I came to the University of Michigan because film students here actually get to shoot on film. At most other institutions, the only cameras available are digital. So much of what’s important to me about my studies and this art form is linked to shooting physical film.
Film’s hallmark is the physical grain it leaves on an image. What is between those particles? What does it mean to say “We’re shooting this on film,” or using any analog technology for that matter? To better understand these questions, I spoke with two former teachers and asked them to go more in depth about why they teach and use analog technology and what it means to them artistically and philosophically.
Terri Sarris is a Film, Television, and Media (FTVM) professor at the University. She was the first person to put a working, 16mm movie camera in my hands — a Canon Scoopic. Standing there in the basement of North Quad Residence Hall, about five students to one camera, I thought about the scraps of 35mm negatives and little Kodak slides littered around my family home and in every drawer.
When I was little, I’d hold them up to the light and see my parents looking so young and cool, wearing sunglasses in their cream-colored apartment. In the basement, we had huge, sealed flat metal canisters where reels of footage, my dad’s film, lived. My friends and I would peek over my fuzzy orange couch while our parents watched the film after dinner. When I got older, my dad let me see them for real. They were so unlike anything else that existed — yellow and inviting and alive.
Back in the North Quad basement, Terri instructed us on how to focus the cameras and make sure they were at the right settings for the lighting. I knew I had to listen to every word she said because she was finally explaining how to make something yellow, and inviting, and alive.
Terri explained how special the first day using film cameras with a new class is special to her, too.
“Usually students have had little or no exposure to it and so it’s actually, for a lot of people, really exciting,” she said in our Zoom call. “It also can be sort of mystifying … it’s such an amazing piece of equipment.”
Terri chooses to teach 16mm film not just because it is a practical skill for the industry, but because she sees an artistic, methodic value in the physicality of shooting, cutting and splicing. In fact, the intentionality is twofold: in terms of film theory and historical context.
“The idea of film as a physical medium really gives students, I hope, an appreciation for the decades of people who worked on film before digital was developed,” she said. “You think about from the very earliest days of the Soviet filmmakers shooting those amazing films on film. And then all the editors — a lot of women, by the way.”
There is a sense of purpose with film. No matter what you make, you’re making it with the same tools that very serious, talented people have been using since the start. It makes me feel like they’re with me while I am filming — as if I’m making something not just for, but also with, the Soviets and women. It makes me feel like my eyes get to see through the same machine and glass lenses as the people from the past.
Along with the historical intention behind analog technology, there is a specific effect from using it too, Terri explained.
“I think it makes you really consider an edit and timing and pacing … it really is part of the palette of filmmaking,” she said. “(Shooting on only digital) would be like taking some colors away from an artist.” Listening to her, I started to understand. Yes, film is a kind of communion or time travel, but it’s also a choice at the present moment, like any other variable a filmmaker can manipulate.
She explained how in her own work, the choice of film stock is part of the way her projects relate to the past. Different film stocks have different dimensions, sensitivities to light, and color balances. For her films, where she uses toys to act out short stories, she uses 16mm.
“I shoot them on 16 partly because it’s a legacy technology, and then I always make the credits with a typewriter,” Terri said. “The idea is to use the old stories in these old formats very deliberately in conversation with each other.”
For other films that are portraits of her friends and family, she uses Super 8 in the same camera she’s had since grad school. A Super 8 camera is a small film camera designed for home use that has a cartridge system for the film instead of a system one has to thread in the dark.
“I use my Super 8 camera to make films … that might be nostalgic because often it’s about something that’s disappearing from the world,” Terri said. “So they're like elegies for friends who are passing or family who are passing or who I know are passing … it’s almost religious to me.”
As Terri explained, I saw her understand and use film as both history and present choice. I can’t imagine my studies without her or her work without film.
The next day I talked to Fritz Swanson, a lecturer in the English department who runs Wolverine Press; he also has a background in film photography. I went into our conversation with the practical details from Terri, looking for someone to explain more about how some of these concepts like nostalgia or history relate to the visual signatures we discussed. I now understood the importance of the practice and the choices of artists looking to say something, but I was still unclear on what we’re all saying.
Fritz framed the issue philosophically with a discussion of the author Virginia Woolf and her printing press.
“She hates being edited by men, on some level, she probably hates being edited by upper-middle class men, when she’s clearly better than them,” Fritz said. “And so she just goes out and buys the press and that’s the thing. For her, owning a press and being able to start her own publishing company was a prerequisite for really fulfilling her own ambitions as a writer.”
So the choice then is who — meaning what technology — an artist wants to be their co-author. And the implication of having the choice is that you own some kind of means of production.
Isn’t this true of all technology, any medium?
“Analog mediums are so interesting, because they resist intrusion from the author in interesting and unpredictable ways,” Fritz said.
Digital technologies are a co-author designed to help in their own way and be easy and appealing to a mass market. Analog technologies are transparent and selectable and can hurt more than they help — they are not designed to be a helping hand, but a tool in a kit. Nothing is stopping you from using the wrong stock.
In describing how sensitive to light a certain film emulsion is, filmmakers use the adjectives “fast” and “slow.” You can see in the finished product that the grain on a fast stock, for low light, literally moves around faster. If you look for it, you’ll see it change throughout a movie depending on if the location is brightly or dimly lit. When I notice it, a film becomes much more dimensional. I can actually observe it like one would a sculpture and walk behind, or maybe inside, the camera.
I don’t know if I’m nostalgic or determined to master the signature of film. Maybe both. But after exploring more, I think those are both good words holding the place of another concept. The completely random, consequential movement of film grain that is chosen by an artist is the aesthetic that makes each of us feel our specific way about images shot on film. The choice of a type of movement to make a type of image, but what each particle does to produce that whole is up to chance. Grain. It’s a somewhat ineffable aesthetic that, after examination, says I chose this and I know how and why to use this and my means of production worked on this WITH me. And that is what looked yellow and inviting and alive to me all those years ago.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.