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Would you choose Super 16 or the Alexa Mini?


Alex Birrell
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Hi guys!

I'm going to be directing a low budget feature early next year and we are currently at the point of receiving equipment quotes. We are in the position to have been offered the Arri 416 with Ultra 16s and the Alexa Mini with Xtal Express anamorphics. The 16mm equipment is being offered for considerably less than the Alexa kit to the extent that the difference would pay for all the film stock fresh from Kodak. We could manage the processing and scan by moving different things around in the budget. 

I know you guys can't answer the question for me but I'm looking for discussion, experience and opinions about whether you would choose one over the other. The film is a thriller featuring a character who is obsessed with analogue technology and uses a Super8 camera. Part of the story involves him accidentally capturing a murderer on film. Shooting on film kind of fits the brief of the story and if we were able to afford 35mm I wouldn't hesitate. But 16 isn't 35 - I am concerned about too much grain, especially as we have a lot of night scenes. At the same time, my references and inspiration for this film are mostly from the 70s and 80s and the look is often plenty grainy. I'm also looking for the Scope ratio so we would be cropping the Super 16 image.

I know 16 is really in fashion right now but a lot of shoots are emphasising the rough, degraded quality. It'd like to get it as sharp as possible retaining all the beautiful of well exposed film grain and colour.

We have a short schedule so lots of takes won't happen with either film or digital and I don't need monitors everywhere or playback. It'd be great to hear thoughts and opinions to help me decide.

Also, if we want to shoot an 8mm projector running 24 fps shot footage at 24 fps will we be in sync so no flicker?

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Watch "Carol" and "MOTHER!" both are shot with very low light, parts of "Carol" are 500T pushed 2 stops. Good movies to check out and understand how much you can get out of 500T. Where I personally don't like that pushed look, I have shot 500T on 16mm in dark situations for years and honestly, it comes out fine. Just need to have SOME light and be a tiny bit more careful about it than with digital. So you may spend a TINY bit more time lighting, but it wouldn't cost anymore to light, just more time consuming to insure you got it right. But, you will shoot less due to the cost elements, so that may help offset the cost of the lighting. 

I think it would not only be cool to shoot it on 16mm, but also and most importantly, the publicity you receive for shooting on film these days is pretty good. Nobody really cares if you shoot it on an Alexa. But Kodak will push your film pretty hard through their channels AND through the awards season. I think the benefits outweigh the slight negatives of slightly more cost. 

You should have no problem getting the shutter to sync with a projector. But we've been shooting LCD projectors with film cameras and it works A LOT better. 

 

Edited by Tyler Purcell
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Thanks Tyler, they're great references - CAROL in particular is a favourite. I was thinking exactly the same thing about Kodak and the potential for publicity as well as the great look.

I'd like to go with a very dark but contrasty look. Most of the film is night interior in a small cabin.

For our night exteriors I'd really like them to look very motivated by practicals (electric torches, road flares etc.) and falling off into blackness. I was thinking that film might actual help by holding the highlights of the hot sources and also falling to black easier. The sort of look the attached TWIN PEAKS still is what I'm after.

Twin Peaks lighting.jpg

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Oh small cabin at night is easy, blast an HMI in one window and simply bounce the light around the room with mirrors or reflectors. You can still use 500T, it'll be super cool. Then use practicals to help augment.

I agree tho too, lots of practicals exterior night, very good, lots of strong colors. 

The blacks will disappear for sho. 

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FWIW, if you're choosing 16mm, which I would personally choose by default, then don't crop it to 2.35:1. You're wasting too much of the frame area.

IMHO 16mm isn't that grainy at all, unless you're pushing it. And it's surprisingly sharp. Just go through Kodak's social media accounts. Or go look through a whole bunch of footage on Vimeo which has Vision3 stocks in 16 and 35, shot at different EIs.

If you're going to shoot digital you may as well go for a 4K camera such as an Epic or Komodo or what have you. I doubt that an Epic 5K is going to cost more than an Alexa Mini. Just IMHO, something to think about.

The shooting medium of digital 4K contrasts well with the subject matter of Super 8 footage. To me that would make a lot of sense, so the case for shooting digitally is there.

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8 hours ago, Alex Birrell said:

I was thinking that a 2.39 crop wouldn't make any difference to resolution if the 1.66 negative area was 4K scanned and then matted .

I personally would not do 2.40:1 with S16 unless going with the 1.3x anamorphic route. Not impossible to do, but for sure slower lenses that are more expensive. I rarely crop S16 to 1.85:1, normally keeping it at its native frame size. "Jackie" was presented in the 1.66:1 frame size and it's super nice. 

Super 16 retains around 2.5k worth of information when shooting 50D, but 500T? Nowhere close. You only scan at 4k to insure there is no digital aliasing, not because there is 4k worth of info. Heck with 500T, I don't think there is 4k in 35mm either. 

