Sydney Film School Pays Homage to Film

This short documentary about 16mm is a homage to film and a technology that has had its very last day. Made by Sydney Film School graduate Emily Christison.

An article about the end of an era was published on the ArtsHub on December 5th, 2012
(Words below are by Paul Isbel)

Historical fact. The last film to be shot in Australia using 16mm stock and cut on a Steenbeck flatbed editing suite was wrapped at the Sydney Film School on November 16 2012 by first-time director Rachel Young with editor Ahron Lardizabal. The film is called Stuck. It is 8 minutes 34 seconds long, or 9 minutes 27 seconds with credits.

And so goes the epitaph for an era. There won’t be a minute’s silence to observe the passing of analogue editing, that time is long gone, but there will be this tribute to a technology that has had its very last day in this country.

In the interests of accuracy, Head of Teaching and Production at the Sydney Film School (SFS) Leslie Oliver sets the record straight: “We are the last school and this is the last semester that a film is made by cutting on an editing machine. There are other schools besides us who are still shooting with film stock, but they go straight to digital.” Since the SFS opened in 2004, Oliver says that students were drawn to it “because of the film element. That doesn’t mean they don’t get digital, but they do get an extra dimension. It’s like having a second language, the first helps with the second.”

Rachel Young came to the SFS with fresh eyes. “We were told on Orientation Day that we would be the last to shoot with an Arriflex SR II on 16mm. It’s kind of funny, because I had no experience in film whatsoever, so I’ve been learning the old and the new. Since finishing shooting in September I worked from early October as an assistant editor to Ahron, who has a great passion for Steenbecks. There’s something about it that asks for a higher discipline of how to edit physically, of holding the film in your hands, and the magic of seeing how the film will be. It’s wonderful,” she says, and then in the same breath adds, “but Avid [editing software] is so much fun to play with. The greatest thing about it is that when you’re editing two to four hours straight and you realise that you have made a mistake, you can Ctrl+Z, but with Steenbecks it’s a lot different. You have to track back and forth and remember where and how the mistake happened. That can take two to four times longer than editing a scene that lasts for a minute of screen time. That’s one of the many reasons why editing on Steenbecks disciplines you and makes you appreciate its value, not to mention, in the industry, time is money and when you have a deadline, you can’t waste four hours fixing a tiny mistake.”

A novice though she may be, yet the magic Young feels handling film is not far from Steven Spielberg’s words about analogue editing: “My favourite and preferred step between imagination and image is a strip of photochemistry that can be held, twisted, folded, looked at with the naked eye, or projected on to a surface for others to see.” It’s that physical quality of film in hand that also appeals to Leslie Oliver, who is also a sculptor. To him, the mediums have some essential similarities. “Film editing is shaping,” he observes. “It feels like you’re making something by loading this very expensive stock into the camera and taking it out again, processing it, and cutting it into shape. You can carry it under your arm and say ‘Here is my film’. It’s an object.”

Although Oliver is by no means critical of digital, he reserves the right to praise in passing the technology that “has been a big part of my life for a long time.” If you could distil his affection for the Steenbeck, it would be that quality of time it demands and gives. “Speed doesn’t mean the process is improved,” he contends. “A moving image is made of individual pictures. That’s the way it is. There is no other way. When you’re handling film you see those frames. You are very conscious of their significance. One frame can make a big difference to what the film becomes. Students can see that working on a flatbed, because of the way you look at it. You have to move the film back and forth to get to the bit you want. By manually moving around the film you find parts of the film you haven’t been thinking about, which can lead you to rethink how the film could be. By jumping from one to another on a timeline [in digital], all that is missed.”

There he is talking about taking more time editing, but it’s also true of shooting. “Because film is very expensive, we are compelled to use it wisely,” he says. “We are more careful to plan the shot and rehearse it, whereas with spontaneous filmmaking you’re not worrying about thinking things through.”

