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Documentaries on 16mm

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I keep hearing that documentaries can only be shot on digital.

 

Currently BBC 2 HD have been showing two documentary series; Brazil with Michael Palin from 2012 and the Himalayas with Michael Palin from 2004. The Brazil one has been digitally shot, but the Himalaya one was shot on Super 16. This shoot must have been very complex, the photography is excellent. The Brazil show looks great too, but the photographic look between both shows is very different. I am not sure of the Himalaya one’s productions workflow, I guess all the 16mm negative was telecined to standard definition video, it seems as if the BBC are showing it from standard definition, but despite this it looks amazing next to the digital show..

 

Pav

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I,d hate to be the camera assistant lugging all those cans of 400ft for 10. mins worth of footage up the mountains and back.. doc,s on film is pain ..unless its lots of interviews in a studio..

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The BBC didn't have an HD channel until 2007 so you're probably right about "Himalaya". In any case the BBC doesn't define 16mm. as HD and for a few years it wouldn't even accept it, but it was forced to backtrack.




In my view the HD archive problem extends much further back, to when the BBC stopped cutting on film. I recently had some material for review for repurposing from a 1995 documentary- all low-ISO S16 neg, eminently suitable for Blu-Ray or the like. But because it had been telecined (at SD, of course, because there was no such thing as HD) and cut on video, that possibility is lost for ever. A show cut a few years earlier would have had an A/B roll neg cut which could now be scanned at HD. But the only way for this show would have been to scan all the neg at great expense and match-cut to the DVD. That's not going to happen.
Edited by Mark Dunn

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I,d hate to be the camera assistant lugging all those cans of 400ft for 10. mins worth of footage up the mountains and back.. doc,s on film is pain ..unless its lots of interviews in a studio..

 

Pffft, and to think you're from my generation... ;-) Just because we're older and more easily tired now doesn't mean younger CA's can't do...hire some locals to carry it in the jungle, like we did in Brazil... supports the local economies and feeds disadvantaged victims of tyranny.

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haha it was knackering when I was 20 yrs old too... for long form doc,s Digital is way easier/practical for a 100 reasons.. and these days the look is not inferior in any way either..

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I was always absolutely astonished at how this was done, sometimes in the most horrendous circumstances. One of the productions that first made me interested in film and TV work was the Michael Palin travel documentary, "Around the World in 80 Days." It was broadcast in the UK in 1989, when I would have been ten or eleven years old, and I found it absolutely captivating. It was shot more or less as presented, with a very small team travelling around the world in the allotted time. They changed technical crews halfway, so that one set of people didn't have to work every day for nearly three months, but the sheer effort involved in (for instance) shooting dual system documentary footage on a dhow crossing the Indian ocean must have been absolutely mindbending.

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Well there was always an assistant at least.. but the amount of actual film stock you had to lug around for say a 6 week shoot was colossal ..and very very heavy.. and then it all had to make it back to the labs in the UK in tact.. really digital is alot better for long doc shoots these days.. I can see the argument that 16mm looks better than say Betacam.. but now there is really not the "it doesn't look so good" argument ..as a Doc DP I,d much rather work on Digital that film.. as would I think 99% of us I would think.. look at those BBC Bristol doc,s and tell me they don't look good.. I think the opposite ..when I look at 80,s doc,s that where the very high end in the day.. they dont look very good.. the lighting on interviews is sometimes really bad.. take a look at the interviews on "The World at War".. (I happened to watch some on a flight recently.. KLM who would have thought!).. you would be sacked the first day with that lighting these days.. its really bad .. interviews right up against walls etc..light just blasted in .. compared to todays standards ..

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its really bad

 

Oh, OK. But really! Diss not the Meakin!

 

Unfortunately it turned out that I was not really posh enough to become a BBC cameraman, but I got to travel with cameras, so I'm reasonably happy.

 

You can see a big pile of cases here:

 

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Yes Im not referring particularly to the Palin shows..I watched them too.. and one would not question Sir Nigel..but just as an example take a look at those WAW interviews.. just not very good compared to todays standards .. just I would say that nicely shot digital today to my eye looks alot better than most 80,s 16mm doc,s.. content not besides.. I assisted on alot of those type of doc,s and often the interview lighting consisted off a Blond bounced off the ceiling.. I know its was a different style and all.. but really know I think the average camera work is of a higher standard.. shame the programs are often shite.. and all the good guys are now shooting corporate videos..

 

I had one very amazing surreal meal in London about 4 years ago with an American dir I was shooting with .. I had just come in that day from Tokyo and we were going to Iceland the next day.. he mentioned his friend had invited us to a restaurant for a curry.. so heavily jet lagged I go along.. and there is Michael Palin and his wife.. Terry Gilliam and his daughter..and the dirs friend ,a stills guy.. next think I know I, seated between Mr Palin and Mr Gilliam.. it was very very odd.. !! both extremely nice and very chatty.. a meal I won't forget !

