New Wave Directors: A Celluloid Revolution
In discussion with directors Sam Pilling, Zhang and Knight, Tom Dream, Fiona Jane Burgess and Diana Kunst
Celluloid film has long held a special place in the toolkit of creatives and filmmakers. But it wasn’t all that long ago that some predicted the demise of this medium as high tech digital cameras burst onto the scene. In fact, quite the opposite happened.
As digital filmmaking saturated the market, the rarity of celluloid film peaked the interest of a new generation of filmmakers, curious about the traditional art form. Now, it seems many young directors are embracing the format, creating a resurgence and new appreciation for the distinct aesthetic qualities of celluloid film.
In this interview, LBB’s Sunna Coleman joins directors Sam Pilling, Zhang and Knight, Tom Dream, Fiona Jane Burgess and Diana Kunst to discuss the experience of shooting film, the rise of hybrid filmmaking, and how these new wave directors are keeping the craft alive.
The Awakening: Florence Welch - Gucci, directed by Fiona Jane Burgess
LBB> Briefly tell us about your journey into the industry.
Sam> I went to art college to study visual communication, thinking I was going to be an illustrator or graphic designer but I fell in love with moving image because of all the storytelling possibilities it offered.
In my final year, I started running on music video shoots, then once I graduated I sent billions of emails to all the London-based production companies that I knew existed, joining Pulse as a receptionist until they realised I was afraid of the telephone but had an eye for images.
Nine months in, I had the opportunity to shoot a very low budget music video for Riz Ahmed that involved an illegal car chase through Blackwall tunnel – filmed on my mate’s 7D, and right after that Pulse signed me as a director, and I’ve been there ever since!
Zhang and Knight> We wanted to direct ‘professionally’ so badly! All we knew was that it was good to have representation, and in order to have that we’d need to have made something.
So - and we very much don’t recommend this - we spent a year saving as much money as we possibly could and then spent months in the middle of rural China making a crazy music video. We posted it onto Promo News and luckily an EP saw it and reached out about representation. It was a total casino move, we literally spent everything on making that video!
Tom> My uncle Steve got me into it. I always wanted to be in a band but realised I needed to get a job after uni, and my uncle’s always sounded so cool. He worked as a DOP on docs and told us stories when we were kids about filming with sharks, shooting Oasis’ Knebworth concert, meeting Jeff Buckley, infiltrating a criminal organisation under cover for Panorama or Dispatches.
I started camera assisting him on music documentaries with Julien Temple directing, and realised this was a world where I could still be close to everything I loved, bands and art and people and chaos.
Fiona> It was a bit of an unconventional career path. My uncle ran the local photo shop in the town where I grew up, so every weekend I would take my film to be developed.
I went to university in London and studied applied theatre at Central School of Speech and Drama. I worked in hostels, prisons, hospitals, schools, community centres, old people’s homes. I then started a band and ended up signing to a record label, touring and making music full-time. I began directing our music videos, and that’s really where my love of music, film, photography, storytelling and performance all came together.
A few years later I became pregnant with twins, and the band broke up shortly after I gave birth. That was a big shock for me. It was around this time that I decided to give directing a go. A few friends who were musicians reached out and asked me if I would direct their music videos, and slowly I began to immerse myself more into the film industry.
Diana> I always knew I wanted to do something creative. I thought I was going to be a painter but then somehow I diverted into photography and when the first DSLR cameras came out, I started shooting fashion editorials.
So I started shooting short videos and those then became what we now call ‘fashion films’. I then started shooting little stories with my friends as actors. An advertising production company saw my videos and that’s how I jumped into all this.
Rocket Fuel - DJ Shadow ft. De La Soul, directed by Sam Pilling
LBB> What do you love most about being a director?
Zhang and Knight> For us it's the collaboration - getting to share moments of triumph with the whole team, but also with each other. We were best friends before we started working together, and stayed up talking about ideas every night until 3am. Over time we just organically started working with each other.
