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Here’s How This Filmmaker Shot a Short Sci-Fi Film on 35mm for Next to Nothing

Here's How This Filmmaker Shot a Short Sci-Fi Film on 35mm for Next to Nothing

Courtney N. Marsh was a camera loader in the Local 600 Union when she wrote “ZARI.” In the below guest post, she explains why she shot the short film, which has screened at various film festivals, on 35mm.

When I wrote “ZARI,” it was at the time when the medium of film was going away, replaced by the new Arri Alexa and RED cameras, but I felt the need to shoot on 35mm because it was necessary for the story.

In fact, the story of film almost paralleled the robot’s story in my film, as it was just another tool becoming outdated. And I felt nostalgia for both. They had done their duty and with the advent of a more convenient tool, were put to pasture.

WATCH: Can Indie Filmmakers Afford to Shoot on Film?

But really, why film?

My number one issue with sci-fi films of today is their crisp, too polished and unfamiliar feel. They always seem to be so far in the future, but with the advent of Apple’s Siri, we are much closer to AI in our households than we think.

History repeats itself with style, fashion, etc and we still aren’t all wearing google glasses and riding hover skateboards. A door is still a door and a car is still a car. I wanted to make a sci-fi film that felt real, that felt right now.

Going even further, since “ZARI” was more of a eulogy for a robot, I felt it should feel like a memory. Film was the way to do it.
And since we would shoot film, we would make sure it looked like film; something digital could not create: heavy grain with a pull/push processing.

Film would give texture and an organic living grain to something potentially cold and sterile in its design.

Moreover, our budget for VFX (along with everything else) was limited, so I decided to design, build an actual RC-controlled robot that only needed minor enhancements by VFX. Again, I think that most VFX work is too crisp and clean, but I felt if we could add real film grain to a practical robot I would be giving myself the biggest advantage I could with the resources I had.

How can you shoot it on a low budget?

Because I was a camera loader in the local 600 union at the time —and over and over again, I saw production just telling me to waste short ends below 150 ft — I decided to keep anything they told me to throw out with the intent of using it to shoot my film. By the end of the winter commercial run, I had hundreds of feet of film.

But for those of us who aren’t camera loaders, there are places like Reel Good out here in LA that sell short ends for very cheap.

Film loses its value so quickly the minute the can is cracked, so people should take advantage of that. After you get all your film together you’ll have to opt for a 2-perf camera in order to double your amount of footage. A 2-perf camera uses twice the amount of space on a film roll than the regular 4-perf movement.

We went to Panavision in Hollywood and with the help of a friend there, got our hands on a 2-perf camera: Panavision ‘G2′ (what Spielberg shot “Jaws” on).

However there are three things to consider when shooting 2-perf:

1. Everyone should know that in a 2-perf gate a hair will look like a tree trunk in the frame. It’s not something you “fix in post.” We had two shots where this happened and that was with a very seasoned 1st Assistant Camera. Sometimes it’s just unavoidable. But alas, we cut around the shot and it worked in our best interest.

2. A 2-perf aspect ratio is slightly wider than a 2.40 aspect ratio. When finishing the film you have to zoom in a bit to get an industry standard 2.40 aspect ratio. Because I was dead-set on making my film look old, I even used old Baltar lenses which gave a little softness to the image. I probably would have chosen differently if I could do it again. You can’t really tell what’s sharp and what’s not off a standard def feed coming from the camera. And with the small zoom in during post-production, you loose even a bit more of that sharpness. But again we made it work to our advantage.

3. Because the film is only held in place by a 2-perf mechanism, the gate becomes more shaky than a 4-perf movement. This may not make your VFX company too happy because they will have to stabilize the footage they work on in order to a proper job. Also something to keep in mind when hiring VFX and letting them know ahead of time so they can anticipate their work-load better.

Processing Short Ends

Since I wanted to make my film stand apart from digital, we did a so-called pull/push process. This means we pulled one stop of exposure on the film during the development and then pushed one stop back into the exposure during the Digital Intermediate. This is one process of many that elevates the grain in the final image. I also had to shoot on the film stock I had the majority of which was Kodak 5219 (500T).

Also, since all rolls had different ages (I had collected short ends for over a year), the grain and color spectrum in each were a little different—something you can see if you watch the film closely enough.

I knew this going in though because I snip-tested all the film to check RGB levels (usually labs are happy to help you with this is as well if you ask nicely).

So while some cans of film had levels that the lab warned us against using, we just saved those for emergency shots. Of course, we ended up using them of course and I found that if you work with a seasoned colorist in post-production, they can manipulate color spectrums to match the entire film.

it is important for filmmakers to know that 16mm isn’t the only option.

A lot of camera houses have 2-perf 35mm cameras lying around collecting dust and there are plenty of 35mm recycled film houses. It is most likely going to be more expensive and more work than digital, but there is a beauty and upside to shooting with the classic approach of celluloid. And, there are different ways to shoot film that you don’t have to have been an ex-camera loader to accomplish. Film is a beautiful, living, organic thing and if your film needs it to tell the story properly, then I agree, there are ways to do so.

Film is not dead if we continue to use it when we need it.

Originally from South Florida, Courtney Marsh received her BFA from UCLA’s School of Film and Television. Upon graduating, Marsh worked extensively in the camera department under the mentorship of Salvatore Totino, ASC AIC. Her shorts have screened internationally and she has participated in programs with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences as well as Film Independent. Currently, Marsh is traveling to festivals to promote her recently finished documentary short titled, “Chau beyond the lines,” which follows a teenager growing up in a care center for kids disabled by Agent Orange as he struggles to become an artist over the course of eight years. Visit her web site here.

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