Why I Shoot Motion Picture Film - DP Chris Fenner

Why I Shoot Motion Picture Film - DP Chris Fenner

Let's get this out of the way first. For smaller productions, film isn’t cheaper. So I won’t be trying to pull that over on you. 

Maybe - it's cheaper for a production like the Walking Dead, once you factor in bulk discounts and such. 

Maybe - if you are shooting 2-3 rolls a day the price will be the same (Depending on stock/perf here).

But after you get past 2-3 rolls of 3-perf 35mm or 6 rolls of 16mm it starts to get more pricey. This estimate is taking into account film, developing, and scanning to 1080p. If you want 4k that's more money too. 

I do believe that that shooting film can do two things for you. One, make you a better artist and two, elevate your production to give it a look that digital can still only emulate.  

    Argument One: Film Makes You a Better Artist

How many of us use a light meter on set? Or can visually tell the difference between 2-4 stops? Not many. We are all getting use to relying on false color of our monitor (which isn't bad.) But for a new crop of people coming into the industry take that away and boy they would be lost. So first part is that using a meter and really paying attention to light will help you become a better artists and expand your knowledge.
I didn't start using a light meter until last year. I have found that I can see light better since I started using a meter. Yes you can use a meter and not shoot film, but for me film has been the catalyst to push me to start using a meter. Film has also helped me to know the tools (camera, monitors, what light is doing/quality/type, etc) better, and I also believe creating in me a better artist overall (still with lots to learn of course). 

A nice small step if you cant invest in shooting motion picture film is shooting stills. Most still photo film is around 400 asa and that is close to the same as motion picture film (250-500 asa usually). It has 36 shots per roll so the cost is much less than buying cans of motion picture film.
One of the benefits of shooting stills on film is being forced to use your light meter, unless your camera has a built in meter, so I would try and get one without a built in meter. The core idea is to see light and be able to communicate what you want to the crew faster in standardized film language. Saying “Knock that down 4 stops" to your gaffer is better than “Hey thats a little hot, could you bring it down...”.
The meter also allows you to keep moving around the set and not stay behind the camera, helping speed things along in some situations. Also once you profile your camera and load that profile into your meter, you can tell you with 100% certainty that you still have detail or have lost detail without a monitor. I believe constantly improving will help you become a better artist. 

    Argument Two: Elevate Your Production  

Watch something shot on film. Whether it's on your computer or in the theater, you can’t argue that the look that film gives is amazing. There are tons of LUTs, articles, and tutorials aimed at trying to emulate the film look, so why not try and do it for real? With film cameras sitting on most rental houses shelves, you can usually rent them for a steal. Though with film getting a little resurgence in popularity this might change. There are also film camera packages one could buy for less than a used C500 if you are feeling frisky. If you really want to shoot film, its totally doable, the only thing stopping you is you.
Don’t be scared, be okay with asking how when you don’t know how to do something, and more importantly, be okay with failing. When renting cameras, I have found its amazing the time the older techs will spend with me, I believe the techs are genuinely excited to see younger guys and gals trying out film. They have been great in helping me learn the processes, the differences in cameras, and making sure I'm leaving the rental house confident. So ask.

How I'm Shooting Film

Let me walk through how I’ve stepped into the world of film - maybe it will help give you an idea of what's possible.
I’m using it currently in two situations, the first of which is personal projects. This decision is pretty easy to explain: everything is on my dime, the failure won’t hurt whoever is hiring me (since that's me), and I love getting to push myself.

The second situation is mixing film and digital on paying gigs. Shooting digital lets me “see” something close to what the film will give me and shooting digital along side lets me take some of the risk out of the equation. Also pushing the film over or under gives you a totally different look than digital, and if you give yourself some "rules" like keeping film handheld and digital sticks/steadicam it will help differentiate the look even more. In the future on certain gigs I'd love to try shooting strictly film, but for now shooting alongside digital offers peace of mind.

Recent 35mm Project: Cost Breakdown

Below is a cost overview of the one take performance video above. The musicians are friends of mine, the audio producer/studio owner mixed for free and allowed us to use his studio. The AC and PA volunteered, and the rental house I use most often rented me a sound sync camera with a single Cooke S4. Luckily, we have a film lab here in Atlanta.

Something like this personal project is a perfect piece to shoot film on - the only pressure is wasting everyones time if you screw it up. yolo, ha! I would defiantly look at 16mm instead of the 35mm I did here if you are starting out.

Budget Breakdown:


  • Quasar Science LED Tubes -  $75
  • China Balls - $12.50
  • 6 x100 watt bulbs - ? (don’t remember)
  • Source 4 - Already owned/bought off of eBay. 


  • 3 Recans of 400ft 5219 35mm (one take each + some b-roll) - $525 total
  • 5:30min of film x 3, Developed and Scanned (ProRes 4444 flat pass) - $576.70
  • Arricam ST, Cooke S4 32mm, Easyrig, Batteries, 2 mags, - $700
  • Food for crew - $100

Location - Donated

Audio Mixing - Donated

Total: - $1989.20

Go Forth!

So go forth and shoot! If it's not film thats cool, if it is, rock on! This post isn't an end all be all on film, also please don't take it as if you aren't shooting film you are doing it wrong. I do hope it pushes you to try new things and to continually improve your craft every day. Go make cool shit!

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