Digital cameras have revolutionized filmmaking, improving access and affordability and pushing the boundaries of visual effects. But many of Hollywood’s greats, like Christopher Nolan and Wes Anderson, still swear by shooting on film.
When directors choose film over digital, it’s often to pursue a visual direction inextricable from storytelling. Often, they rely on film’s unmatched quality owing to enhanced color and image resolution. In the right hands, film can be instrumental in producing masterpieces that revitalize the industry. These 7 films exemplify how.
La La Land (2016)
The plot of La La Land is deceptively straightforward, with aspiring actress Mia and jazz musician Sebastian trying to get their big break and finding love along the way. But what really cemented the film’s mark on the industry is how well it captured the Old Hollywood charm of Los Angeles, as romanticized by modern dreamers.
To create this dreamlike atmosphere, director Damien Chazelle and cinematographer Linus Sandgren allowed the camera to shape the movie’s visual direction, wielding it like a musical instrument to simulate the movement and rhythm of the film. Using a Panavision XL2 with an Anamorphic 2X lens, much of the film was shot in the golden hours for an alluring, warm aesthetic.
The film also channeled the theatrical vibrancy of 1950s Hollywood movies, with highly saturated shots organically captured by film. Taken all together, La La Land’s visual elements mirror the emotional state of the characters as the movie progresses.
Last Night in Soho (2021)
Another movie tapping into mid-20th-century glamor and nostalgia is Edgar Wright’s horror film Last Night in Soho. In it, aspiring fashion student Ellie finds herself able to travel back in time at night, inhabiting the memories of Sandie, a woman chasing stardom in the 1960s.
The American Society of Cinematographers states that much of the film was shot with a combination of 35mm and Super 35mm film, with Panavision G and B Series anamorphic primes to render London of the past. This allowed cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon to paint a wide frame with vivid hues inspired by Technicolor and Eastman color films.
This, combined with inventive use of lighting to emulate the 1960s, resulted in a visual treat with increasingly pronounced colors and a progressively disorienting atmosphere accompanying the movie’s rising tensions.
Little Women (2019)
Despite being the eighth film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, there’s something magnetic about the sentimentality and liveliness of Greta Gerwig’s 2019 take on Little Women. Adopting a non-linear narrative to switch between the warm past and the somber present, the film had to rely heavily on contrasting tonal signatures to differentiate between the two.
To execute this, Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux envisioned the camera as being like a fifth sister. In the more energetic sequences of their youth, the camera would follow Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy around. But in more solemn moments in adulthood, the camera is locked down, capturing the quiet of the March sisters’ lives as each one moves to new stages in life.
Tied together by the nostalgic quality of 35mm film, Little Women paints a resonant picture of girlhood — its tenderness, its warmth, and the tragedy of its passing.
The Lighthouse (2019)
Robert Eggers is a master in the art of immersive filmmaking, with movies like The Witch (2015) and The Northman (2022) under his belt. But his 2018 psychological thriller The Lighthouse takes this a step further, fully transporting audiences into the claustrophobic world that the story inhabits. The film not only emulates the atmosphere of the time, relying on heavily accented dialogue marked by sailor jargon — it also mimics the vibe of 1890s cinema.
The Lighthouse’s aspect of ratio of 1.19:1 is already enough to make the viewers feel boxed in as the lighthouse’s inhabitants spiral into madness. But to fully recreate the old-timey black-and-white look, Eggers had to have filters custom-made to replicate film stocks that went out of production in the 1920s.
This visual direction, paired with eerily close-up shots and elusive dialogue, takes viewers through a story far removed from the real world.
The French Dispatch (2021)
The French Dispatch utilizes elements characteristic of Wes Anderson’s iconic filmography — symmetrical framing, slow motion sequences, and vivid color palettes. But the movie upped the ante with more ambitious shots that Anderson’s cinematographer and frequent collaborator Robert Yeoman described as “impossible.”
The film was shot on 35mm film with a 1.37:1 ratio and channels 1950s and 1960s French New Wave Cinema. In it, Anderson tells a sprawling plot tying together multiple post-war narratives in a fictional French town.
To achieve this vision, the crew had to punch holes in the floor, rely on scaffolding, and turn to old-school styles to get the meticulously planned shots just right. The end product is a visually enticing, fast-paced, high-energy tale of whimsy.
There’s no doubt that Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017), was one of the best horror films to come out in the 2010s. But where Get Out and his second film, Us (2019), focused on tighter settings, Nope sees Peele elevating his repertoire and exploring the full scope of his vision.
Set in a sprawling desert, the horror comedy follows two siblings, the owners of Haywood’s Hollywood Horses, as they try to get evidence of a UFO terrorizing their ranch.
For this flick, Peele partnered with renowned cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema — the figure behind Her (2013), Interstellar (2014), and Dunkirk (2017) — to capture the overwhelming scale of a wide open space. The film is shot in large format with IMAX and Panavision. By capturing every intricate detail, Nope completely absorbs viewers into each wide shot, heightening the fear of the unknown.
Christopher Nolan is one of Hollywood’s staunchest advocates for shooting with film. The visionary behind Dunkirk (2017), Tenet (2020), and Interstellar (2014) often explains that it is the highest quality imaging format devised, capturing images the way your eyes see them.
This was a valuable asset when it came to telling the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist behind the atomic bomb. In dramatizing events bearing so much historical and cultural weight, Nolan required a medium that could capture the magnitude of the story.
Oppenheimer was shot mainly on IMAX, which Nolan used to capture the landscapes of New Mexico and experiment with for intimate dialogue-driven moments that aren’t frequently seen in the format. This level of quality, sharpness, and depth was crucial as Nolan sought to create a fully immersive experience. He even went as far as foregoing CGI to capture the magnitude of the explosions.
The result is an absorbing and tense must-see portrayal of what preceded one of the most catastrophic events of the 20th century.