Tom> It’s actual real life magic making films, I’m still coming to terms with that. I love learning about people and places, I go through waves of obsession. Moshing one moment, druids the next. It’s very rewarding being able to focus all my obsessive energy into these niche areas of interest. I feel very lucky to have it as a creative outlet, for it to be a job that pays money whilst also remaining this totally free-form vehicle for creativity and collaboration.
Sam> I love bringing a story or idea to life. I relish working closely with actors and capturing those magic moments of performance that really make you feel something.
I also love the craft of it all. Working and collaborating with a team of passionate, like-minded people, coming up with practical solutions to creative problems, and interrogating each element of the film - production design, visual aesthetic, tone, wardrobe etc…
Fiona> I love seeing an idea from the beginning to the end, I find that incredibly satisfying. I love the immediacy of film, the thrill of being on set, discovering crew and building collaborative relationships.
Diana> I love having the opportunity of meeting people that inspire me, I see opportunities out there every day. It’s not just about the crew or the talent I meet on shoots, I love being able to approach random people on the street, using the excuse of being a director so I can hear about their individual stories and interests.
Lose Your Head - London Grammar, directed by Zhang and Knight
LBB> When it comes to shooting on celluloid film vs digital, what would make you choose one over the other?
Fiona> For me, shooting on film is as much about the process as the end product. It demands a more considered and thoughtful approach to filming. In practical terms, there’s a very real financial cost with every second you shoot, so it means you have to be very precise and efficient. It creates an atmosphere on set that’s attentive and focused. There’s a magic to the analogue process that everyone collectively respects and appreciates.
I also love the imperfections of film. The marks, the light leaks, the hairs, the weird defects become the happy accidents.
Zhang and Knight> If it’s possible we almost always prefer shooting on film, it’s maybe obvious to say but the look is so seductive, the way it develops highlights is hard to resist. We’re so often striving to create a sense of intangible magic in our work, and I think the natural softness and richness of film achieves just that. And the thrill of ‘discovering’ what you actually captured on set is always a real rush!
Tom> I love how shooting on film informs the whole process. It’s obviously not always possible, but when it is, it just makes the whole shoot come alive. And it makes you more disciplined and respectful of all the elements that go into making a shot, you spend longer rehearsing and setting up in order to get the shot in fewer takes.
Also there are less people huddling around monitors, less opinions in the room, that’s a massive bonus for keeping a clear vision. You get all these beautiful accidents and wonderful textures with film too, it’s a magical thing.
Sam> For me, there is no comparison to shooting on film – the rich texture and quality of image, the way the highlights are treated, and the discipline it requires on set as part of the filmmaking process.
However, it’s not always possible or practical to shoot on film – for example on very VFX-heavy, high-concept jobs where multiple passes are required to create one shot, I would opt to shoot digital. But for character-led, narrative pieces or ideas without big SFX shots, I would always try to shoot on film.
Diana> I’ve shot most of my work on film, the only projects I tended to shoot digitally were because delivery timings were extremely tight. More recently, there are more things to consider before making the decision to shoot on film. I have to weigh up what I might lose if I make that decision to shoot film.
Shooting on film is more expensive so sometimes some elements of the art department are sacrificed or some lights / camera gear are adjusted in order to fit budgets. Plus, I realise by shooting film you can only do a number of takes for a certain length.
The North Face x Gucci, directed by Tom Dream
LBB> What format of film do you tend to shoot? Did you progress from 8mm, to 16mm, to 35mm? And do you hope to shoot 65mm/IMAX in future?
Sam> At university we shot a few projects on the Bolex Super H16. That was my introduction to film. What a camera! More recently I bought a super8 camera – mainly just to shoot some personal bits and bobs when I’m at a loose end. Would love to incorporate it into a project one day.
