Extreme Lengths in Filmmaking

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When considering the length of a classic film, one usually thinks in minutes; ninety for a blockbuster, maybe 120 for a historical drama. But consider this: the average two-hour movie shot on traditional film could require up to 110,000 feet of stock. That’s enough to run along the length of 99 Empire State Buildings—which ultimately ended up in storage or, more commonly, in landfill.

For this reason, among many others, the modern age saw film largely replaced by digital methods of capture; the material cost is cheaper, and run times behind the camera aren’t limited by stock length (the average stock length can only capture around three minutes of footage at a time). Yet, there are contemporary directors who prefer to shoot on film for its reliability, tangibility and texture. The filmmakers behind Foxcatcher, the true story of an eccentric millionaire who has a strange fascination with a ‘90’s wrestling champion, felt their project would benefit from film’s unique depth. For the film’s Director of Photography, Greig Fraser, it was an exciting opportunity to capture the film’s portrayed era as honestly as possible.

“It felt very organic. That, to me, is why film was really great on that project,” he says. “It’s a period film in the sense that it was set in the ’80s.”

At 134 minutes, though, the material and environmental costs would run high. To achieve the look in the most efficient way possible, the filmmakers decided to capture Foxcatcher on Kodak three-perf film. Three-perf film was developed in the 1970’s, mostly used for shooting spaghetti westerns, as a less expensive, more efficient alternative to traditional four-perf stock. To save you the trouble of looking it up: the “perf” refers to the perforations on the side of a filmstrip. On traditional film, the capture area—the space on the strip printed with the image—takes up the length of four perforations. On three-perf film, the capture area only takes up three; less space between frames reduces the amount of film by 25%. The filmmakers behind Foxcatcher had struck a beautiful balance: achieving the look they wanted, while producing a fraction of the waste.

To capture the film’s era as authentically as possible, Fraser worked towards a look that was cinematic but natural, which wouldn’t overwhelm the acting or ornate settings. He relied on sunlight when he could, and used ordinary fluorescent bulbs for scenes set in the training gym. For Greig, the Foxcatcher’s driving force was not to be the lighting, but the story itself. And though he likes working with film for its stability and dependability (“If you get Kodak film stock in Nigeria or Pennsylvania or in Russia, if it’s been handled correctly, it should be the same anywhere in the world. It’s consistent.”)., the last thing he wanted the audience to notice was any of film’s characteristic graininess.

“The film’s power comes from the fact that you’re watching something that’s just really quite simple and eloquent,” he says. “The cinematography shouldn’t be a force in the film. You should be carried along by the power of the performances and story.”

“Simplicity was my mantra throughout the entire film.” – Greig Fraser on lighting Foxcatcher.

Once the project was over, the Foxcatcher team avoided creating more waste by donating the leftover film to a student in New York City. For Greig, the industry-wide movement towards more sustainable practices in filmmaking is important to him and his peers.

“’To be a filmmaker, generally, you need to have consciousness; you need to understand what’s going on in the world around you,” he says. “You have to remove your blinkers to be able to see the greater good, but be focused enough to be able to express that and represent it.”

To be a good filmmaker, it seems, is to be a conscientious person.

 

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