ONFILM Interview: John Schwartzman, ASC

Published on website: May 05, 2014
Categories: ONFILM

“A while back, we shot some comparison tests with every format and type of camera, and we showed a blind test to a range of filmmaking professionals. Every person in the room said anamorphic film looked the best. It wasn’t even close. The image quality from a photochemical finish on film is still, far and away, the gold standard. Nothing looks better. There is something about anamorphic that causes a great sense of reverie in me. There’s an elegance and a randomness to film that I think is really beautiful. Filmed images endure. If we are striving to do the best possible work and present it to an audience in the best possible way, why shoot anything else?”

John Schwartzman, ASC has shot more than 30 feature films. His credits include Armageddon, The Rock, National Treasure: Book of Secrets, The Bucket List, Pearl Harbor, Saving Mr. Banks, Dracula Untold, and Seabiscuit, which earned him an Oscar® nomination. He plans to shoot his next project, Jurassic World, on 35 mm and 65 mm film.

[All these films were shot on KODAK Motion Picture Film.]

A Conversation with John Schwartzman, ASC

You’ve said that 35 mm anamorphic is the gold standard for feature filmmaking. Can you tell us why?

When you look at anamorphic film, you realize that it looks amazing. Projected from a photochemical finish, it is breathtaking. Nothing looks better. There is something about scope that causes, in me at least, this great sense of reverie. We used to strive to do the best possible work and present it to an audience in the best possible way. Today, it often seems like it’s all about how we can get it there as inexpensively as possible, and that is a mistake.

You mentioned some testing you did awhile back.

During preparations for The Amazing Spider-Man, we shot comparison tests with every format and type of camera available at the time and showed it to a range of filmmaking professionals. We processed the film photochemically and also scanned at 4K. Every person in the room said anamorphic looked the best. It wasn’t even close. I also ran it for some studio executives and producers. I didn’t tell anybody what they were looking at and had them pick the one they liked the best. In every single setup, they picked the film images. They didn’t know what they were looking at, but they knew there was something about it.

Additionally, for most women over the age of 18, film is a real friend. Digital cameras are very unforgiving. I can tell you that when Emma Thompson walked onto the set of Saving Mr. Banks and saw that white Panavision magazine sitting on top of the camera, she noticeably relaxed. To me, that’s a very important thing. I live and die by the close-up. That’s what I tell the manufacturers. That’s what I get paid to do. I need to know that the skin tones will look good. And in my testing, the film camera simply looks better. Stefan Sonnenfeld and I were running the film print of Saving Mr. Banks and the DCP side-by-side in a room, and it was obvious how much better the film looked than the 2K DCP.

You shot film on Dracula Untold, in part because of the difficult locations. How did that work out?

It was the best decision we made, because of the reality of the locations we were working in. The equipment went as far as the trucks could go. Then, we hoisted it onto smaller vehicles that would eventually get bogged down in the mud. At that point, we loaded it onto quad runners, which went further. Then we’d start shooting. That style of working certainly plays into the strength of film. I’ve got an eyepiece, I’ve got an operator looking through the lens, and I’ve got a 24-volt battery, thus I can shoot. Everything else is ancillary, but I can make an image. The weather was atrocious. The video assist guy’s cart would have shorted out. Film cameras are mechanical and very robust. It’s a more streamlined way to work.

Has the advent of digital affected the cinematographer’s job in other ways?

Vilmos Zsigmond (ASC) took film and exposed it to a white card in British Columbia when he was doing McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He did like a 10% pre-flash to raise the fog level of that film, and it changed the way people lit and exposed film for 10 years. That look was baked into the negative. Can you achieve that look digitally? Sure you can. But the reality is that DPs aren’t typically involved in post production all the way down the line. At the end of the day, a raw image is something that can be manipulated with less of a penalty than film. But it’s the cinematographer’s job to maintain a certain look. When I shoot on film, I know if I want it to be dark and I’ve underexposed it two stops, and it’s going to be that way. No one is surprised when we go in to do the release print. Getting paid to do the DI is a fight for most DPs. Fortunately, I have been getting paid since Seabiscuit to do it, but the idea that we even have to fight to supervise our images to the end is concerning.

Jurassic World, your next feature, will be shot on film – some 35 mm and some 65 mm, correct? What’s the thought process behind that decision?

The reason for that was simple: Steven Spielberg, who only shoots film. We also based the decision on the idea that the other Jurassic movies were shot on film and that these are day exterior movies. In day exterior situations, nothing surpasses film in terms of dynamic range. There’s not a digital camera in the world that can handle the difference between 20,000 footcandles in the highlights and six footcandles in the shadows, especially when you’re walking through a jungle.

And the 65 mm portions?

The large format decision grew out of our location scouting. When we told the visual effects people that we were going to shoot film, their reaction was ‘Thank goodness. Thank you for shooting film – we love it.’ That’s a nice thing to hear. They were talking about larger formats, so I suggested five-perf 65. I knew I’d need to do big, sweeping moves and carry a lot of depth of field. I knew that we could get the cameras from Panavision. Everyone at Panavision and Kodak was gung-ho about it. Plus, I’ve always wanted to shoot large format. When people see this movie, I want them to go, ‘Whoa!’ I want them to see what film can really do.

Are there differences in the way audiences perceive film and digitally shot images?

I’ve said it many times: Film fails with elegance. There’s an elegance to film and there’s a randomness to it that is really beautiful. One of the big issues I have with digital cameras is that the pixels are always in the same place and that’s why you get what’s called ‘fixed pattern noise.’ It’s the same mosaic. It never changes. There aren’t two frames of film where the molecules are in the same place. With a digital sensor, every pixel is in the same place, and with a projector that is basically built the same way, it starts to lose its organic quality. I don’t deny that digital cameras have a place in our business, and I know that some would argue they are better. But to me, they are just different.