Also remember, big movies have huge post budgets. Just because the BluRay looks great, doesn't mean the negative looks that great. S16mm needs a lot of post work to keep it clean. "The Old man and the gun" has a few very "16mm moments" of a few big pieces of dirt that were never removed. Probably stuff that nobody caught, but when you're cropping and henceforth, blowing up a considerable amount, such a small negative, it's really down to nailing everything and honestly, it's not easy. I don't mean to make it sound more difficult than it needs to be or scare you off from shooting film, but DP to DP, as someone who shoots film a lot, it's not easy when you're shooting 500T, open all the time and trying to create this sliver of image within such a huge frame. You'd be losing nearly half of your vertical image, that's A LOT to lose. 

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2 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

You only scan at 4k to insure there is no digital aliasing, not because there is 4k worth of info.

I think the biggest advantage of scanning in 4k is that you can do overscan so that no cropping is needed in the scanning to save time and money in the scanning stage. then cropping afterwards in edit when you have much more time and the time is much much cheaper

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2 hours ago, aapo lettinen said:

I think the biggest advantage of scanning in 4k is that you can do overscan so that no cropping is needed in the scanning to save time and money in the scanning stage. then cropping afterwards in edit when you have much more time and the time is much much cheaper

Well that's one of the benefits of having your own scanner, I scan to the exact dimensions of the frame in full DCI 4k (4098x2460) which is the 1.66:1 aspect ratio frame. Thus you have a lot of room to re-size and still deliver a 4k finish. To me, the 4k finish is just as important as the delivery itself. So if someone handed me a 4k scan and then I had to crop it down, I'm losing a bunch of resolution, so it would be impossible to do a 4k finish. 

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I think the question you need to ask yourself, is how profound you want the jump between the Super-8 material and the body of the film to be?

As much as it pains me to not simply shout "Shoot 16mm stupid!". The jump between Super-8 and S16mm is going to be a lot subtler than jumping between 35mm digital and Super-8. So if you want the two different realities to be distinct from each other, I think that's an important consideration to ponder.

At the same time, I think you should also ponder whether shooting anamorphic is a great idea (if you're going to be jumping to 4:3 Super-8 frames with any regularity.

That's a nasty jump in aspect ratio, and cropping the Super-8 to 2.39:1 would look weird. So 1.85:1 may be a safer ratio if you're going to be jumping back and forth.

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personally I like to mix multiple formats to take advantage of their differences rather than trying to hide them...  so if the project allows I would probably try to shoot half 16mm half digital if that's possible. For example shooting the day int and ext on 16mm and all the night stuff on digital just like they did in the 2000's when digital was not yet accepted as the main shooting medium

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4 hours ago, aapo lettinen said:

personally I like to mix multiple formats to take advantage of their differences rather than trying to hide them...  so if the project allows I would probably try to shoot half 16mm half digital if that's possible. For example shooting the day int and ext on 16mm and all the night stuff on digital just like they did in the 2000's when digital was not yet accepted as the main shooting medium

But 16mm and digital just don't mix at all. The differences are HUGE, you can tell right away what's what. 

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2 hours ago, Tyler Purcell said:

But 16mm and digital just don't mix at all. The differences are HUGE, you can tell right away what's what. 

the whole point is that the difference is clearly visible. the idea is to choose which scenes are shot on which format and not changing the format within the scene so that you don't need to constantly intercut with the formats which might be distracting. this way you can choose the best shooting medium for each scene and get the best of both worlds instead of trying to make one generic middle-ground look for the movie and trying to match every shot to that whether it being possible or not

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Thanks for all these answers guys! And the OLD MAN AND A GUN reference was great. It has that vibe I can only describe as early 80s 35mm when DPs seemed to be experimenting with just how little light they could get away with with new faster stocks. Closing in on a decision soon I hope!

As for the Super 8 stuff in the film - we would jump to some overscanned shots showing the negatives perf etc. at a couple of short moments in the film but the rest of the 8mm footage will actually be viewed on a practical projector in the scene.

Our night interiors are plentiful and I think Super 16 could work out great considering the smaller spaces and I'm playing with the idea of 35mm for our limited night exteriors which only take up a small portion of the film. 

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22 hours ago, David Mullen ASC said:

“Suffragette” mixed Super-16 and ARRI Alexa pretty well, the Alexa was only used for low-light scenes and degraded / grained-up. It worked because dim low-light night work tends to be distinctive and different from day interiors anyway.

Yea to me the difference was a ton of bricks. With Yedlin's post workflow, it would be a lot better today however. 

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7 hours ago, Alex Birrell said:

Our night interiors are plentiful and I think Super 16 could work out great considering the smaller spaces and I'm playing with the idea of 35mm for our limited night exteriors which only take up a small portion of the film. 

I've wanted to do this exact thing. Shoot exterior days on 50D 16mm and shoot interior nights on 500T pushed a stop. The only catch would be depth of field, you'd really have to push for wide angle lenses on the 35mm stuff to even contemplate having a comparable depth of field. Of course if the bulk of your movie is dark, it may not really mean much to shoot 16mm at all unless shooting the whole thing on 16mm. 

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