Shooting Ratios and Film Takes

Today’s question comes from my friend Luke, formerly a brilliant animator, production and conceptual artist, currently a brilliant portrait painter. He writes, “Working as a portrait artist has taught me that to get just one, really successful image, it usually takes about 40 shots. Film is even more complicated — so how many “takes” does one need for the average scene? Is there an industry standard for wastefulness?”

The answer is, no; not really. Every director will have his own style of dealing with actors, and his own expectations of how many takes he will want to get what he is looking for. Some actors are more experienced and better at understanding the director’s vision. Some directors will have multiple cameras on set, which means more film will be used (even if fewer takes are required). If the director shoots long takes, there is a greater chance that actors will make a mistake and they will need to be re-shot. If he shoots short takes, then more film is wasted on the “slate” material that will be edited from around each take.

There are too many variables to really make a generalization of what an industry standard might be. However, when you begin to plan a feature, you must have a reasonably accurate idea of how much film stock you will need to buy. This is tricky, but it’s not to difficult to calculate a rough estimate. Let’s assume that you are shooting a low-budget, independent 90-minute feature. Independent means you don’t have studio connections to negotiate a great deal with the supplier, and you don’t have the budget to buy any more than your bare minimum.

A 35mm camera shoots at 24 frames per second, which amounts to just over one and a half feet per second (film is measured in feet). You can find a number of timecode calculators on the internet that will convert between frames and feet precisely, and my favorite is WTCC II. Your ninety-minute finished film print will be exactly 8,100 feet long. If you have a six-to-one shooting ratio, which is cutting it pretty tight, that means you’ll need 48,600 feet of film stock to shoot your movie.

At some point, I should write an article on how to buy film, but here’s a quick summary. The two main manufacturers are Fuji and Kodak. Kodak donates raw film stock to film schools, so most beginning cinematographers will insist on shooting the Kodak film that they are familiar with. However, Fuji film is generally cheaper (but there are different types and speeds of film stock where that may differ). It comes in cans of different lengths; long reels for large magazines for dolly and tripod shots, and shorter, lighter lengths for handheld and Steadicam magazines.

However, you probably can’t afford to by fresh, new film direct from Kodak or Fuji. Both companies are open to negotiation, but you can get better deals by buying “used” cans of film from companies that specialize in reselling unexposed film that was left over from other film productions. These might be unopened cans, “recans” which have been opened but then resealed, and “short ends” which are pieces of film were left at the ends of shoots, end of the day, or too short for certain scenes. Results and prices vary based on what is available at the time.

Now, you should be able to get about 50,000 feet of film pretty easily and cheaply, but this only gives you a six-to-one shooting ratio. Unfortunately, this doesn’t meant that you get six takes for every shot. For each take, from the moment that the camera starts to roll film to when it stops, only about half of that will be the actor’s performance. So now you have only three takes per shot. This is doable with good planning, good communication, and plenty of time for blocking and rehearsal.

It’s possible, but not ideal. Unfortunately, film is expensive, so unless you have the budget for more stock, you will be very hard pressed to get all of your movie to fit onto the film you have bought. Fortunately, video tape is cheap… so you can hone your directing skills on video projects ahead of time. This will give you a better idea of how much time you actually need for each shot and scene.