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How to Shoot Your Film on 35mm and Not Break the Bank

Ben Garchar Shares Filmmaking Insights and Choices in Making His Newest Short Jake

Back in 2014 I did something kind of crazy. I made a short film, Jake, using 35mm film. The movie, a poignant narrative about the aspects of duality in character and persona, is a loose continuation of my college thesis, Run to Me Run from Me (2009). That had been the last time I used celluloid (16mm), and I was itching to use it again. My motivation was partly aesthetic but also historical. I wanted to produce a work using this rich cinematic tradition. As it was, Kellen York (lead actor for Run to Me) had moved to Berlin, and I thought it would be awesome to try and shoot the movie there. (I’m based in New York City.)

So where to begin?

Kellen York in Jake, still shot on 35 mm

Since the script was fairly long and my budget tight, I knew shooting the entire film on 35mm would probably not be possible. So the first thing I did was go through the script to figure out which scenes would be best suited for 35mm. Scenes without dialogue seemed a good place to start, as I knew it would be cheaper to rent a non-crystal sync camera. From there, I narrowed down the selection to a group of scenes dealing with the loneliness at the crux of Jake’s duality.  It’s hard to for me to fully verbalize, but there was something about the organic quality of film grain that felt right in portraying the emotional struggles of this character.

Next I turned attention to the film stock itself. I did some research and found that short ends are readily available on Ebay and also fairly cheap. I settled on purchasing about 2000 feet (around 20 minutes) for about $200. By my estimation, I saved around 80% off retail by going this route. I bought a combination of Kodak Vision2 200T 5217, Vision2 500T 5260, Vision3 500T 5219. I shipped everything directly to Kellen in Berlin for safekeeping.

Kellen York shoots his POV of one of our setups. Jeffrey Johnson on the Arri 235. Andrej Bajenow in the background.

Next was the camera. I started doing some research into rental facilities in Berlin. Fairly quickly I found  Cine-Service Mausolf.  I browsed their site and saw that they did, indeed, offer 35mm camera rentals. I emailed them and got a response from Stefano Cannas. He was extremely helpful and accommodating to our needs. Renting the camera proved cheaper than I initially thought. Not only because we got a deal, but because demand for these cameras is actually quite low in Berlin. Most productions have switched over to all digital. Stefano recommended we rent an Arriflex 235, 3 perf, to maximize the amount of time we could squeeze out of our raw footage. We also rented a Zeiss High Speed Lens from them. T 1.3, 35mm focal length. Everything worked out to around $500 for a weekend rental.

I cannot overstate the importance of pre-planning efforts; it definitely goes a long way in helping to keep expenses in check. For example, knowing our shots and limitations in terms of lighting equipment helped us to pick one very fast lens that we knew would work for all of our setups. Suffice it to say, renting multiple lenses or a zoom lens would have added cost. Additionally, zoom lenses are almost always slower than prime lenses, limiting what we could achieve with the lighting equipment we had. Jeffrey Johnson, our Director of Photography, was really instrumental in helping figure out our best scenarios.

Jeffrey Johnson on the Arri 235. Andrej Bajenow adjusts lighting.

We also had many on-set rehearsals before rolling. Both for camera and for actors. I immediately fell in love with how focused we had to be when we shot film. It’s not that we weren’t focused when shooting digital, but there is inherently less immediacy when you know you have a virtually unlimited amount of takes to get it right. With the amount of film we had we could do a maximum of three takes per setup. Kellen, Jeff, and AC Andrej Bajenow were so precise we were able to get everything we needed, most of the time in one or two takes. Even the last shot of the movie, one of the most complicated in the film, we were able to get in three.

After we wrapped, I sent all the unexposed film from Berlin to Colorlab in Maryland. There it was developed and transferred to uncompressed HD, 1920×1080, 23.98p. Colorlab was also extremely generous in giving us a discounted rate. Around $900 for everything, including shipping. So, all in all, for about $1400, I was able to shoot my short on 35mm with minimal equipment and a very small crew. And the day we shot on film was one of my most memorable experiences.

Would it have cheaper to forgo 35mm entirely? I’m not so sure. To get the same production value, renting a RED or Alexa would have been more costly in the end. For my money, 35mm is still alive and well for all, and makes up about 20% of Jake.

Jake premiered at Fear No Film where it was called “…one of the most emotionally complex, deeply penetrating narratives to deal with the aspects of the duality of character and persona…”. It has also screened as a part of NewFilmmakers NY and at Video Revival in Brooklyn. It is premiering online today. For a more in depth look at the processes behind the making Jake, take a listen to Ben’s podcast interview with Producer/Director Noam Kroll. Finally, readers can see a video compiling all the pre rolls of the 35mm film shots at
https://www.instagram.com/p/BUuxU_shTbc/?taken-by=bengarchar.

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