Aaron Schneider: Reversal Film

From American Cinematographer, Swanky Modes by Bob Fisher (October 1998)

"We used two Kodak Ektachrome films in 35mm format. One is a 125-speed film [5240] balanced for tungsten, and the other is a 160-speed film [5239] balanced for daylight. My friends at Kodak were very helpful in quickly generating these two stocks for our production. An entire section of their manufacturing plant had to be converted to reversal production. I think everyone in the company and at the network looked at a print of Clockers [shot by Malik Sayeed, see AC Sept. '95] to see what Ektachrome film looks like onscreen, but I was doing something different. They used a cross-processing technique on Clockers, which gives you a negative that intercuts with the rest of the footage. The side effect of the latter is very strange and peculiar color rendition. I processed normal because I wanted to use reversal for its sort of "newsreel" quality with rich blacks and all the trimmings of a positive print.

I remembered how beautiful and grainless it looked. The grain structure looks equivalent to [Eastman EXR] 5248 or 5245. It has a fluttery quality. The film's density varies in areas of middle gray and mid-tones. The film kind of breathes as if it's alive. I also did some research and found out which lenses cinematographers used 20 years ago on shows like Mannix, Cannon and MacMillan and Wife. I told my assistant cameraman that I wanted a decent set of [Panavision] Ultraspeeds that were functional, but not too functional, if you know what I mean....

Yale is the only lab that is presently processing 35mm reversal film on the West Coast, and it runs about four times slower through the soup. They could only turn out approximately 8,000 feet a day, and would need 24 hours to begin the turnaround. We ultimately convinced those concerned that a one-day delay wasn't going to be the end of the world. We actually came in under budget for exposed film too. At one point on the set Charlie blurted out, 'When I work with you, Aaron, I'm in my minimalist period.' I took it as a compliment. You know, quality over quantity.

I shot my standard exposure test using a gray-scale card with a human face and colorful fruit in the frame. I find using real objects of color we can readily identify with is more telling than a color chart. I over- and underexposed five stops in 1/2-stop increments. It's a test that shows not only the shape of the curve but the over- and underexposure latitude, as well as the [equivalent] ASA that makes the film look the way I want it. By "correcting" each over- and underexposure, I can see what the film looks like at different ASA interpretations. Leon Silverman at Laser Pacific, set up a room for studying the developed film on the telecine. From what I learned, I decided to underexpose both films by a half-stop, because it makes the images a little more saturated with deeper blacks — the exact opposite of how negative film behaves.

Two terrific cinematographers, [ASC members] Paul Ryan and Bob Primes, worked with me on the tests. We spent 12 hours shooting at Panavision — Phil Radin was kind enough to set us up with a camera and their shooting stage — and a large part of a day analyzing the results at Laser Pacific. I wanted to find the shape of the [sensitometric] curve. You only have about 3/4 of a stop less under- and overexposure with reversal film, but the shape of the curve is radically different. Negative has a more gradual curve. You lose information a lot faster with reversal film."

- Aaron Schneider, ASC

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