Against the Grain
With increasingly sophisticated tools on the market designed to simulate the film look that are, on the whole, cheaper and simpler than old-school filmmaking, it's hardly surprising that Super 8 camera-wielding event videographers make up a small handful—less than ten percent of the industry, by their own estimates. They're definitely several degrees smaller a demographic than the videographers who go the all-digital route to the filmic effect.
Steve Wernick, president of Bensalem, Pennsylvania-based Videoccassion, adds film, albeit infrequently, to his social event videos to evoke "memories of simpler times," even though, he says, "it's an added expense and inconvenience, buying the film and sending it off for processing. Creating the film effect in post is cheaper and easier."
Mark Goldberg, who runs Spectrum Productions in Annapolis, Maryland, began his career in film but uses it only very rarely now. He admits, "On a busy event, I don't want the hassle."
Jenny Lehman, owner of Jenny Lehman Film & Video located in Washington, D.C., sees the same trend. "Most videographers don't want to add more work or expenses to their productions," she says. Not that this attitude at all describes her work—she adds Super 8 to some 20 percent of her special-event productions.
Jenny Lehman captures a moment in both DV (left) and Super 8 (right), which adds a "cool, classic, nostalgic look" to the final product. Images copyright Jenny Lehman.
Lehman and others who work with Super 8 find that clients who desire film aren't as few and far between as the videographers who offer it; a few even say they are sought out for their use of film. Film is listed on the website of Los Angeles-based Today's the Day Weddings, and Mike Cook says that definitely draws in more business for him and partner Joseph Rosenberger.
Likewise, Robert Allen of New York City-based Robert Allen Videojournalist says that while digitally produced effects are indeed becoming the default method for creating the film look, "people are still coming to me because I can incorporate Super 8 film." Allen uses film in about a third of his weddings, which may be more than most, likely due in part to the nature of the New York market. "I deal with a lot of people in the television and film industries," he says, "and I'm doing weddings for celebrities." He's found that, unlike many clients, TV and movie celebrities "understand the differences" between effects and real film—and "they definitely want film."
Cook speaks of a similar experience. "We did a wedding for an actress, and she was all about film and film looks. So she wanted some real film," he says. "But then, she also looked at what we did digitally and she was really jazzed about that too. So we ended up treating her entire thing, from beginning to end, with various film looks."
Of course, your clients don't have to be in the movie business to appreciate film. But at $14 (B & H) for a two- to three-minute 50-foot cartridge of Super 8 film, not including processing and telecine, clients do have to be able to afford it. "It has an appeal to those with higher budgets [who are] interested in that artistic look," Goldberg says. In Wernick's experience, film typically appeals to "a more sophisticated client. Because real film is so rarely used," he explains, "it helps make their video more distinctive—if the film is shot well, and used judiciously."
Wernick typically uses so little film, though—not more than one cartridge per event—that he generally doesn't bill it as an add-on. Others do charge a premium ranging from $300 per cartridge to several thousand per job, to cover the parts and labor.
Digitally Produced Effects
To the average client, however, the differences between effects and true film may not be discernible. For many, effects are a welcome, affordable alternative to film.
In presenting both options to clients, Allen says, "there might be a client who doesn't have the extra two or three thousand to spend on film and will say a film effect or 24p is fine." That's usually fine for him too, when he's in a pinch. He employs these methods, he says, "for those moments that would be impossible to cover with the 8 mm because of the lighting issues and the noise of the camera."
To create the film look, Allen uses both 24p and filters in his NLE, Canopus EDIUS. "When I show my clients what I do in 24p," referring to 24p-capable cameras such as Panasonic's DVX100 and Canon's XL2, which record at various frame rates, most of them "love that look and want that look." He equates 24p with a "Law & Order, NYPD Blue kind of look and feel," as opposed to the "very video look" of daytime soap operas.
NLE filters, such as those Allen uses in EDIUS, allow videographers to manipulate various settings like color, softness, and frame rate, and often have presets that apply the look of 8 mm, 16 mm, or 35 mm to your composition. Allen is a fan of EDIUS' film presets. "I've experimented with some other packages, but I'm more concerned with being able to move through an edit in a timely fashion rather than spend a whole lot of time trying to get these filters exactly right," he says. "I don't think the client really can see the subtle differences that we see. And I think it's kind of a waste trying to get those filters just right. So I'll just have a couple of presets that I've become fond of."
