Peter Boyce talks about formats for feature films

Published on website: September 29, 2009
Categories: 16mm , 35mm , 65mm , Feature Films , Peter Boyce , The StoryBoard Blog

As a follow-on to last week’s film formats for TV post, I would like to take a broader view of what people are shooting in the feature film arena these days:

Let’s start with 65mm color negative. The big, recent example of 65mm use is on The Dark Knight. It’s not an entirely 65mm production. The 65mm was cut into a number of 35mm shots, like the Bank Heist and the Batmobile chase scenes. 65mm was chosen to do this because it simplyis the best. In the opening sequences of The Dark Knight you can just see the quality that 65mm brings to the screen.

In fact, a digital intermediate wasn’t done on The Dark Knight because of the desire to retain all the film detail. Now, of course, all of the special effects had to be created in the digital space, but fundamentally they went through a traditional film finish on this movie.

There was a session at IMAX a little while ago at which key industry people spoke. One point which was made was that one of the things large format does is to keep the quality bar extremely high so that digital has to continue to improve.

But while 65mm is the gold standard, its use is more the exception than the rule. 35mm 4-perf is really still the standard by which everybody judges film’s quality and attributes. It’s still the predominant format for high end feature production, but 3-perf usage has grown significantly and there are plenty of 3-perf movements for cameras now available.

Actually, 3-perf has been around for ages. But today, the main catalyst for the increase in usage is the popularity of digital intermediate. Without a DI, getting from a 3-perf negative to a 4-perf print through a traditional film process is difficult.

Beyond that, Super 16 is also a well-established format. It still gives the look of film, but for a lower budget. And now the improvements in the film stocks – first with VISION2 and now with VISION3 technology – have made this format even more viable. Probably the best recent example of a Super 16 production is The Wrestler: Oscar-nominated, mainstream, very popular and successful.

Mostly, people choose Super 16 because of cost, but some shoot elements of movies on 16 for creative reasons. If, for example, the filmmaker wants more grain in particular scenes, shooting Super 16 is one way of achieving that.

And then the other format being used today is 2-perf 35mm. Again, that’s a cost decision, but it does let filmmakers maintain the cache of shooting on 35mm. They can use standard 35mm cameras and everything that goes with them (e.g. the lens selection). And the image size of the 2-perf can be over 60% larger than that of Super 16

Just like 3-perf, 2-perf is not really new either. Clint Eastwood’s early Spaghetti Westerns were shot on it – but it hasn’t been a practical decision until recently. Michael Goi, current president of the ASC, has just shot a movie on 2-perf. It’s called The Christmas Movie, and will be released this November.

And again, if someone is shooting 2-perf, they will have to do a scan-and-record. They can do a very simple DI: but they have to do one if they want to output to a 4-perf print. Today, probably 75%-80% of films go through the DI process anyway.

Finally – there’s Super 8. I would love to see a properly shot Super 8 VISION3 movie transferred on a Spirit (you can get a Super 8 gate for the Spirit), made into a DI and then output to a 35mm print. I’ll bet it wouldn’t look bad. And, you know, that would address one of the issues that gets raised by our customers every now and then: “Kodak makes films better and better with less and less grain, but sometimes we want grain, and you don’t give us many options to get it.” 2-perf 35mm does give some grain, and so does 16mm, but it’s not much more grain. Shooting on Super 8 would do that.