But usually I would opt to shoot on 35mm. The desired look, budget and scale of production determine whether we shoot 2 or 4-perf. For example, when shooting a music video for Chaka Khan that was set in the 70s, 2-perf anamorphic captured that ‘70s movie’ look that we were after.
Whereas in a more recent music video for DJ Shadow set in the 60s we shot a combination of 16mm and 35mm. The 16mm was used to match with archive footage that we were incorporating from that time. Having the opportunity to shoot 65mm one day, would be an amazing experience. A man can dream…!
Zhang and Knight> 16mm is our favourite, it just has the most nostalgic texture and is so far removed from any other shooting format. It’s also so flattering for talent, every irregularity is softened. 35mm is lovely but it's a little hard to justify with a very careful colour grade you can get digital pretty close to that look nowadays. 65mm is on the bucket list for sure!
Diana> I mostly shoot 16mm or 35mm, again it depends on what’s needed from each job.
If the right project needed to shoot in 65mm I’d be happy to do so!
Fiona> I’ve mostly shot 16mm and 35mm, and a little bit on 8mm. I would love to shoot on 65mm, that’s the dream.
Tom> I use a super8 camera like a viewfinder on set to find shots and feel out a scene in my own head, and shoot little BTS clips and second camera shots. I just developed some super8 and it cuts from a bluebell field I visited in lockdown, to shots of family at my wedding, and then a scene of 13 witches at a stone circle from a recent film I directed in Cornwall. No-one will ever see this film but the absurdity of it gives me a huge amount of personal joy.
Most of the projects I direct I shoot on 16mm, as this is where I feel comfortable right now, and it’s a format I understand and know how to manipulate in fun ways. I’ve shot on 35mm once and would love to work with it again soon. 65mm/ IMAX… one day!
Mediterranean Dream - Mango, directed by Diana Kunst
LBB> It wasn’t all that long ago that some predicted celluloid film might die out in the next generation of filmmakers - in fact quite the opposite happened. How have you seen the trend for film evolve over the years and what do you think “kept it alive”?
Fiona> No matter how many filters or grades you try, you can never replicate film when shooting digitally. As technology evolves it’s natural for things to come in and out of fashion, and when shooting digitally became so much more affordable than film, it’s no wonder film died out for a while because nobody felt they could justify the cost.
But I think over time filmmakers have craved working in a more analogue way as opposed to the immediacy of working digitally. And there’s a beauty and uniqueness to each roll of film that you can’t imitate digitally. It means you shoot less and rehearse more. So there’s a fundamental difference in the way you work, which is resisting the urge to create in abundance.
Zhang and Knight> There's a lot of respect for the craft involved when shooting film and there's something seductive for filmmakers about something so physical and mechanical. Also it does just have a more beautiful look and despite digital being close, it isn’t quite there yet. There’s just something overly mechanical and perfect about digital.
When we look at the photos our parents all took before digital or phone cameras were a thing it makes me quite jealous, everything was so damn aesthetic and they didn’t even try.
Tom> My entry into independent filmmaking was on a DSLR. This afforded me and everyone else of my generation a huge opportunity to experiment and learn at a relatively low cost. The journey from that to bigger and better, more professional broadcast quality kit took many years and has been super exciting, but nothing compared to shooting on film for the first time. I guess that’s what keeps it going, it’s a totally unique format in its own right, and it should always be an option for the right project.
Diana> Personally I like to shoot on film because I started as a photographer and was used to shooting on film, developing my rolls and doing my own prints in the lab. I have always had that appreciation for colour and texture that you get with celluloid vs digital. The rich colours and textures are simply beautiful, there’s an energy and soul that comes through that is impossible to get on digital.
There are definitely certain creative ideas that would work really well on digital, even better perhaps… We should just be careful on how or when we celluloid film so the quality remains high and deserved, and the market doesn’t get over saturated.