Goldberg agrees with Allen that NLE filters will do an acceptable job "for most wedding videos"; he uses them for the vast majority of what he presents as film, applying them in "flashbacks and cutaways for wedding and Bar Mitzvah productions, such as showing a family video cutaway against a speech, vows, or dance," he says. When it comes to filters, which NLE he uses is a non-issue to him. "I chose my NLEs for other reasons, not this one," he says.
Unlike Allen, though, Goldberg does not believe that the 24p of many camcorders looks like real film. "It is like that fake seafood you find in cheap sushi—it sort of imitates the real thing but never quite gets there. The examples I have seen look jerky," he says.
Cook, on the other hand, does not create effects using NLE filters. He believes that Cinelook, a plug-in for After Effects and Final Cut Pro by DigiEffects, is "capable of making a much more visually correct representation of film." He says such plug-ins "are getting to be pretty darn good, and it really takes a trained eye to tell the difference."
The Cinelook2 interface, with a menu bar including stock match, lets you choose the amount and type of grain you wish to apply to your footage.
Other plug-ins on the market include Magic Bullet Editors for FCP (see review); Visual Infinity's Grain Surgery for AE; and BigFX FilmFX for Premiere. These tools have film-look presets that emulate a variety of film-stock styles and filters that add the look of damage, gate weave, motion, grain, flicker, etc.
Cook uses Cinelook "on just about every project now," and does so enthusiastically. When clients express interest in a film look, "we generally try to steer them to the digitally done," he says. "We bring a disc of some telecined actual 8 mm and bring a disc with some digitally done 8 mm and let them see the difference, and if they feel like they're close enough, we let them choose."
What's So Super About Super 8?
So with NLE and plug-in filters closing the gap between the real thing and the digitally enhanced imitation, what is it about Super 8 that keeps clients and videographers coming back for more? What does the medium offer that film-look effects cannot accomplish?
For one thing, Lehman, who uses real film to add "a cool classic, nostalgic look" to her DV footage, thinks effects can look "cheesy." She says, "In most cases I can tell when fake film effects are being used or overused. I think they're tacky when overused." In fact, Lehman refuses to use film-look effects at all. "I don't want to sell fake footage or special effects."
Lehman frequently shoots film during the pre-ceremony when the camera's noise won't be distracting. Here, a clean and sharp DV shot is contrasted with a softer film shot. Images copyright Jenny Lehman.
In the same camp is Wernick, who says, "If I want a film look, I'm shooting film." He's not impressed by the look of 24p, "nor have I liked the film effects that I've seen." For him, they can't fully duplicate the unique properties of film that so strongly appeal to brides' emotions. While some, such as artifacts, grain, and frame rate, can be digitally produced, others, such as its sensitivity to light and deep, rich contrast, cannot.
These qualities are part of what make film "a nice counter-balance to the sharpness of DV," Wernick says. In Cook's words, a spot of real film presented along with DV removes "that harsh video look and gives it a more organic feel."
Because of the way film responds to color and tonality, for instance, images shot in an outdoor scene with a range of hues or intense, contrasting shades of black and white may appear richer and more saturated on film.
Goldberg offers an example of film's greater contrast range: "I took both film and video shots at this wedding rehearsal where one angle had a window in the background. If I set video for the interior shot, the window was totally blown out white, but on film you could see detail outside as well as inside," he says.
Perhaps most importantly, the art of filmmaking is fun, at least for Goldberg. "One of my motivations to use real film is that I have fun with Super 8. It is what started me in business, and I can afford the luxury of doing it every now and again," he says.
Film may be fun to shoot, but it isn't without its production challenges; newcomers may encounter a learning curve, and hiccups in the shooting day are inevitable. For example, unlike DV cameras, "film has no electronic viewfinder," Goldberg warns. "There really are no retakes when shooting film at a wedding, and you don't have the option of boosting the camera gain. I started in film, so the idea with video of seeing an electronic image and having immediate playback was a great luxury. Shooting film made me good at getting it right the first time. I think it is harder for someone who learned on video to move to film. Some have done it."
And because the cameras require undivided attention, an additional cameraperson is often needed. Cook says, "We usually bring a third cameraman for that because you kind of have to be concentrating on film when you're shooting."
