Sweet Sixteen

MAY 10, 2003

The movie premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival. I watch from the aisle and think, “Man this looks good.” The movie is Nights Like These, a 16mm black and white short I shot the year before, about a bored shadow that attempts to switch places with the shadow of a mysterious, hopefully more interesting, man. Shadows played supporting roles in all the great noir films, and what I wanted to do with this film was to give them the starring roles. And sitting there in Battery Park United Artist Theatre, home of the Tribeca Film Festival, it feels like we totally nailed it. Hard to believe that—

FIRST WEEK OF MAY 2002 (a year earlier)

My producer and I are convinced we’re shooting on DV. Let me explain. Pre-production on Nights Like These is continually interrupted by trips to various festivals for a feature I co-directed with Will Keenan called Operation Midnight Climax (OMC), which was shot on Super 16 by the super-talented “Wild Bill” Miller. You know how they say that Super 16 is not a projection format? And that in order to project it on film you have to blow it up to 35? Well, here’s what I found out: That’s not just what they say. For OMC, Will and I have two options: (A) blowing up to 35 or, well, there was only one real option and it wasn’t (A). So we’re traveling the country with a DigiBeta tape in hand. And let me tell you, you show up with a tape of your gorgeously shot movie and see it listed in the festival catalog as “video” and it breaks your poor little independent filmmaking heart. I guess if there was one saving grace, it’s that the film still looked great—better than shot-on-video projected video.

The point is, I do not want to go through this again—I do not want to shoot Nights Like These on Super 16, or 16, and for either technical or, more likely, financial reasons have to resort to video in the end. Which is why, when Bill Miller (who loves the script but is booked along with his Super 16 package for at least the next six months) suggests we consider shooting on DV, it feels sort of right (after the sting fades).


Look, this movie, Nights Like These, will either work or not work based largely on fragile lighting situations alone. We need shadows moving around (while maintaining a consistent look), steady lighting in the rest of the shot, and our shadow actors out of frame. Immediate playback will be essential to see if we get the shot right. DV will easily allow us to play with contrast (for the shadow-consistency) and add subtle digital effects in post at a more affordable rate.

This is me convincing myself that DV is the right choice.


I meet with DP/director Tim McCann (Revolution No.9) in hopes that he will shoot Nights Like These. He’s been researching DV for his own film, a feature called Nowhere Man, so I think he’s probably renting a camera for his movie and maybe I can piggyback. But Tim insists that the only way he’ll shoot my movie is if I use film. I voice my concern and Tim assures me he will get it all on film, all in-camera with no needed post effects. His argument turns out to be simple and true: If I want it to look like film noir, keep in mind that those movies—Double Indemnity, The Big Heat, Detour, and every other one—were not shot on DV.

I dare not bring up the rumored and perhaps somewhat mythological “film filter” my DV enthusiast friends all whisper about.


I suddenly realize 16mm is the PERFECT choice (I’m so easy). I’m going to make a film and I’ll end up with a film. Not like last time when I had no choice but to dump it to tape. Next year, I’m carrying canisters around.

JULY 25, 2002

We’re midway through our five-day shoot. Running up a set of stairs with Tim and Charlie (the AC) I realize one tremendous advantage of 16mm: its weight. Not just for quick one-off shots like this one from a roof, but even, considering our total of eight cases of equipment, for entire crew moves from one location to another across town. Less weight means moving the camera faster and more set-ups per day, which translates to a shorter shoot and less money spent. Also, start-of-day set-ups and end-of-day breakdowns are easier so everyone’s happy. And in the case of this one shot, happiness is key since it’s on the tail end of a twelve-hour day, and the idea of tagging on a whole new location before we call it a night doesn’t go over huge. But the three of us charge up the stairs and get a great moment on film so quickly (and a shot that turns out to be one of my favorites in the movie) that it actually ends our day on a surprisingly high note.

MAY 10, 2003

Nights Like These premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival after I deliver my DigiBeta master to them. Yep, that’s right. DigiBeta. No canisters because there’s no money for negative cutting, nothing left for a blow-up, and I’m sending around a tape of Nights Like These just as I swore I wouldn’t do. Tribeca, though, with its American Express backing, is able to create a high-def conversion of my tape and the projection is, I swear, unlike anything I’ve seen before. It’s simply perfect, and what Tim the DP describes (better than I could) as: “the rich, lush, hyper-reality that film provides.”


The thing is, 16mm is the perfect format for short films. There are so many people with 16mm cameras that finding someone you’d need anyway (in our case, the AC) who has one isn’t going to be terribly difficult. And these days I’ll bet people with film cameras are dying to use them. So get them on board, pay them whatever their rate is and see if their camera can be included in the price (or at least drastically discounted). Chances are you’ll never have to rent a camera of your own.

Do what you can to raise the little extra you’ll need to shoot on 16. Before Nights Like These, I thought what format you ended up with was more important. But I think I was wrong. It’s what you get it on that counts. And for shorts, begin with 16mm, have it all dumped to tape immediately, create a digital master, and don’t worry about going back to film if you don’t want to or can’t. It’s still worth it.

Yes, with DV you don’t have the same film and developing costs. But especially for a short that runs between five and 10 minutes, these costs are completely affordable. So find a student, give them a co-producer credit, and use their discounts on both. It’s still going to cost a little, but this is a worthwhile expense. This is the few hundred bucks that, when you’re watching the movie down the line, you’ll realize were the best few hundred you spent. Every other expense is there no matter the format: lighting, editing, sounds, music, etc. Whatever you shoot on, you’ll need these. Don’t blame film. And don’t blame me.

About :

Gadi Harel is a Los Angeles based filmmaker.