Sam> There’s no denying that less projects are shot on film these days. But often the ones that are really cut through visually. I think the fact that nothing can touch the ‘feel’ of film, is what has kept it alive. It’s a visceral, intangible je ne sais quoi that helps immerse a viewer in the story. Somehow I feel more connected to the images I’m seeing when they’re shot on film. There’s a slightly raw sense to what is captured – giving the impression you are actually there, instead of merely observing, which in turn makes the footage feel more authentic and real.
But whilst shooting on film can sometimes feel like a novelty, I think it’s important for filmmakers to continue to challenge themselves with the framing and lighting of celluloid, rather than relying on it as an artistic crutch.
LBB> Hybrid shoots seem to also be taking off - have you worked on any hybrid projects yourself?
Tom> I try to do this in most documentaries I make, as I like how the feeling of film contrasts with digital, creating a different mood and dynamic in the edit. I’d like to shoot a doc totally on 16mm though, that’s next.
Diana> For the Rolling Stones music video I mixed both mediums because it was an edit that I made using all the footage that I had of my best friend over the past five years. Some of it was footage shot on my iPhone, some on a digital camera. Plus I also had some film stuff so the edit is a mix of both mediums.
Sam> When we shot the WeThe15 film for the Paralympics, our budget and resources were very tight, but we needed a global feel, so we shot remotely across the world - in Cape Town, Thailand, Italy and South America. Although we were shooting the UK portion of the shoot on film, there was no way we could afford to shoot film in the other countries. As such we shot digitally, and then printed to film afterwards, before we graded, so that we could match the digital footage to the film footage as closely as possible. It’s not an exact thing, but I think the finished result is pretty damn good!
WeThe15 - International Paralympic Committee, directed by Sam Pilling
LBB> Can you remember the first time you shot on film? What was it for and what lessons did you learn from this experience that you took forward?
Zhang and Knight> The first time was for a music video and the main takeaway actually came when we were grading. We push and pull our grades around a huge amount when we shoot digital (our projects seem to crash the Baselight a lot!). But with film you don’t need to work it as much, the colours are so rich and spectacular.
That said, you do need a pretty phenomenal DOP with film as there’s less wriggle room with manipulating the image at the other end. You have to really really commit to your look and colours on the day and get it perfect!
Sam> The first professional project that I shot on film was the music video for Chaka Khan. It was also my DP’s first professional film job. We both learnt a lot. Mainly that with the right preparation and sensibilities, and on set rehearsals, you can shoot something in one or two takes then move on, which allowed us to finish a complex shoot in one very long, sweaty night in LA.
Fiona> My first music video for another artist was shot on 35mm. We only had a couple of hundred quid to make the film. I worked with a DOP who had just bought his own Arri Alexa and wanted to test it out. The film was shot in just one take. We only had one roll of film to use so we were already very limited. I came up with a really simple idea to work with a dancer and ask her to improvise to the music with her eyes closed. We arrived at 5am and were done by 7am.
Tom> It was a super8 music video called ‘Strange Dreams’ for my old band Soma World. I shot half on super8, and half on a crappy drone. I graded the drone stuff to look like super8 though, and it worked pretty well!
LBB> Who have been some of the most interesting people you have worked with or shot?
Tom> I shot the final Black Sabbath tour for three months, travelling with them on their private jet around Europe. That’s going to be hard to top.
Fiona> I recently worked with Florence Welch who has a captivating and magnetic presence both on and off screen, so that was a highlight. And I worked with The Labequé sisters on a job for Burberry and Nowness a few years ago and they were wildly mesmerising - fascinated by old myths of witches and had been playing the piano together for over 50 years.
Sam> Shooting our WeThe15 film came with many challenges in terms of casting and logistics. We were shooting in different countries, time zones and languages and working entirely with non-actors, who were a joy to film and get to know.
Diana> The cinematographer Robbie Ryan and first AD Mark Wilson were a big inspiration for me because I admire their work so much and working with them was such a fun and humble experience.