Super 8 also adds an element of surprise because it means working with somewhat antiquated equipment. Goldberg says, "For the most part in Super 8, we are working with archival cameras. Most were built between 1962 and 1984, with the peak in the late '70s. Many of the companies are out of business and you can't get parts or repairs. Often the rubber parts have hardened and other deterioration has occurred inside. You have to obtain these on eBay, at garage sales, at photo flea markets, or in the used bins of obscure independent camera stores. Pro8mm of Burbank, California, actually sells some reconditioned ones." (For more information about Super 8 equipment, see "Sidebar: Super 8 Stocks & Cameras.")
Lehman adds, "I bring three to four cameras with me just in case I have a problem. Film cameras are less reliable than video cameras." Plus, she says, "Just cleaning and packing cameras and film takes some time."
Not only are the cameras less reliable, there are limits to where and when they can be used. "Because the cameras make some noise and require more light than video, I find the best use of [film] is during the dressing, pre-ceremony, and post-ceremony coverage. I will also use it during recession and cocktails only if I have adequate light, using daylight," Lehman says.
Allen takes a similar approach, shooting film "during the getting-ready process. If it happens to be an outdoor ceremony, certainly it can be used then. But if it's inside of a house of worship, a church or synagogue, or in the reception hall, it kind of goes against my overall philosophy of unobtrusive covering of a wedding," he says.
Robert Allen likes the abruptness of going from a diital shot to the Super 8 version. Images copyright Robert Allen.
Conversion and Postproduction
Once shooting is over, film needs to be transferred to a digital format, or telecined, before it can be edited along with the DV clips. In telecine, each film frame is recorded, via light that passes through the image, to a sequence of image files on a disk. Because telecine is such a delicate process, all five videographers we spoke to send their film to professional post-houses to be telecined. Wernick says, "There aren't a lot of choices in processing the film and converting it to DV, so it wasn't worth the time to pursue various alternatives." (For more information on various telecine methods, see "Sidebar: Telecine.")
After telecine, Super 8 images can be edited in your NLE like any other element without significantly increased rendering or editing time. Lack of timecode information can be an issue. At most, Lehman says, "it's not on your video camera original tapes so it takes more time to find clips and edit them in the timeline where you want them." Goldberg says that while it does require some rendering on his Vegas and Premiere systems, "the clips are short, and this is not significant."
When it comes to incorporating the Super 8, the consensus is that it should be applied with thematic motivation or not applied at all. Goldberg often uses film as "an attention-getter" or to tell "the viewer that we are flashing back to a different time and place." It's a mistake to insert film "just to have film," Wernick believes. Or to "over-apply it, or apply it randomly," Cook says. "If for no reason it all of a sudden it goes to 8 mm, that never works for me."
But while highlighting the differences between film and DV is desirable across the board, videographers have different styles of presenting that contrast. For instance, Allen likes "the abruptness of going from one to the next. I might go quickly from a digital shot of something to the film version of that," he says.
Others take a different approach, applying transitions to make the breaks seamless. While Lehman does "like to jump back and forth [to show] the contrast between" film and DV, depending on the feeling she's going for, she might apply white flashes, film leader from Reelhouse, or light film-camera sound to smooth the transitions.
Audio captured by her DV camera dubbed over the Super 8 clips makes the transitions even smoother, and is an easy way to deal with the fact that many Super 8 cameras don't record synced sound. As Lehman describes, "I often have a video camera running at the same time and use the audio from the video." She also uses "lots of ambient audio in my productions," which she continues over the film.
So whether you decide to add Super 8 to your offerings, or to rely on film-look effects to inject cinematic grandeur or austerity into your productions, two things are clear: many clients crave the film look, whether genuine or faux, and true film still has, and may always have, a place (albeit a small one) in videography.
"Digital stuff is pretty much taking over for the average consumer event-video-like wedding," Cook says. That said, he insists that film is "not gone yet, and I still think there's a place for it. I think people who really know and see the difference I see are going to want film."
"It is the only way to get the real film look," Goldberg agrees. It's also the only way to give your productions what Wernick calls "that old-school feel that can't be duplicated."
