My Experiences With Film

I’ve grown up at the tail end of the life of film.

The first camera I used. Image from Used with permission.

My first camera was an old Kodak Instamatic that took cartridges of film. I remember my dad teaching me how to load 35mm rolls into his Pentax and then getting my first Canon EOS SLR for my 18th birthday. But while I got used to using film I never really learnt about how it worked or how it affected the quality of the image. I vaguely understood the different ASA ratings but never really noticed the difference. At university a friend did show me how to develop a couple of rolls of black and white film that I shot but I ended up scanning the negatives and never learnt to print my own photos.

What I I did learn about film was that it was expensive, and it took a long time to see the results. This made it hard to experiment. When I went travelling with my Canon SLR I would usually leave it set to automatic rather than messing with the settings, just to be safe and make sure I got a reasonable picture of wherever I was.

As exciting as it was to pick up my photos from the chemist and shuffle through them it was usually an anti-climax as they would seldom live up to my expectations. I did try to learn from my mistakes but it was hard to correlate the photo with the conditions of a scene from a week ago. And because of the expense and limited capacity of a roll of film, I just didn’t take that many photos so improvement was slow.

Once I got my first digital SLR (a Canon 300D) I could instantly see the resulting image. I could work out what was wrong with it, and try to correct it. I could experiment with the manual settings to see what effect they would have. I could take 20 photos until I got it right. I would come back from a week long holiday with 360 photos rather than 36.

My family never had a camcorder but I grew up in the 80s, the decade of the VHS, so before university any experiences I had with moving images were based around analogue video. By the time I started my multimedia degree in 2001, MiniDV had become the default. Film was barely mentioned during the whole three-year course.

When I started working at Centre Screen and Basement they were shooting on a mixture of formats, including 16mm and 35mm film. I was on set for a number of film shoots, so I learnt about syncing sound with a clapperboard and was once shown how the cameraman loaded the magazine in a cloth bag. And as a junior edit assistant, I was given the job of syncing sound to pictures in the Avid on more than one occasion.

But, when it came to the post production, it was completely digital. Even when projects were shot on film, they were transfered to DigiBeta and we worked with those in the edit suites. We would almost always master the projects to tape.

Once the film was scanned to tape, we often never went back to the film. The tape became the master source for the rest of the post work, offline and online editing and any VFX work that we might do.

This wasn’t always the case. For shorter projects, like commercials, the film would be transferred in a ‘one light’ pass through the telecine. This meant that the lab didn’t spend a long time colour adjusting the footage during the transfer. We would edit with this pass, then export an EDL from the Avid and send that back to the telecine guys, who would then re-transfer the shots that we used in the edit. They could now spend some time finessing the colours in each of the selected shots as they scanned the film to really make them look good. The shots were still scanned to DigiBeta, which was then usually sent to a Flame suite to be conformed into the finished commercial.

Because we were based in Manchester and most of the telecine suites were in London, I never got to sit in on the transfer process. I only ever saw couriers pick up cans of film and deliver bags of tapes, so although I learnt about the process I never really had any actual experience with the film itself.

Since starting to work on feature films, I deal with a lot more film footage. Of the eight movies currently listed on my ‘My Movies‘ page, at least 3/4 of them were shot on film.

I have had to learn about dealing with film grain and logarithmic colour spaces, I’ve fixed shots where light had leaked into the film can, and I’ve seen the scanning and printing machines at Framestore – but I still have had  no contact with the pieces of film that the images came from.

I don’t think I would be working in this industry if it wasn’t for the digital revolution. And while I’m not really going to miss film I am glad that I did get a chance to experience using it, if only briefly.