The new video for LA rocker Hanni El Khatib’s “Family” is a sexy cinematic slice featuring a wild Asian motorcycle gang trick riding, and dry humping in their underpants. It immediately made me think of Japanese director Seijun Suzuki’s films known for their humour and nihilistic cool (one of which is playing tonight in Williamsburg). And, vintage cinema is just what the video’s creators had in mind.
“Most of our inspirations were old Japanese films of the ’60s, which were all shot 35mm anamorphic,” explains the video’s cinematographer Jeff Bierman.
Even though director Nick Walker “desperately” wanted to shoot on film, there just wasn’t the budget for it. But, the two of them did their best to make digital look like film, and they had me fooled the first time I watched it. A big part of the reason why is the glass they shot with. “I found a rental house in LA that owned a set of Kowa Anamorphic Lenses that were manufactured in Japan in the ’60s,” explains Bierman. The anamorphic lens gives the video its widescreen format and the glass does something special to the image that we’re used to associating with celluloid. “Really old anamorphic lenses are beautiful and do things that today’s lenses don’t,” notes Walker.
Bierman did a few more things to approximate film. He used a mist filter to “soften the image and raise the blacks.” Another trick was changing up the frame rates, something Bierman learned from Chris Doyle the cinematographer for all Wong Kar Wai’s films. Finally, Bierman shot a white background with some old Fuji stock, and laid that over all the digital footage for texture.
There’s a lot of beer drinking in the video and it’s all Budweiser. “I love Budweiser. Hani loves Budweiser. I just love the logo,” says Walker, adding, “I just wish they sponsored it. Then, we probably could have gotten the money to shoot on 35.”
Walker’s dream scenario isn’t hard to fathom. It’s these sorts of commercial ventures that are providing directors with the opportunity to use film. Sponsored content, a cousin of product placement, bankrolled a recent series of music documentaries New American Noise presented by Nokia and the Sundance Channel– they screened two weekends ago here in New York to a packed house. All the films were shot in 35mm and they’re available for free online.
There are people who are choosing to stick with celluloid even for non-commercial projects. Many of the directors of the Nokia-sponsored documentary series, like Emily Kai Bock, shoot all their music videos on 35mm too. Walker reminds us that there are hidden costs to digital that people don’t think about. “People say, ‘Film is so expensive. Film is so expensive.’ But they don’t remember to get a really good colorist, we are going to spend a shitload of money in post.”
Bierman suggests it’s as much about habits as it is about money. “People are so accustomed now to the workflow and immediacy of digital filmmaking.” But he is optimistic about the future of film, “I do think there is a niche for it.”