Examining the use of technology in film is a hobby and fascination of mine, and has been for years. In research, or even casual observation of the intersection of film and technology, much to-do is made about how technologies are applied to film. Before there can be discussion of technologies applied to a film, whether in post-production or otherwise, there is a decision made by the filmmakers that affects both the production workflow and the look and feel of a film enormously – this decision is how the film will be captured, or, instead of which technology will be applied to a film, which technology will be used to capture a film. With digital being the norm in today’s feature film landscape, shooting on film sets a given project apart from the rest of the pack, and results in a work that looks distinctly different from the majority of the films in the marketplace, as evidenced by the infographic below, from film researcher Stephen Follows (https://stephenfollows.com/film-vs-digital/).
As of 2015, just 20% of the top 100 US-grossing films were shot on film, compared to near 90% being shot digitally. The key distinction here is that these are top grossing, Hollywood studio pictures – with directors the likes of J.J. Abrams, Christopher Nolan, and Steven Spielberg – they can demand film capture, and no one can deny them, but these are the biggest films, imagine a more dire outlook for indies that need to save pennies wherever they can. The cheaper workflow offered by digital leads to a much bigger disparity in the digital to film ratio of low to micro budget indies.
Moving beyond the decision to shoot on film, there is the matter of deciding which film stock to shoot on. 35mm film or 16mm film are the two options filmmakers tend to weigh when embarking on a project, and what I aim to do below is to explore what is gained in the selection of a shooting format, in Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs (2015), Bill Pohlad’s Love & Mercy (2014), and Pablo Larraín’s Jackie (2016). Beyond the simple choice to shoot on film, these films use more than one capture format within each – this allows them to create juxtapositions using the visual textures of the mediums at hand. Each film is, in essence, a biopic. Boyle’s film is the story of the titular Apple genius, Pohlad’s film is the story of The Beach Boys’ lead, Brian Wilson, and Larraín’s film focuses on former First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. The juxtapositions created within the films by the usage of different capture formats allow for the films to transcend the narrative potential of a biopic, crisscrossing or skipping through periods within the films’ subjects’ lives, through a visual means. Shooting on film in the first place is a distinguishing aesthetic mark on a film, but it is these films’ combination of capture formats that imbues them with the ability to convey not just unconventional narratives, in a sense of literary design, but also in the sense of visual experience.
Each film’s shooting formats have a transportive quality, one that moves the viewer through time, during each of the films. Beginning with Steve Jobs, Boyle and DP Alwin H. Küchler made the decision to mirror the structure of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for the film with their capture format decisions. The film is shot in three different formats, one for each distinct act of the screenplay, each act joining Jobs and those around him as they prepare for a product launch. The first, and earliest portion of the film, was shot on 16mm film – depicting 1984 before an event for the Macintosh. Act 2 was shot on 35mm film, depicting the 1988 NeXT Computer launch, and then act 3, leading up to the launch of the iMac, is shot digitally, on the Arri Alexa. This creates three distinct visual looks, and as the film progresses, the visuals get clearer and cleaner. Where aspect ratio is concerned, the film conforms the footage from each of its sections to scope, resulting in cropping of the 16mm material. The 16mm material is soft, gritty and grainy, while the 35 material has a much stronger, robust and uniform look. The Alexa material is, unsurprisingly, crystal clear. Examining this in tandem with the content of the film itself, Jobs is played by the same actor, Michael Fassbender, throughout. He ages before our eyes, via makeup and hair, this helps delineate which time period we are in visually, and is aided by the use of the three different capture formats. Underscoring the use of each format for each period is the notion that each format is actually period appropriate, linking the look of each section to technology that would be used to capture events of the time in reality.
With Pohlad’s film, Love & Mercy chronology is not conformed to in any way. Further separating it from Boyle’s film, two actors play the film’s subject, Brian Wilson – these two being Paul Dano, as the younger Wilson, and John Cusack, as the older Wilson. The film is shot with 16mm and 35mm film, 16 for the earlier portions and 35 for the latter portions. While the actors playing Brian Wilson make it easy to determine which time period the film is depicting, as it bounces around throughout, this is further aided by the vast difference in texture of both formats. Where Boyle’s film allows the viewer to adjust to a texture throughout an entire act of his film, Pohlad’s film abruptly moves between the two time periods, thus leading to jarring shifts in visual texture. Pohlad’s film also integrates period footage with originally shot footage, meant to mimic the period footage, thus making it appear as though Paul Dano and co. are actually the 60s boyband, in pseudo-documentary footage. The film’s opening credit sequence is a good example of this. See this clip from the film, starting in the film’s later period with Elizabeth Banks, then moving back in time with Paul Dano, then moving into Wilson’s mind as he puts together a song, and note the different visual textures within.