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Typically for an hour long television documentary how much film would they have carried?

 

Pav

 

For 16mm .. there were large cardboard boxes .. that had 6 X smaller boxes.. each had 5 X 400ft cans in them..(edit ..in my mind there were 5, pretty sure thats right it was a long time ago) so the big boxes had 30 rolls .. depended on the budget of course ,and if there would be a,ot of interviews ..so about 5hrs of film.... then there would be 3, 4 or 5 of those large boxes.. which you then had to try to keep cool.. not be X rayed .. or drop (the dreaded sparkle!).. or opened by AK47 totting ,police/customs/soldiers/roaming militia .. and they just weighed as ton ..

 

Mean while last year I had a 6 week shoot.. 5 X 126GB SxS cards.. in a holder the size of a small book.. and about 10 X 2 TB Lacie drives.. could had fewer but sending footage back as we shot.. keeping the original drives.. which fitted into a small carry on bag..and a Mac Air..I can tell you which way I,d prefer to work !

Edited by Robin R Probyn

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Yeah, and then they insist you shoot 4K raw and you're lugging a Pelican 1550 full of hard disks. Grrrr.

 

 

But HDD seem to get bigger capacity and smaller by the day.. think I read about a 14TB drive at CES.. there are really small 4TB drives now..!!.. just a few years back 4TB was the size of hard back book and AC power only.. can always shoot Sony X-OCN LT in 16 bit Raw.. not much bigger than ProRes HQ.. !! or ST 30% less than normal Sony Raw.. I can get 1 hr 10 bit XAVC I 4K 25p /24p on a 128GB SxS card.. really coming from 400ft 10 min 16mm .. its quite amazing .. and such a nicer way to work..even the XDCAM discs seem a pain in comparison ..

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It certainly seems a challenge to carry all that film stock, but still doable. I am not sure it’s fair to say that 16mm looks better than digital or that digital looks better than 16mm, that's an old subjective point of view and a never ending debate. Both systems look very, very different from each other, Brazil with Michael Palin looks very different to the Himalaya's with Micheal Palin.

 

Pav

Edited by Pavan Deep

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It certainly seems a challenge to carry all that film stock, but still doable. I am not sure it’s fair to say that 16mm looks better than digital or that digital looks better than 16mm, that's an old subjective point of view and a never ending debate. Both systems look very, very different from each other, Brazil with Michael Palin looks very different to the Himalaya's with Micheal Palin.

 

Pav

 

Yes true certainly subjective..but Digital these days is not the poor cousin of film, that it used to be.. and practically speaking for sure alot easier /practical.. anything is do able with money and crew numbers..its just if you choose to do it that way I guess.. but I,d say your footage is "safer" on 3 sets of HDD.. then the whole sum of your shoot in 100 tin cans that weigh a ton.. sensitive to heat,light,and handling ..that still has to make it back to a lab 1000km away.. esp if you are crossing alot of borders ..where people with guns usually want to see inside stuff.. most often being the stuff you tell them they cant open.. :)

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Ill just say for the record, when all the magnetic tape and digital files are long gone, we will still have film masters. So sure its easier to shoot digital, but ease is the only benefit. Quality, longevity and resolution cant be beat when it comes to film (imager size being equal of course) Give me a film camera any day of the week and like the 100+ years prior, Ill figure out how to tell stories without the need for instant playback and editing.

 

The problem is that we live in an instant and disposable world these days and it gets tiring hearing people complain about the way we did things in the past. Film died partially because of these reasons, ignoreing the esthetic, historical and culturally significant benefits of the format.

 

As im doing with my doc series, shoot interviews digitally and the rest on film. Get best of both worlds!

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Nothing to do with play back.. or instant anything..and or editing in the field .... but an editor can start from drives that are shipped back.. while you still have a back up.. try that with film.. .. what are these historical and cultural significant benefits you talk of.. :)

 

Film has died totally due to finical reasons in doc/broadcast anyway.. and ease of production/post work flow with Digital .. now that the Digital image is on par with film even the high end is digital .. . Nothing to do with producers wanting play back or not appreciating history.. its time and money .. with your logic we would still have candles.. and no anesthetic during surgery.. or vaccines .. remember those good old days at the hospital.. and dentist..now people just want to sleep through it... :)

 

Sure archive to LTO..but as per the OP.. shooting doc,s with a long schedule is certainly more practical digitally than film for many very obvious reasons .... for working doc DP,s .. owning only a film camera and insisting on only shooting film ..you really wouldn't make a living .. regular main stream productions are not going to really want to mix shooting film and video ..you are lucky to be outside the main stream and can shoot on what ever you want.. but out in the real world that doesn't happen.. I dont know a single doc DP who has a 16mm camera now.. way back they all did of course.. SR or Aaton.. but this days are really over.. sad maybe but the undeniable truth ..

