Film Nerdery

To the Tate Modern yesterday. The core reason was to meet with young Dom to discuss his upcoming Big Boy’s Birthday. The conversation, as always, was wide in scale and rambled like the Rambling King of a nomadic tribe of Ramblers on a Rambling trip to the Lake District. If you were in the Bankside area of London yesterday and experienced sudden gusts of hot air–sorry, that was us.

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The main exhibit in the Turbine Hall was Tacita Dean’s FILM. A large scale 35mm projection piece, it was her attempt to pin down the purity and craft of working with film. It was abstract, but extraordinarily lovely, with a richness and clarity that I’ve never seen in a digital projection at the same kind of size.

And of course, it got me thinking. These are changing times for film. Most people consider it to be dead and gone, or at the least relegated to a niche, specialist status. Kodak filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy only adds fuel to this argument. The story is, of course, not quite so straightforward. At the same time as Kodak filed, they also launched a new stock, and as many interested observers on the Telecine Internet Group pointed out, Chapter 11 doesn’t mean that the shutters are coming down. There are still billions of feet of negative going through labs every year, and most decently-budgeted features will still shoot with a mix of digital and film. Film as an acquisition format still punches above its weight in terms of sheer image quality, and in terms of expense digital isn’t really any cheaper.

Sure, it’s more cost-effective while shooting, but post-production costs are rocketing in the digital field. One major factor is the sheer volume of footage that’s being produced, as directors realise they’re not limited by the amount of film stock available to them and simply keep rolling the cameras. The shooting ratio (simply put, the amount of footage shot against the final duration of the finished film) is going up massively, with huge knock-on effects for editors and data wranglers. There are already stories of tight turn-around commercials jobs where the editor simply hasn’t been able to look at all the footage in the time available to him. You wince at the idea of Kubrick or Fincher using 70 takes to get a shot of an actor walking through a door. If every jobbing director decides that they can do that, the knock-on effects will be hideous. Rushed edits and huge bumps in charges from post houses will have major impacts on budgets that are already squeezed like a Victorian lady in a whalebone corset.

Now, I’m not about to claim that the scales are about to fall from everyone’s eyes and the industry will rush back to film. That’s as rediculous a proposition as producers claiming that digital is a problem-free way to make movies. Hard drives fail. Backup strategies go wrong. A vital take is mislabelled or accidentally erased. This stuff happens.

This is not to say that I’m anti-digital, either. Two X&HTeam-mates, Simon Aitken and Nick Scott, are doing great work with digital SLRs, and I’m a big advocate of iPhone video and stills. It’s immediate, and cheap at the front end. But ultimately digital should be an option rather than the be-all and end-all. It’s a rare producer that understands all the pitfalls as well as the advantages of every format available to them, but those that do, frequently include film in the mix.

Tacita Dean’s work in general, and her piece at the Tate in particular, is unusual in that it celebrates the format in its purest form. It’s a film about film, about the process and the sheer physicality that’s still at the core of working with a roll of 16 or 35mm, or even Super 8. It’s an experience that simply can’t be replicated by plugging a tape into a deck or spinning up a hard drive. A roll of film is a proper artefact, an object with weight and solidity. If an electromagnetic pulse hit us tomorrow and wiped out every electronic device on the planet, you could still lace up a roll of film on a projector and watch it. You can watch a roll of film that was produced in the forties without too much effort. Playing back a roll of tape from the 80s is a fraught and tricky business, and there’s no proven lifespan for any hard drive on the market.

I hate to sound like a romantic old fool, but after fifteen years of working with film (and I’m probably unusual in that I still handle film on a daily basis at work) the stuff kind of gets under your skin. I’ll happily shoot digitally, but if I was given the chance to shoot a project on 35mm I’d jump at it. And I think most film-makers would be the same. There’s something special about film.


Tacita Dean’s FILM is at the Tate Modern until mid-March, and I urge you to see it if you get the chance.



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Writer. Film-maker. Cartoonist. Cook. Lover.

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