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.