Making a 2-perforation feature film

Making a 2-perforation feature film

How the format made widescreen 35 mm affordable for award-winning film HUNGER

Directed by Turner Prize winning artist Steve McQueen, HUNGER is an account of life inside Northern Ireland’s notorious Maze prison during the 1981 IRA hunger strike. Produced by Blast! Films for Channel4/Film4, the project was part of an initiative to commission new work from artists for the screen and follows the last six weeks in the life of Irish Republican Bobby Sands - who died during the strike.

Having worked on a number of low-budget feature films, Bobbitt had become interested in the resurgence of 2-perforation.

Photographed by Sean Bobbitt BSC, who had previously worked with McQueen on a number of film installation projects, HUNGER was shot with a 2-perforation ARRICAM Studio, ARRICAM Lite and ARRIFLEX 235 supplied by ARRI Media. Lighting equipment was supplied by ARRI Lighting Rental.

Having worked on a number of low-budget feature films, Bobbitt had become interested in the resurgence of 2-perforation. “I think the primary benefit of using 2-perforation is cost, which is of paramount importance to the production, particularly on a low-budget film,” states Bobbitt. “For HUNGER we were able to shoot 2-perforation with an aspect ratio of 2.39:1 on 35 mm for an additional cost of only £12,500, compared to Super 16. That represents fantastic value for quality, when you think that the actual surface area of the exposed negative is much greater in 2-perforation 35 mm than it is in Super 16.”

The natural widescreen aspect ratio of 2-perforation also meant that Bobbitt could shoot a true 2.39:1 frame. “Super 16 has to go through a blow-up in the DI for 35 mm projection, so there is an increase in the amount and the size of grain, which is fine if that’s what you are looking for – if you are looking for a gritty, dramatic feel – but on this film we specifically didn’t want that,” he says. “We were hoping for something that would go against the grit and grain of the story itself – something a little bit glossy. So in that regard 2-perforation fitted the bill and offered a solution that would be more effective in terms of the DI.”

As 2-perforation uses less stock it naturally increases the running time of a magazine, which made it possible for Bobbitt to fulfil the director’s desire for long takes. “Steve wanted to do very extensive shots, where the action develops in the frame,” recalls Bobbitt. “In particular, there is a dialogue scene between two characters in the centre of the film that is over 20 minutes long, which Steve wanted to capture in a single take. Using a 1,000-foot roll of 2-perforation 35 mm meant that we were able to do that, so we did four takes of this scene, and I don’t know of any other film format that we could have done that in.”

While 2-perforation has its advantages there are two factors that Bobbitt believes anyone using the format should be aware of. “Because there is almost no frame line between frames, if you have a really strong highlight at the top of a frame it can bleed through to the next,” he advises. “I pushed that as far as I could and it never bled through more than 4%, which is lost in projection cut-off anyway. The other consideration, of course, is if you do get a hair in the gate or a boom in shot then there is no way that you can move the image around to lose them, so you do have to go again. But neither of those were an issue during the production itself.” Bobbitt also recommends that a frame leader is shot for each camera and ground glass. “As there is no SMPTE frame or anything set up, there is no standard frame for the telecine and everything else to be accurate – so you do need to establish a very accurate frame reader.”

The film’s postproduction involved a number of facilities, with processing and telecine carried out at Todd-AO and a Digital Intermediate at Dragon DI. Release prints were produced by Deluxe. Before filming began Bobbitt shot tests and followed the entire 2-perforation workflow all the way through in order to check for any possible loopholes. “The initial tests I did with Todd-AO just showed that they needed to upgrade some of their sound syncing software, which they were able to do,” he explains. “We then took the negative to Dragon DI and did a rough DI. They use the ARRISCAN and the ARRILASER, both of which are set up for 2-perforation. We scanned the negative, graded the negative and then burnt it back and printed it so we could prove that the whole chain worked – and it did, first go. The workflow is very straightforward and exactly the same as working in 3-perforation; it’s still just 35 mm film, only the frames are squeezed closer together.”

One thing Bobbitt is certain of – without 2-perforation HUNGER would never have been originated on 35 mm. “If we hadn’t had 2-perforation, and recognised the savings in cost, then that would have been very much to the detriment of what we were trying to achieve with this film,” he states. Bobbitt’s certainty that the choice of format benefited the film was reflected in its selection to open the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section of the 61st Cannes Film Festival, where it was awarded the Camera d’Or.