Analog in a Digital World

Why bother shooting an online video using a forty-year-old film camera? After all, it’s easy to simulate the look of vintage Kodak—or really anything else—using filters and AI Sorcery. As it turns out, shooting on film gives you more than a retro aesthetic. It affects the way we think about telling the story, and it leads to some surprising results.

We started down this rabbit hole when Michael and Lisa Fine of Quiet Town came to us with an idea for a promotional video for their very hip bath accessories company. They wanted to conjure up the spirit of San Francisco’s Summer of Love and make something joyful that didn’t look like your typical advertising spot for home products.

When we began to brainstorm, we discussed Sixties films like HELP!, A Hard Day’s Night, Breathless, and Jules and Jim. These were European New Wave films made (mostly) outside of the studio system with portable equipment and a lot of creative freedom. How could we recreate the vibe of John and Ringo goofing on the streets of London? Our first impulse was to do the same thing with modern gear— we would grab a bunch of digital cameras and shoot a run-and-gun style piece on the streets of San Francisco. And if we wanted a vintage look, we could “fix it in post,” adding simulated film grain, dirt, and other artifacts in the digital workflow.

HELP! album cover by the Beatles, film directed by Richard Lester (1965)

But something didn't quite add up. As we looked at these older works for inspiration, we were struck by something—the beauty of those films is not just in the grainy aesthetic, but rather in the embrace of imperfection. These scrappy film crews were short on time, daylight, and film stock. They had to make do with a few takes, and even the seemingly spontaneous scenes had to be pre-planned to take advantage of limited resources. Perhaps, we thought, if we want to truly capture the freewheeling nature of the characters, we need to avoid fussing over it with retakes and digital editing. We needed to get out of our familiar workflow. Maybe the entire process of shooting on film would change the way we planned and performed on set.

Cinematographer Joshua Pausanos capturing the moment on film

And so we dove in headfirst. We shot the holiday campaign for Quiet Town on Super 16mm Kodak 500 stock and a couple of short reels of Kodak Super 8mm 50. A handful of indie features are still shot on 16mm, but for the most part it’s fallen by the wayside in favor of the more convenient, ultra-high-def digital cameras in your pocket (iPhone, etc) or at the rental house (Arri Alexa, etc). This film has a rich grain structure and lovely color, but more importantly it imposes all kinds of useful constraints on the creative process.

"Constraints" is a kind word for it. I’m still amused by the sound of the film whirring through the camera— a sound that is, as one person said, like the sound of burning money. You can’t ignore it. Every film set shares a paranoia about the caprice of film. Flashed the negative? There goes that mag. Left it in the car too long? Looked at it in the wrong way? It will bear the marks.

Film requires you to postpone any technological gratification. You won’t see the developed images for days or weeks, not until the lab ships it back to you in a metal box. And so you learn to trust your eyes, and to plan ahead, so that you don’t waste the scarce supply of stock. You get eleven minutes, and then you need to reload. And there are only so many mags to load. There’s no video village where you can watch endless takes and pixel-peep to your heart’s content. Did we really get it? Only the person holding the camera knows for sure.

All of this means that we had to redouble our efforts in pre production so that we had the right locations, the right angle of the sun, and the right storyboards for each setup. Even though we were going for an improvised aesthetic, each shot was carefully planned so that we could nail it in less than three takes.

One would think that this would create a stressful environment, but it’s more like a well-rehearsed circus where everyone knows their marks. You get an adrenaline rush from working under pressure, embracing chaos and scarcity. Ask any cast or crew if they prefer film. They’ll tell you that there’s nothing like it— the challenge and the exhilaration.

Jules et Jim, directed by Francois Truffault (1962)
...And the scene from our piece inspired by Jules et Jim, set on the Rainbow Bride in Dolores Park, San Francisco

Eventually the time comes to look at the developed footage. In the old days you would spool up the film on a Moviola or a portable projector and run through the reels. Nowadays you get a link to download a digitized version of the footage, but it’s still very much a film artifact. There are light flashes, punch holes, sometimes countdowns or leaders. And the glorious grain. It really changes the way you remember the day of shooting, because it doesn’t look anything like a digital record of the experience. Compared to the behind-the-scenes footage you may have shot on your iPhone, the film footage seems like a dancing, pointillist impression of the world.

Let’s talk a bit more about that grain. There are all kinds of ways to superimpose simulated digital grain on top of your footage, but nothing can quite replicate the way that the film emulsion reacts to photons and creates blooms of organic dots. For many years, professional filmmakers worked hard to eliminate film grain from their high-end 35mm stocks, but now it seems refreshing in the world of high-def social media. The gauzy colors and vibrating texture of 16mm come to life on the Instagram timeline, stopping you mid-scroll and short circuiting the visual cortex— Wait, what was that? Its lack of naturalism is its strength. Like a natural artifact, not a perfect recording.

In our extremely-online world, it’s easy to produce and consume things so quickly that they leave almost no aftertaste. My phone has thousands of photos that I will never see again. Our social networks are recorded in petabytes, then rendered obsolete and meaningless as the next layer of birthdays, concert events, and ceremonies mark our movement to the other side of life. A half-hour of scrolling on the digital timeline will yield hundreds of dopamine microdoses, but it leaves you feeling empty.

Sometimes the old ways feel like new ways. If you’re looking for a different approach to telling your story, consider film. It creates a kind of magical, imperfect artifact of the moment that cannot be replicated. Going back to our original inspiration, I’m reminded of something John Lennon once said— “You cannot reheat a souflée.”

A special shout-out to all of the people involved in the making of this piece:

Quiet Town Creative Directors: Lisa and Michael Fine

Co-Director: Peter Brambl

Producer: Joanna Ellis

Director of Photography: Joshua Pausanos

Assistant Camera: Ron Witt

Swing/Grip: Dakota Lim

Stylist: Anne Marie Strohbeck

Casting Director: Tina D'Elia

Starring (in order of appearance)

Daniel Da Silva, Dawn Livingson, Amy Bergstein

Music by Mac de Marco