Photo of a rocky, alpine shoreline taken at the beginning of a roll of film, where half the frame has been erased by exposure to light.
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Dermot McDermot

There’s more to film than just a look. There are, or were, so many factors with film and film cameras that contributed to the great movies shot on film – of course many of these were also present in bad films. Here are a few factors.

Small size and simplicity. Many film cameras were far smaller than their modern digital equivalents. The manuals for cameras like the ACL or Aaton 35 were about 32 pages long and many were blank. The Camé didn’t come with a manual so far as I remember. This has an effect on the way productions are shot. Smaller crew, faster setups.

No video splits. The people who see the image are the director and operator. The set is not filled with video monitors watched by people who think they’re seeing what’s being shot.

Expensive stock. This means you can’t just hold the button down forever. Some thought has to be done before rolling and then after to reflect on whether the take was OK or not.

Weave. 100% steadiness isn’t actually necessary. Watch an animal looking at a static scene and compare that with the same thing where the scene moves very slightly… it’s natural to pay attention more to a moving image, however subtle the movement.

Film has a rhythm in a way that video does not. The timing of lighting up, rolling sound and camera and putting in the slate gives everyone an opportunity to wind up and perform in a way that video doesn’t.

The great cameras, the ones which changed film like the Caméflex, NPR, ACL and Aaron (16 and 35mm) were all really great tools for setting up a shot, with proper rotating viewfinders, usually flat bases which could be sat on a sandbag on the floor or sat on the shoulder.

The reason you say that film started looking good in 1985 is because that’s about when the penny dropped for most of the industry that you cannot light for colour film the way that it was done for B&W. In fact good lighting came from the UK and spread from there. Have a look at the interiors in the Ken Loach series “Days of Hope” or any TV commercial from the UK – including Alan Parker and Ridley Scott, followed by Brian Probyn on films like Badlands. Oddly, mainstream US films, especially comedies were the last to understand that tennis court lighting is not required.

Every time I pick up a modern video camera or have to shoot video on a DSLR, I long for the simplicity of a film camera and what that brings to a production… it’s more than just film stock.

Jerome Noonan

Those who want the ” film look” should just admit they want an artsy retro grainy film style and stop pretending that it is somehow better or more authentic.


Thanks for the gold-plated Filmbox shoutout! We at VideoVillage totally agree that people are often after “filmic” characteristics which are exaggerated or which bare little resemblance to modern or even plausible photochemical processes. Although we would argue our product is notable precisely because it is not an example of exaggeration. Filmbox is very much a realistic reproduction of 2019 stock and practices with genuine Burbank dandruff.

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