The actual footage from the period needs no manipulation, and the 16mm footage shot for the film is processed to make it look as though it fits within the period – separating these moments from the rest of the films 16mm material. There are also black & white, pillar-boxed moments, meant to simulate home movie footage. Combined with the film’s 35mm footage, there are five varieties of textures in the film, derived from two kinds of film stock, thus allowing for two time periods, flashbacks within the periods, the illusion of different sources, and hallucinatory sequences to each maintain a distinct visual flavor within one cohesive work. With the exception of the black and white material, the film’s aspect ratio is conformed to 1.78:1, or conventional 16×9. This aids the film in its ability to bridge gaps between times and sources of footage, as it abets the cohesiveness of the film’s visuals, via a consistent aspect ratio – when this is contradicted by the black & white material, it is for the purpose of distinguishing the home movie footage, shot for the film with Dano and the rest of the actors playing the band members. Like with Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy’s different textures and capture formats allow it to skip through time, but unlike Steve Jobs, in a non-chronological fashion. Thus, the use of the various textures and capture formats allow both films to transcend conventional approaches taken by the biopic – while the script may call for unique combinations or treatments of time periods in the narrative, these aesthetic choices amp up the films’ abilities to live up to and convey the narratives of these scripts.
Pablo Larraín’s film, Jackie, takes a different approach to non-chronological narrative. The film jumps around time the most of the three films covered herein, but the window of time it works within is smaller than Steve Jobs or Love & Mercy. Unlike the other films, Jackie does not switch shooting formats for its shifts in time, partly because its jumps through time encompass smaller time intervals. Like in Steve Jobs, the titular character of Jackie is played by the same person throughout, Natalie Portman. With this film, the shift in format is when the film depicts the shooting of A Tour of the White House with Mrs. John F. Kennedy, originally aired on February 14, 1962. The film was shot on 16mm, and retains that format’s aspect ratio of 1.66:1, allowing it to stand out sharply from other films shot in nearly every other format, those which retain the various permutations of scope or CinemaScope, bearing aspect ratios like 2.35:1 or 2.40:1. The texture and grain offered by 16mm, like in Steve Jobs and Love & Mercy allows it to feel as though it was actually captured within the period it depicts. It is useful that it looks like film shot in 60s, then, as some actual source footage from the period is integrated into the film, sometimes only in brief snippets. The film’s director, Larraín, narrates the clip below, explaining how actual shots from the tour were integrated into the film’s version of the tour.
NY Times – Anatomy of a Scene – ‘Jackie’
With the tour, we encounter the film’s main instance of shifts in visual capture format. The tour bits shot for the film were shot in a pillar-boxed frame, in black & white, on video. Per the film’s cinematographer, Stephen Fontaine, “in order to match the specific look of the [tour] footage we used an old tri-tube camera Pablo [Larraín] brought in from Chile” (James – http://nofilmschool.com/2016/12/cinematographer-stephane-fontaine-lenses-emotional-journey-jackie). The shift from color to black & white, 1.66:1 to 1.33:1, and film to video all clearly indicate what is tour footage and what is not. As Portman plays Jackie giving the tour, the cuts from what the tour camera is capturing to what the film’s main camera is capturing are certainly jarring and combine two distinct visuals, but the underlying effect achieved does what the visual choices made by Steve Jobs and Love & Mercy do – they amplify the core of the film’s narrative through a visual means, in this case, the tricky balance (or lack thereof) between private and public life, performance, persona and “reality” during JFK’s presidency, and time before, during, and after his assassination, all from the perspective of Jackie. During the White House tour, what is shown in color and not being filmed for the tour includes Jackie’s assistant and confidant, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), coaching Jackie as she at times struggles with maintaining her composed, on-camera demeanor. This places the viewer in the period, allowing us to experience both what television audiences saw then, and what they wouldn’t have seen. The juxtaposition offered by the two visual capture methods then underscores what is happening in the film’s screenplay. The function of this juxtaposition, while different in how it is implemented, is similar in its net effect, albeit more focused on public and private life, compared to traveling between time periods.
It says a lot about a filmmaker when he or she chooses to shot on film, as it is so against the grain in terms of the look of the majority of films made today, likewise, it alters the workflow. Away goes the instant playbacks at video village, and being able to beam dailies to iPads via apps like Pix – with film, dailies have to be processed and screened. Film processing in general takes more time, and with the need to purchase, carry, load and reload film mags, there is just more effort when it comes to shooting on film. While choosing to capture on film does say a lot about a filmmaker, it says even more when the choice is made to use more than one format for a film, and thus the creative teams behind Steve Jobs, Love & Mercy and Jackie all have a clear commitment to telling the stories of their films not just by what is put on screen, but by how the films are put onscreen, in how they are captured and presented. Using more than one format, any combination of 16mm and 35mm film, video, and digital capture allow each of the films to juxtapose time periods and aspects of life, thus allowing the films in question to transcend the conventional biopic, whether electing to present a portrait of one’s life chronologically, or non-chronologically. As Steve Jobs’ director Danny Boyle says, the objective in depicting Jobs in that film was to present “a portrait…rather than a photograph” (Zorthian – http://time.com/4012107/steve-jobs-movie-aaron-sorkin-interview/). Each film presents a portrait of their subjects, and in choosing the various visual textures within each work, numerous portraits of the films’ subjects are able to come through.