The declining use of film negative, after years of losing ground in feature film production, seems to have leveled off. And using the venerable format is still a viable creative option, especially on bigger productions.
Mauro Fiore, ASC worked with film negative in the anamorphic format on his recent western remake The Magnificent Seven. Director Antoine Fuqua said that he wanted to respect the original 1960 movie's “DNA.”
“Obviously, I worked on film for a long time earlier in my career,” says Mauro. “We grew up with film, completely. The question, for a long time, was: Why are we doing this digitally? But, suddenly, the workflow and the process were really worked out in digital. There’s a procedure for following the color every day and working on a set with really great HD monitors.
“On Magnificent Seven, we were suddenly back in the film world,” he says. “There’s only one lab [FotoKem] that processes negative, and we were working in Baton Rouge. So we had to send the negative from counter to counter every night. Then it had to go through the bath, telecine, and by the time we got dailies it was two or three days later. That’s nothing unusual for those of us that are used to film negative, but if there’s a technical problem — if you’re shooting with a bad lens, for example — you don’t see the technical limitations on those monitors, with a standard NTSC video tap. So you don’t see the problem, and suddenly you’re filming with the same bad lens for three days. It’s frustrating, and it’s a challenge.
“We were used to having a phenomenal work print, because very experienced timers were keeping an eye on it,” he says. “Today, that attention to detail might not always be there, and as a result, there’s a massive amount of work in the DI. Also with film, we go back to lighting like we used to. 500 ASA as opposed to 800 ASA is a big difference. We’re not out there doing night exteriors with available light. We’re using sizable instruments and Condors.”
I also recently spoke with Rodrigo Prieto, ASC, AMC as he was beginning work on the DI for Martin Scorsese’s Silence — which will be covered in the January issue of AC. Set in the 17th Century, the film follows two Jesuit missionary priests who travel from their native Portugal to Japan. The film was shot mostly in Taiwan. “We immediately agreed that we wanted Silence to be shot on film,” says Rodrigo. “I feel that film has incredible color depth for nature, and so much of the movie is about being surrounded by nature. The skin tones were also important. We did not want romantic, idealized images of Japan. We wanted to show things as naturalistic or realistic as possible.
“The novel [by Shūsaku Endō] describes the experience of these priests in great detail,” says Rodrigo. “Even the noise of flies is described. So it’s not all pleasant and lovely. We wanted to feel the heat and the flies. The Master Anamorphics helped us that way. I used the film negatives to achieve different textures with the grain. Sometimes I would push 5219 a full stop, even though we were shooting day exteriors, to get additional grain and contrast for certain scenes. For others, I did the opposite, shooting the 50 ASA 5203 in order to have very clean grain for scene toward the beginning, where things are more optimistic and clear.
“It was fun to be shooting on film,” he says. “There’s something exhilarating about not seeing a monitor with the exact image. Of course we did a lot of testing, so I knew the result. But I love playing with it. I love bending it and twisting the film negative to see different textures I can achieve.”
As on Mauro’s movie, there was some production anxiety about sending film halfway around the world. But Rodrigo solved the low light question as he has on several previous projects, by shooting night scenes digitally. About 20% of the film was done on the Arri Alexa, including some scenes lit by candles and firelight.
“It was actually the best of both worlds — we were able to shoot film and digital to their maximum advantages,” he says. “We will probably add some film grain to the digital images to stay in that same world.”
Rodrigo says he was raised Catholic, so the themes in Silence resonate.
“It’s really about faith and the meaning of faith,” he says. “These priests endure tremendous tests, but what is being tested? What is the real thing you need to figure out? Is your allegiance to the church, this idea of religion, or to the suffering people in front of you? It’s all very fascinating. I really loved the chance to work on this film.”