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So sure its easier to shoot digital, but ease is the only benefit.

Yeah but... that's like saying the only benefit of Country Crock is that it spreads cold, that's the massive point to it.

Edited by Macks Fiiod

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Most productions are made near major cities in countries with airports and until 2014, there were labs in the very cities and towns people would either shoot or edit in. Getting quick turn around was irrelevant, same day dailies were the norm. Yes the very few productions made each year that are so far out in the wild, you must carry your film the entire production, are actually rare.

 

Do you really think the cost of production is lower today then it was in the past? I work with someone who shot documentaries on film from 1968 through 1985 and he has showed me his budgets and if you account for inflation, they are a minuscule amount compared to whats spent on todays productions. So cost savings? Bullshit... total crap. More like executives can take a larger chunk of the pie and buy another jet.

 

Ohh and Im sure quite a few of those dps who have high end digital are kicking themselves in the ass when they have to upgrade every two years instead of pulling out the XTR from 1998 that to this day works flawlessly and will forever. While youre playing a technology game with everyone else, those of us who understand we cant win, will keep using film, for better or worse. My logic is that we have no reason to play the same game as everyone else. Its stupid in the long run and doesnt make what you do anything different then the next guy.

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Most productions are made near major cities in countries with airports and until 2014, there were labs in the very cities and towns people would either shoot or edit in. Getting quick turn around was irrelevant, same day dailies were the norm. Yes the very few productions made each year that are so far out in the wild, you must carry your film the entire production, are actually rare.

 

Do you really think the cost of production is lower today then it was in the past? I work with someone who shot documentaries on film from 1968 through 1985 and he has showed me his budgets and if you account for inflation, they are a minuscule amount compared to whats spent on todays productions. So cost savings? Bullshit... total crap. More like executives can take a larger chunk of the pie and buy another jet.

 

Ohh and Im sure quite a few of those dps who have high end digital are kicking themselves in the ass when they have to upgrade every two years instead of pulling out the XTR from 1998 that to this day works flawlessly and will forever. While youre playing a technology game with everyone else, those of us who understand we cant win, will keep using film, for better or worse. My logic is that we have no reason to play the same game as everyone else. Its stupid in the long run and doesnt make what you do anything different then the next guy.

 

 

I was referring to documentaries made world wide.. not just in the US.. for doc,s you didn't ever have dailies .. that not a doc necessity ..

 

Yes way cheaper when you compare the costs for the actual capture.. in the 80,s 400ft of film, with processing was about £50..in the 80,s !!! cost of excess baggage flighting with 90 rolls .. huge.. carting around fragile rushes for weeks on end.. Nio backup.. sorry but I dont think you have ever shot a real broadcast doc.. doc DP,s very rarely even work in the country they live.. you are traveling all over the world..its alot easier with cards and HHD.. no ones getting a bigger chunk.. Doc budgets are plummeting ..except for Nat history that sells like ice cubes in hell.. really if it was the same cost or cheaper everyone would still be shooting on 16mm..

 

No one is kicking themselves in the arse.. they are making a fortune with their digital cameras.. they take only a year to pay off or less these days..if I bought an Aaton it would be the door stop not the f5.. again sorry but your world is on the fringes.. different rules apply.. owning an Aaton or SR is going to get you zero work in the real broadcast /corp world.. in narrative maybe if you are Barry Ackroyd.. but not in doc,s/corp. ..

 

I know the love of film and all that is your thing.. and in your indie under the radar , everyone mucks in market.. its obviously work able. .. but in the horrible modern world as a freelance DP doc/ corp world it isn't..it simply isn't finically viable if you want anything like a decent lifestyle .. I get ZERO requests for film cameras.. as with everyone I know.. it doesn't happen.. if you make your own films then all power to you.. you have the choice.. freelance you dont..

 

Edit for spelling

Edited by Robin R Probyn

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Super 16 isn't currently accepted as an acquisition format for broadcast HD television,documentaries (it's defined as SD), which are usually commissioned productions, with a number of broadcasters involved in co-funding the higher end productions that might possibly be shot on film.

.

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Super 16 isn't currently accepted as an acquisition format for broadcast HD television,documentaries (it's defined as SD), which are usually commissioned productions, with a number of broadcasters involved in co-funding the higher end productions that might possibly be shot on film.

.

So this no longer applies?

https://www.directors.uk.com/campaigns/super-16mm-film-on-hd-channels

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