“Jeez,” he adds after a moment’s reflection. “I sound like a Kodak rep!”
Huntley is one of seven filmmakers, Kodak representatives and representatives for motion picture camera manufacturers who have been holding court all week in the basement of the Wilma Theatre. For the duration of the International Wildlife Film Festival, the former Marianne’s has been home base for “The Kodak Film Experience,” a workshop organized by the Rochester, N.Y.-based Kodak for the express purpose of turning people on to film.
Not video—film. Specifically 16mm color film, which until recently has been the medium of both choice and necessity for filmmakers working in natural history, aka wildlife documentary. Twice a day for five days, anyone interested in shooting honest-to-goodness film has been welcome to stop by and do so on an impressive selection of top-of-the-line 16mm cameras, with expert assistance, and completely free of charge.
There’s been a strong corporate flavor to the week-long workshop, but away from the Kodak party line a number of participating filmmakers are willing to comment on what they suspect is the real reason behind the workshop: Kodak could be headed for trouble (in fact, it recently laid off 6,000 employees) because the switch from film to video, for both still images and motion pictures, has happened faster than anyone could have guessed even two years ago. Right now, some say, Kodak is sailing straight into uncharted digital waters with a full cargo of outmoded flagship product: film. “You just wish you had the budget for your independent film that Kodak spent on this workshop,” says one participating filmmaker, but this is corporate’s idea of taking film to the people.
“We’re trying to reacquaint people with film,” says Randy Tack of Kodak’s Entertainment Imaging division, which handles motion picture film stocks for commercial and consumer use, “and show them that it’s not magic. It’s not hard to use. We’re trying to promote film, to reintroduce it to a new generation of filmmakers brought up on video.”
Briefly, the ongoing film vs. video debate boils down to two main points: esthetics and economics. Esthetically, the consensus (at least at this workshop) is that video is still trailing, since the most expensive video cameras can’t do things that the cheapest movie cameras can, in terms of depth of field, variable exposure and time-lapse capabilities.
Video, however, is generally better for shooting in low-light conditions, not to mention it’s the cheaper format. Which leads us to the economics: Professional video cameras can cost $60,000 or more for the initial outlay, but are far cheaper to keep feeding. On the other hand, you can buy a professional-quality used 16mm motion picture camera for as little as a few hundred dollars on eBay, and Randy Tack is quick to point out that the oldest 16mm camera will still produce beautiful images on any new film stock—which can’t be said of obsolete video equipment. Old or new, though, the cost of actually running film through the movie camera is a lot higher: approximately $90 in film stock and processing for a scant 11 minutes of finished color footage.
For consumers at home, the choice is clear: Never mind the vaunted “film look,” it’s just not practical to shoot Junior’s first birthday party on anything but a moderately priced video camera. But for natural history filmmakers like underwater cinematographer Dave Reichert, who does a lot of work in poor lighting conditions and maintains that it’s his job to capture the best image regardless of cost or orthodoxy, it’s a little more complicated. Unfortunately, producers—the people with the pocketbooks—often insist on video, even to what Reichert considers the detriment of the finished product.
“There are trade-offs, as you might guess,” Reichert explains. “Sometimes video is better, sometimes it’s not. I love film. I love the feel of film and working with film, but there are times when I go with video. Underwater, video handles lower-light situations better. It excels when there’s not much contrast to the image, as tends to happen underwater because the water acts as its own filter. But if you set film behind a good set of optics, it can look fantastic as well, especially if you’re working up near the surface.”
Submersible housings for motion-picture cameras tend to be pretty bulky, says Reichert. But bulkiness, too, has its advantages.
“A big camera has more inertia, so if you move it doesn’t necessarily move with you. Little camera housings are all over the place—it’s a lot harder to keep them stable. Also, if something tries to bite you, you’ve got something bigger between you and it. It happens more often than you might think.”
Reichert is optimistic about the future of film. Like other workshop participants, he hopes that Kodak will be able to run its motion picture division as a loss leader while maintaining its bottom line with digital products.
“The thing is,” Reichert says, “with new technology, a lot of people think it’s better just because it’s new. These are people who don’t realize all the benefits of film, and they’re usually the ones who are like, ‘Film’s over, you gotta go with the new stuff.’
“I just don’t see any reason to abandon film,” he continues. “In certain applications, it’s just way better. [Film and video] need to work together, and if you can do that you will have a higher quality product at the end of the day. I want to understand everything. As a cameraman, my job is to get the best image possible, and right now it’s going to be a mix of the two.”