Zhang and Knight> We did a Pride project on film for Vogue last year that was an incredible experience. We shot some unbelievably talented queer performers and activists and it was such an unforgettable experience. We learnt a lot about ourselves as queer people when making it and that was something we weren’t expecting.
Queer Expression From Other Worlds - Vogue, directed by Zhang and Knight
LBB> The relationship between a director and DOP is super important - how do you like to work with your DOPs and what makes a great collaboration? Sam> The relationship is paramount for the success of a project, but really it all comes down to taste and choices. Do our ‘choices’ align or not? Before a project, I like to talk with my DOP about the feeling and aesthetic we’re trying to achieve. But it’s also really important that we feel relaxed around each other. Personality is just as important as talent, as we’re going to be working closely together – and when that process is enjoyable and there is a sense of trust and understanding, I find the work speaks for itself. Diana> A kind and humble approach is key when I work with people. I’ve had some experiences working with really talented heads of departments but because they had big egos or weren’t nice people, sadly the whole project was affected. For me, it is all about teamwork, about not being scared of sharing your doubts or insecurities and everyone growing together which will help the job flourish. Zhang and Knight> You have to have the same taste going in, that's the most important thing. If we creatively have good chemistry then the rest comes naturally. We usually go in with quite a strong idea of what we want to achieve and when a DOP can embrace and add to that then it's an incredible feeling. Tom> It’s all about timing I’d say. It’s great to develop creative relationships over time, but I also love working with different people on different projects, as everyone has their own unique perspective and experience to bring to a collaboration. Fiona> The best collaborations for me are when a DOP gets heavily involved in the pre production to build a relationship before the shoot so that we’re both going in feeling super prepared. Developing a shorthand makes everything so much easier.
To Be Honest - Lacoste x Zalando, directed by Fiona Jane Burgess
LBB> What keeps you creatively inspired? Fiona> Life. Literally everything. A conversation. A feeling that surprises me. A memory. A story. Books. Photographs. A smell, a regret, an impulse. Zhang and Knight> Watching lots and lots and lots of films, if we aren’t actively working we’re pretty much glued to the Criterion Channel and just marathoning through a selection of films. We’ve fallen completely in love with cities and urban architecture accidentally this year after watching all the films in their New York series. We’re always looking for new installation art and theatre sets as well as that's a big drawing point for our production design. Diana> People’s stories, random daily scenes, watching all sorts of audiovisual content, art, music, friendship, family, love, sadness, anxiety, everything really! Sam> As with most directors, I find inspiration in watching people. And if I’m ever feeling stuck for ideas I like nothing better than sticking my headphones in, jumping on a bus to the office or town and gazing out the window at people. Something about watching the world go by, whilst being physically still enough to take it all in, often gets the creative juices flowing. Tom> Making music with my band Pigeon, talking to eccentric people where I live, and reading about science, magic and conspiracy theories.
Distance - Art School Girlfriend, directed by Tom Dream
LBB> What advice do you have for aspiring directors who want to experiment with shooting on celluloid film?
Tom> Do some research into DOPs and camera people that have experience working with film, and then create a low-pressure, zero-expectation creative project with people that want to collaborate on something free-form and fun!
Fiona> Take it slow and enjoy the process. Ask questions, read interviews, do whatever inspires you. Don’t overthink it, just work on one project at a time and don’t rush it. And reach out to other creatives and begin to collaborate.
Sam> Beg, borrow or steal a camera and go shoot something! Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them, and do it differently next time. But never let the film be a crutch. If your story or piece couldn’t exist without shooting it on film, then maybe you shouldn’t be shooting it at all.
Zhang and Knight> If you buy too much you can always use it for another project - it is a great line for producers.
Diana> Follow your instinct, whatever your heart tells you. Be inspired by your own experiences and just make it happen, don’t think too much.
Love and Validation - Boyz Noize and Kelsey Lu, directed by Diana Kunst
This article first appeared in LBBonline Wed, 29 Jun 2022