Super 35mm which gives you 32% more resolution to work with.  You can also modify the camera to shoot 3 perf or 2 perf, which allows more images to be put on a single role of film.  The traditional 4 perf frame gives you 4 minutes on a 400 foot magazine.  A 3 perf lasts 6 minutes and a 2 perf mag runs about 8 minutes. Be careful, as conversions can be costly for some models.  Below is a list of camera houses that perform various repairs and modifications.  Super 16 Inc. in upstate New York should be your first stop for all motion picture repair services.  It is owned and operated by master technician Bernie O’Doherty.  He can repair both Arri and Konvas cameras.  For Arri 2C specialization, Visual Products (Ohio) and Duall Camera (NY) both offer solid services. Slowmotion Inc. (CA) handles Konvas repairs.  If you want to stay local, Pro Camera in Charlottesville can repair just about any camera – motion picture or still.

Film Stock

Photo by VCUarts BFA Photo Student Eric Carlson

So you are intrigued with the camera, but feel that film stock and processing is expensive. Considering that you are receiving high fidelity, longevity, and future compatibility – the price is right. 35mm goes beyond the capabilities of its similar priced digital counterpart - Canon 5DMII.  New film stocks from Kodak (Vision 3) and Fuji (Vivid) are the upgrade and not the camera – this differs from new electronic systems.

If you buy fresh 35mm stock from Kodak or Fuji without talking to them about your project, you will likely pay a lot.  They are familiar with dealing with studios and major production companies, but sometimes you can receive a discount directly through them.  It never hurts to inquire.  The best way to consistently obtain inexpensive film is by going through a reseller who sales short ends and recans.  Short ends are surplus film that a major production did not use.  Short end lengths vary from 180-380ft.  Recans are full rolls that were loaded into a camera magazine, but never used.  They come in full 400ft lengths and usually cost more than short ends.  If you buy from a reputable company you should not have to worry about light damage, increased graininess (from age or temperature), or color inconsistency.  The reseller will sample test each roll for safety.  However, for those of us who love the unpredictability of film, the mentioned anomalies only increase our passion for film.

Overall, short ends work perfectly as they usually are in 300-400ft lengths, which is the size of the mag found on the Arri and Konvas cameras.  Film can be obtained for as low as $0.10 a foot (sometimes even $0.07 a foot!) 3000ft or 30 minutes of footage will cost $300.  This is just about the cost of buying 1200ft (33 mins.) of 16mm stock directly from Kodak. Media Distributors is the top seller of short ends and recans.

Tripods

Although the cameras are great to hand hold, you may want a good set of sticks.  A sturdy tripod with a fluid head that can bear 20+ lbs. will do the trick.  Chances are you own something that will be suitable.  If you want to purchase a good tripod head, the Manfrotto 516 Pro Video Fluid Head will do the trick.

Light-Meters

With the camera and the stock in the bag, the only thing missing from your outfit is a light-meter.  No worries here – you can buy a new meter for $100-$200.  Two well priced meters are the Sekonic Studio Deluxe III L-398A and the Sekonic L-308S.   If the cost seems too high, consider the fact the this equipment goes on and on  for years and years when properly maintained.  You might even find a classic Gossen Luna Pro or Weston Master II in an attic or on Ebay.

Photo by Jacob Dodd

The Lab

After spending vasts amount of effort making the art in front of the camera, it is very important to find a lab that respects your art.  There are a solid number of labs that welcome the student and independent.  These labs include: Cinelicious (CA), Cineworks (FL), and AlphaCine (WA).  These three offer various services.  Cinelicious focuses on HD and 2K telecine transfers exclusively, while Cineworks and AlphaCine are certified processing/HD full service transfer facilities.  The post-production price for 35mm is about the same for 16mm.  HD transfers cost approximately $500/hr  (20 mins. of footage) on a Spirit 2K Datacine  A friendly phone call to a lab representative will set you on the right path.

Workflow

(1) Shoot 35mm (FedEx 2nd Day to the lab) (2) Telecine to 1920×1080 HD video in the Apple ProRes 4444 10bit file (3) Lab saves file on a professional hard drive that you supply or purchase from them (4) Import the files into Final Cut Pro, Avid Media Composer, or Adobe Premiere (5) Edit (6) Color Correct (7) Mix Audio (8) Export to Blu-ray HD, DVD, and compress for the web or theatrically release on 35mm.