Perhaps Allen explains it best when he reflects on the irony that an eBay bargain or garage-sale treasure can create an image more poignant and valuable to a bride and groom than the latest state-of-the-art camera. It just goes to show, he says, that "brides care more about the finished product and the emotions it conjures up, rather than what piece of fancy equipment was used to shoot it."
In the end, whether you offer film probably won't influence how many clients you get, or how creative or successful you become. As Goldberg says, customers come to him "because they like the way I relate the videos to the story of the event, wedding, or Bar Mitzvah. Use of film or film effect is part of the overall look."
Like any component of your style and your business, whether Super 8 belongs in your overall look boils down to your vision. If you love the process and what you can create with film, that may be reason enough to start rolling.
Sidebar: Super 8 Film Stocks & Cameras
Super 8 film stocks are manufactured primarily by Eastman Kodak, and are sold in 50-foot cartridges. Depending on which frame rate the camera is set at, each cartridge lasts in the two- to three-minute range. Kodak.com's film running-time calculator is a handy tool for converting different frame rates and film formats.)
Popular stocks, processed by most labs, include black and white reversal, color reversal, and the pricier color negative. Videographers going for the nostalgic look might choose a B&W reversal film such as Plus-X, which achieves a sharp, contrast-rich picture, and is useful for exterior shots; or Tri-X, which performs well in weak light, overcast, or in slow motion.
The affordable choice in color Super 8 film is a color reversal stock, a sharp, fine-grain film that performs over a wide range of exposures. (Detailed information on film stocks sold by Kodak, as well as a dealers and labs directory, can be found on their website.)
A more costly color film is color negative, which is specially manufactured by Burbank, California-based Pro8mm. Mark Goldberg explains, "They buy a wide variety of different [35 mm] negative film stocks from Kodak and Fuji, re-cut them into Super 8, and load them into standard Super 8 cartridges." Processing is included in the price of the Pro8 film from Pro8mm.
Popular Super 8 camera brands include the French Beaulieu, Nizo, and Canon. "In the heyday of Super 8, Beaulieu was like the Rolex of Super 8 cams," Goldberg says.
A variety of Super 8 cameras, with varying frame rates, shutter angles, and prices, are available on eBay. "So far the cameras are cheap on eBay, except for a few select models," Goldberg says. "If a camera malfunctions, many just throw them away." Jenny Lehman, who owns about 30 film cameras, "paid $25 to $600 per film camera," she says.
But much like working in DV, many believe, a videographer's talent has a greater impact on the result than the piece of equipment used. "Equipment is virtually a non-issue in film," Steve Wernick says. "The skill and creativity of the camera operator is what determines success."
Film post-houses, or cinelabs, use a variety of telecine equipment and methods, such as the frame-by-frame scan, which uses a 3CCD camera to capture each frame of film. While the frame is stopped, the image passes through the camera via a FireWire connection to a computer's hard drive.
In Los Angeles, Cook says, "there are a million places that'll telecine it for you at a pretty reasonable price. They telecine it over to DVCAM and then we bring that into the NLE at the studio. From there it's just dropped in pretty straightforward."
Prices average between $30 and $70 per 50-foot roll, and it takes, on average, two weeks to get telecined footage back. The turnaround time, Cook says, "depends on how much you want to pay. A lot of the places around here will stock up on little things like this, and when their machines are down and not busy doing a movie or TV or something else, they'll churn out a bunch of this little stuff. And you get kind of a price break to do that. So sometimes it's three or four days, sometimes it's a few weeks, which for the wedding business is OK because you rarely have that tight a turnaround on that stuff."
In-house telecine options do exist for the adventurous. But, Goldberg advises, "Film is at a different frame rate from DV, so if this is not done properly, the image will pulsate. Framing, color/density adjustment, and mechanical stability are very important considerations too."
One method used in-house by some is the film-chain, or projector-based, system, in which the motor of a variable-speed film projector is synced up with the video signal. For NTSC transfers, a special mechanism creates a 3:2 pull-down. Goldberg purchased a Goko Telecine projector for about $900 from eBay, which he calls a "basic device to do a reasonable transfer of Super 8."
In-house transfer is "doable," Goldberg says, "but results will be nowhere near that of a facility with a Flying Spot Scanner or line-array telecine with ultrasonic cleaning and a good colorist. With the emergence of negative film stocks in Super 8, this transfer is even harder, as the film will show dust as bright white specs so a clean room environment is crucial."