Austin and the Future of Celluloid

Written by William Moessinger.

The history of cinema is marked with countless examples of new technologies that started off as “temporary” trends and ended up as permanent industrial standards. Inventions like sound and technicolor were initially met with reluctance and skepticism by producers and artists alike. (Charlie Chaplin complained that sound “has spoiled the most ancient of the world’s arts…and has canceled out the great beauty that is silence”). Now they are so ingrained in the viewing experience that it is almost impossible for viewers to imagine a world without them.

The introduction of digital has been no different. As new innovations like online video, smartphones, and streaming services continue to envelope us in the world of digital filmmaking and viewership, it seems as though the inauguration of this new technology is even more irrevocable than that of sound or color. Whether it be indie favorites like Tangerine shot entirely on an iPhone, or digital blockbusters like Life of Pi or The Revenant earning Academy Awards for their cinematography, it seems as though celluloid, or shooting with physical film, will soon be dead.

In the midst of constant technological innovation and a rapidly evolving artistic medium, many filmmakers have steadfastly stuck to traditional formats. Some of these filmmakers – including Quentin Tarantino, Richard Linklater, and Terrence Malick – have their roots in Austin, and have helped define the identity of Austin’s film scene through their love of celluloid. Between the legacies of these filmmakers and the efforts of film venues like Alamo Drafthouse to preserve the integrity of old-schooled Blockbuster entertainment, Austin has proved itself to be a faithful patron of traditional styles of entertainment.

Is the evolution of film from a physical medium to a digital one something to be celebrated or abhorred?

So what is the current state of local student film making? Are RTF students taking cues from Tangerine and shooting their movies on iPhone, or is there a new generation of Tarantinos and Linklaters? And most importantly, is the evolution of film from a physical medium to a digital one something to be celebrated or abhorred?

In the current landscape of UT’s RTF program, the future of celluloid looks bleak. Senior RTF student Kirk Van Sickle remarked, “Nobody shoots on film in RTF unless required that I know of,” citing economic obstacles that digital filmmaking has been credited with alleviating. “It all has to do with expense. Tarantino can afford to shoot on film. Tangerine was a low budget enterprise. If you read interviews with Tangerine filmmaker Sean Baker, shooting on an iPhone came from necessity. So really the question goes into indie filmmakers vs established or commercial filmmakers.”

In an interview with RTF Student Ben E-F, Ben broke down the costs that make celluloid so unattractive to film students trying to pinch pennies.

“For 16mm, the standard student format, you’re talking about $350 for 11 minutes of film,” said Ben E-F, “which just doesn’t make sense for a lot of people. It didn’t used to be that way, but now labs are going out of business, Kodak is making less and less film, and at the end of the day it’s all about economics.”

For other filmmakers, there are certain benefits inherent in the process of shooting on film or digital that may attract them to a certain format.

“I think that shooting on film enforces a tighter economy of filmmaking,” said Ben. “Decisions are more decisive and there’s less experimentation, which sounds bad but I think on a film set is good because you have to plan everything out and execute. The video village that digital has created, where you’re seeing exactly what the final image looks like, can create a lot of second-guessing. A lot of the more established people are resisting work-force changes to their movie style as much as they’re embracing a certain aesthetic style.”

But perhaps the most important factor in determining a film’s visual format arises from the story being told.


Shot from Days of Heaven. Photo Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

Do you want a darker, sharper look to convey an atmosphere of mystery and paranoia like in Gone Girl? Digital is probably your best bet, not only because it will you give a sharper picture, but also because it gives you the option to do as much color grading as you want in post-production, allowing somebody like David Fincher to achieve a stark color contrast that has defined his movie’s visual looks for the last decade.

Do you want to shoot a period epic that takes place in a natural environment, with scenes often taking place two hours before the sun goes down? Then you’re probably Terrence Malick making Days of Heaven, and you probably prefer film to digital because of its organic look that lends itself perfectly to natural environments.

“If you’re making a Days of Heaven type of movie where every day you wait until sunset and shoot for two hours during the most beautiful part of the day, then yeah, shoot some film,” opined Ben. “I love that.”

Despite the myriad of reasons for why somebody might want to shoot their movie with celluloid instead of digital, it’s becoming harder to justify this decision every year. Between cost, accessibility, and the invention of high-resolution cameras that have undermined the visual superiority of film, younger filmmakers see little point in using celluloid.

So what’s keeping film alive in Austin, and how does Austin distinguish itself as a local film industry? The first thing may be a culture of nostalgia.

“I think that there’s a timelessness to it that’s going to be the biggest attraction,” Ben said. “All you have to do is go downtown and look at the amount of old Nikons hanging around people’s necks. I’m not necessarily saying that this is a good thing, and I think that there is a small amount of a fashion statement, but if that’s the new support, then that’s the new support.”

The first thing may be a culture of nostalgia

This appreciation of the past may also explain why film venues like Alamo Drafthouse are able to screen original printings of old exploitation films, or why I Heart Video still rents out VHS tapes. But if this really is a fashion statement, as Ben suggests, then there’s little reason to believe that this movement has any lasting endurance.

For every beatnik with an 8mm Kodak, there are hundreds of young filmmakers being introduced to filmmaking with iPhones and digital camcorders, deprived of experiencing what it’s like to shoot physical photographs. As the latest wave of new filmmakers funnel into RTF’s program, fewer and fewer of them arrive with even a basic understanding of how physical film works.

Writer and Director Lena Dunham in “video village.” Photo Courtesy: Jessica Miglio

“I’ve TA’d the intro film class here,” Ben said, “and the first shooting assignment they have is to take a 35mm still-photo. For nearly all of them, this is the first time they have ever taken a 35mm still-photo, so it’s not just that there’s this air of obscurity in it being archaic, but there’s no ingrained understanding of the filmic process.

While RTF students like Ben seem dubious about the increasing levels of ignorance that new film students demonstrate towards film, professors like Nancy Schiesari seem more optimistic when they see students develop photographs for the first time. This may be a testament to the importance of programs like Austin’s RTF department in maintaining celluloid’s relevancy.

“I think that what’s so powerful about this is that it connects filmmakers to the history of cinema.”

“One of the assignments students have is to take a black-and-white photograph and develop it, and for many of them, they haven’t done this before so there was this sense of wonder among them,” said Professor Schiesari. “I think that what’s so powerful about this is that it connects filmmakers to the history of cinema.”

To many film purists, the most important aspect of celluloid may not be its aesthetic quality, or the rigid work ethic that it enforces in its users, but the way in which it connects us to the history of cinema. Eventually, celluloid may become more of a speciality, even a gimmick, 20 years from now the same way shooting movies on black-and-white has become a way to deviate from mainstream conventions. Each format brings something special to the medium, but whether the loss of celluloid will mean the loss of something beautiful can only be determined by future generations.

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