At this point from working in an HD post-production realm, you will be a huge promoter of Blu-ray as it holds the textural qualities of film like no other consumer format has before.  Digital does have its advantages in the manipulation and distribution of the movie.  Finishing on a film print can be performed by going through the (DI) Digital Intermediate process.  Obtaining a 35mm print is difficult to achieve unless you have the extra funds.  Striking a print will often cost as much as the entire project cost to shoot and transfer.  The Apple ProRes 4444 file and Blu-ray can adequately carry the film in the festival circuit.  If a print is required by a major festival (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, etc), your chances of finding a benefactor are much greater.

The Future

In this digital age of planned obsolesce where electronic cameras, computers, and phones barely last a few months before an upgrade is necessary, one shutters at the eventual loss of many digital independent projects.  One only has to think of a personal hard drive crash experience to understand the fragility of the digital medium.  In some ways we have reverted back to dismissing moving images as trash to be thrown out – uploaded today, gone tomorrow.  This sad mistake occurred during the early days of cinema when the intentional burning and improper storage of the highly flammable nitrate film was common.  Nobody thought of filmmaking as an art, and history was lost.  The only way digital productions can be preserved is on film.  However, the cost of using an Arri laser film recorder to transfer digital images on to film is very high.  Truly the best and least expensive method to obtain quality and preservation is to originate on film – Super 8, 16, 35, 65.   Film is the only proven medium with a lifespan of 200-500 years when stored properly.  Out of the film formats, 35mm remains at the top of the list because it gives the filmmaker the most in flexibility due to its higher resolution and relatively portable size. With originating on 35mm, one can exhibit on a traditional film print or export to digital cinema and other various standard definition and high definition consumer formats like DVD and Blu-ray.  In the future, when 10K scanning is available to the individual, you can be sure your work of art will be there, ready to be transferred to the newest format.

Conclusion

For the approximate price of $5000 you can buy a camera, shoot the project, and complete a ten minute short (shooting 30 mins of footage)  on 35mm.  Anyone who has ever worked with film as a medium knows of this magic and beauty.  You will often hear digital video makers discussing how to make their electronic images look like film.  I have yet to hear of anyone aiming for the reverse.  The drive to shoot film, especially 35mm, is universal!  Film schools world wide including Virginia Commonwealth University’s BFA and BA film programs have embraced 35mm.  With access to the internet, film resources are more readily available.  Companies new and old offer affordable prices on cameras, lenses, film stock, processing, and high-definition transfers – you simply have to look and act.  So go on, you know you want to hear the purr of a motion picture camera.  Take the leap with 35mm, it’s out there waiting for you!

Still Image from the 35mm short film "Darkness There" Jacob Dodd Copyright 2009

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About Jacob Dodd

Jacob A. Dodd is an award-winning independent filmmaker who creates short films in 35mm and 16mm. In 2009, Dodd completed Darkness There, a visual poem that explores Edgar Allan Poe's dark romanticism through the blending of Poe's life and stories with authentic historical artifacts. Dodd's fascination lies in the linkage of time periods to examine both private and public oral histories. He uses traditional film techniques to bring forth a feeling of nostalgia, a transcendence of time, and a sense of the familiar. Dodd's work has been recognized by the Athens International Film Video Festival, Big Muddy Film Festival, Rosebud Film & Video Festival, the James River Film Festival, and the DC Independent Film Festival. Dodd received his M.F.A. in Photography and Film from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, Virginia. He is an Assistant Professor of Cinema Production at SUNY Oswego in Oswego, NY.
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4 Responses to The Honest Reality of 35mm

  1. milton says:

    hi jacob i see you guys used a konvas in darkness there, im aiming to buy a konvas but im not sure where to get a battery with 8.5 volts how did you deal with that with your camera?

    • Jacob Dodd says:

      Hi Milton,

      Yep, we used a Konvas 1M that was modified to Super 35 and included a PL mount. I connect the motor to a standard 12 volt battery, which worked very well. My battery came with the kit I purchased from Slowmotion Inc. Duall sells a standard 12 volt set and a 12 volt 4500Mah Ni-MH Battery which would be much smaller and lighter. http://www.duallcamera.com/store/index.shtml You just need to adapt the a cord to fit the 4 pin 17EP-16 APK motor connection to the 4 pin XLR style. The Konvas is a fun and versatile 35mm camera. Let me know if you have other questions on your journey. Enjoy!

  2. Dear Jacob,

    I was reading the Konvas cannot be converted to Super35 but I stumbled upon your excellent and inspiring blog. Thanks for the all information :D

  3. Dear sirs, 35 mm is so cool, but still – the picture of red red roses and somebody behind them out of focus – has it been made without computer? The absence of green colour in the image seems very computerish to me.

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