Updated: Oct 19, 2020
Hey focus pullers! I joined local 600 in January (just in time to sit at home for five months) but before that I was working as a 1st AC and film loader in Los Angeles. I thought it might be interesting to start a conversation about shooting film on modern sets and how that’s changed through the years.
I loaded my first Bolex as a wet-behind-the-ears college student, but I worked on digital sets until I moved from Boston to LA last year. I only knew a few people on the west coast and having film know-how seemed like a way to make myself more valuable. Also, working as a technician on film shoots just hit different than the life of touchscreens and firmware updates of a digital AC.
The Mystic Art of Loading
I started loading on commercials with the occasional music video. That meant I tended to be the only loader on the crew, so I had to self-teach and figure out a lot on my own. Any loader will tell you the part you do in the dark is easy; it’s the organization, paperwork, politics and troubleshooting that takes the most skill. At first glance there’s limited or conflicting resources on everything from stock tape colors, to how to handle "air cores," to the process for taking film through TSA.
I read all the books and manuals, but I would always try to get hands on a new camera before the prep. There’s almost no info online about certain older models. Even at some of the major rental houses, the film generation has dwindled. I remember calling Keslow hoping to track down a Moviecam SuperAmerica. The tech seemed confused and kept asking “Movie-cam? As in a camera used for movies?”
So the thing that has really been clutch is having a network of OG “old school” ACs to bother. Shoutout to Rudy Pahoyo, David Elkins, Joey Kolbe, Mark at Fotokem and others who welcomed all my questions and offered a hand up into the world of film!
Pre-pro and Politics
Many producers aren’t familiar with film, so it takes extra back-and-forth to get on the same page.
Discussing how to handle the film before and after it’s in my care. At the risk of over-explaining, I always impress on the production team the importance of safe storage and dropping it off at the lab ASAP.
Many producers think that loading can just be one of the 2nd AC’s tasks. I’ve accepted plenty of these jobs, but it puts a massive kink in the workflow and production should expect to pay OT for the wrap out.
It’s a big adjustment to switch from cards that record for an hour, to mags that roll out at 6 minutes. It’s nice when production loops me in early on the stock choices and amounts.
I hear a lot of conversations that probably never happened when all shoots were on film. Producers will ask Fotokem how much their cores cost. Clients will ask for playback from the camera. A rental house recently gave me a roll of projector film to use for scratch tests. Lots of things like that, that aren't a big deal with some communication.
When ACing on film, I like to have the playback conversation early. It’s another thing that digital directors and producers may not have on their radar. Depending on the job and union status that means external recorders, an additional camera utility or director’s assistant, expectations for who’s handling the media and work station, etc.
Camera Dept Dynamics
I’m guessing the job of a loader has gotten more specialized and maybe a little less taken for granted. Even if you’re the lowest rank in the camera department, you have unique skills and are one of the first people called in for troubleshooting.
That's one thing that surprised me at first; I would often end up being the most film-literate member of the camera team. Most commonly on commercials, one or both ACs would be new to film so teaching became a regular part of my job. I'd show the 1st how to thread the camera at the prep, and handle things like oiling the movement or changing the shutter. HD taps are getting better and every puller has their own method, but I try to keep in mind that they may need extra support.
Many DPs are just starting to try their hand at film. I’m always really excited when a DP tells me that it’s their first film shoot. That also means just a little more onus on the film-savvy ACs to have their back and keep track of things they may forget.
A truck with a working darkroom has been a rare luxury so far, so as a loader I tend to stay near the set. Especially if I’m one of the few technicians familiar with film, it’s best to be close to the action. A downside to that is having to field questions and jokes from talent, clients, and producers’ friends while in the tent.
“Ooooh we’re shooting on real film???”
“Wait do that again for my BTS vlog!”
“When you’re done downloading that can you pull up playback?”
“Make sure you shine lots of light on it, hahaha!”
At least when we’re back on set with masks I can get away with raising my eyebrows and making a laughing/grunting noise.
I’m sure some of these dynamics are different if you start on a longer show or under other film ACs, but now you know what my loading adventures have looked like so far.
To wrap up, I wanted to ask about your experiences shooting film in recent years. I’m curious to hear from people who were born with a chip chart in their hand, and others who transitioned from pixels and playback. What extra steps do you take in pre-pro or on set, and how has shooting on film changed over time?