Rachel Young agrees. When she shot Stuck, she was conscious of the cost of film and the need to set up the shots to get it right, but by the time shooting began she was ready. For someone who only began filmmaking in July, Young has come a long way in a short time. “I knew it would be a crash course,” she admits. “I knew it would be intense, but not like this, it’s really intense. I’ve never experienced anything like it. You learn so much in one day. Three days into the course I was watching a movie at the cinema and I was so critical, I was seeing everything wrong about it, one thing after another, and on and on. My friends were saying, ‘Just shut up’.”

Lessons learnt, Young got stuck into a script that was not hers but one left by a student from the semester before, Victor Chan. “It’s about a regular teenage boy who has this annoying trashy pop song stuck in his head,” she explains. “He seeks his best friend for help to get rid of the song. His best friend doesn’t quite understand the problem but helps anyway. Ultimately, they destroy all the electronics in the home of the main character, Alex.” For a first-timer, Young seems to carry the confidence of a veteran, even when things come crashing down, as the hard drive did a week before the film was to be sound mixed and colour graded. “Luckily,” she says, “the hard drive was recovered on the Monday before the mixing and grading on the Tuesday and Wednesday.”

Here, Leslie Oliver’s observations about analogue editing come into frame. “Film is not life,” he says. “On film, sound and picture are two separate elements. A creative filmmaker plays on the differences.” For a film about a boy who can’t get a song out of his head, Young is well aware of that difference. “Film is 50% image, 50% sound. This one is 80% sound, 20% image because of the plot. The music makes all the sense of the film,” she points out. “When you watch it with just the picture, you don’t understand much. Even with dialogue, it’s not much better. The music makes the film.” With the files restored, Young’s perfectly timed run with her first film was pushed out by just two days, hand delivered on the morning of staff screenings.

And that, she hopes, was the last drama for the last film edited in Australia on a Steenbeck. For someone like Rachel Young who is new to the industry, “Knowing that I am one of the last people in Australia to handle 16mm film is a big, huge hit factor for me. In years to come I can tell my grandkids [in a croaky voice] that’s how we did it back then [laughs], but it’s a change of life. It’s to be expected. It’s sad to be honest, but new things come along.”

For Leslie Oliver, the decision was not by choice, but “bit by bit we were forced to change because there are no facilities here to print film. Bangkok is the last hub for printing film in the South East Asia/Pacific.” Printing is just one of a number of factors that signal the end of the Steenbeck. “We can’t get negatives cut anymore. One by one, negative cutters have gone out of business,” he says. “It’s sad to see people in the industry packing their lives into boxes without any attention or recognition and without anyone to say thanks so much and good-bye.”

Which is the very point of this story. The arguments of the relative merits of digital and analogue have been played out for well over a decade now, most recently in the documentary Side by Side, narrated by Keanu Reeves. Spielberg once stirringly and defiantly declared of analogue editing, “After all, this ‘stuff’ of dreams is mankind’s most original medium, and dates back to 1895. Today, its years are numbered, but I will remain loyal to this analogue art form until the last lab closes.” Or until he made War Horse, edited entirely on digital.  

Spielberg’s War Horse.  Rachel Young’s Stuck. It’s good-bye to the Steenbeck for good and for those who were very good indeed at what they did for decade after decade until the world of film no longer needed what they could give, this is for you.

Stuck will screen as part of the program of more than 80 short films at the Sydney Film School Festival at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington over three full days from December 11 – 13. It will be shown at the Session Six Screening on Day Two of the festival, Wednesday December 12, between 12.30 and 1.30pm.

For Rachel Young, the film holds great significance on a personal level. “This film not only represents the fact that I am one of the last people in Australia to handle 16mm film, it also represents a film of many firsts,” she says. “I’ve got no experience composing a song, yet I’ve composed one for this film (also called Stuck.) I’ve never Photoshopped photos, let alone 96 photos, and I did that in just three days (which turned into 164 photos altogether.) I’ve got no experience in filmmaking and here I am making a film. I’ve never directed in my whole life. When I look back in a few years time I’ll still be amazed at myself. To be honest, I’m not at all as confident as people perceive me to be. I’d like to pass that on, that anything’s possible when you give it a go and do your best.”

Original Article can be viewed here

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