Shooting On Film Made La La Land A Work Of Art

Late to the game, I finally saw La La Land and was impressed and surprised by the original creativity of this film. Unlike other recent films released and churned out by the Hollywood film machine, La La Land possesses cinematic virtues that are unmatched in this creative wasteland we call ‘contemporary film’.

As a film director and photographer, I relished the camera syncing with stunning choreography. Pure magic. La La Land feels real and honest. For many moments in the first twenty minutes, I questioned what I was experiencing and watched with intense focus. The exposition begins with a dance scene on top of a gridlocked LA interchange, the cars nondescript from the 80’s and 90’s. Only later does a contemporary car join a scene when Mia (Emma Stone) jumps into her Prius — so LA. For that matter, it was the only contemporary car I noticed until the last third of the film. The retro clothing is nostalgic and the generic smart phones and the Flock of Seagull’s cover band serve to place, but not define, a time. The fact that La La Land is not anchored to any specific epoch lends it this timelessness that adds to the magical feel of the movie, giving it a fairy-tale quality that transcends time.

After returning home from the theater I researched how this magical film was produced. My first epiphany — La La Land was shot on film! Linus Sandgren, the Director of Photography, is a film-shooting-junkie of sorts. He believes that working with film is an art form, as he says, “A cinematographer can simply do more with film.”

Most of his movies, with the exception of one, are shot on film including, and most notably, American Hustle and A Hundred Foot Journey. But is the industry circling back to film? Maybe not, but look around and you’ll see plenty of projects being shot on film including NYU thesis films.

For cinematography buffs, the majority of La La Land was shot in 35mm 2x anamorphic 4-perf 2.55:1 CinemaScope using Panavision XL2’s cameras with anamorphic C series and E series primes. The balance was shot on 16MM anamorphic for a portion of the ending dream sequence when Sebastian [Ryan Gosling] plays the piano at his club with Mia in the audience.

The opening scene of the film at the freeway overpass was shot primarily with a technocrane by our colleagues at Cinemoves, a Florida company that we’ve had the pleasure to work with for the past 20 years. The technocrane was rigged on top of a Biscuit Junior, a one-of-a-kind silent “driving Process trailer”. This enabled the technocrane to dolly, extend and retract at the same time.

(See the website and Vimeo demo real here,

A Steadicam was also used for portion of this sequence. Fighting the shadow of the crane and the concrete dividing wall proved to be a challenge to work around, requiring multiple days to accomplish.

Shooting in film takes a commitment on many levels. The first challenge is to convince producers that the cost is the same as digital. Sandgren argues that the costs are very close. When you shoot using film you eliminate DIT’s, expensive monitors “on set,” and hard drives. Either way you still have to produce film dailies.

While researching, I discovered that Panavision had to make several lenses for the production, since standard anamorphic lenses cannot focus closely. Panavision built a custom 40MM lens that can focus closer than three feet, allowing Sandgren to be tight and then pull out for wide shots. Certainly, Panavision had to compete with several camera rental houses bidding on this feature film that required film cameras, custom anamorphic lens designs and support, but few rental houses have this kind of capacity. Hats off to Panavision!

The second challenge — or virtue — of film is the actual process on set.  As a director, I relish being reminded that you can only roll film for eleven minutes, forcing quick minute breaks for reloads and short breaks for the cast to interact with the director. Film forces you to work more strictly with available light, unlike digital cameras with their method of “creating and cheating the light” to complete a demanding shooting schedule. Film anchors you and demands full attention to what is really important on set: performance, people, efficiency and natural light.

Director Damien Chazelle and DP Sandgren focused on shooting at “magic hour” on many days, rehearsing sequences for days and months before the shoot, and achieving the final shot in three to four takes in one evening. One of the many benefits to this gruelling schedule is the amazing late afternoon skies we see in the film. They look like they are composited in post, but are not. So many scenes in La La Land are long one-take camera moves giving the camera department few second chances. Pulling focus on the night scenes while working from video assist must have been an absolute bear for the focus puller!

Lastly, DP Sandgen sums up the virtue of film stock:

All the colors in the film are real. The color separation and rich nuances is what the celluloid film captured, and the saturation in the DI is on a normal level. To achieve this level of saturation in digital, you would’ve had to boost saturation in the DI, but the variety of colors wouldn’t have been present in the digital neg.

Again, for cinematography buffs, daytime exteriors were shot on KODAK VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207, rated at 100 ASA and pull processed -1 stop for finer grain and softer contrast. Interiors day and night and all dusks and nights were shot on KODAK VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219, rated 200 ASA and pull processed -1 stop for finer grain and softer contrast. For those unfamiliar with pull processing, it is a film developing technique that attempts to compensate for overexposed film by under-developing it. Pull processing is commonly used to obtain a lower contrast image under high contrast conditions.

Unlike La La Land, few feature films are shot “in camera” anymore because compositing, visual EFX, and wire removal have taken precedence over shooting “in camera:” due to not only efficiencies but because it is easier. It fascinates me that a Director and a DP would choose to work this way since it is much like methods used in the 80’s and 90’s, prior to the RED and the Alexa digital cinema cameras. Discovering this aspect of the film’s behind-the-scenes is refreshing.

Ultimately, besides the glorious use of retro film techniques, stunning scenery and quality acting and choreography, what I like about the story is that Chazelle and the studio were unafraid to end with some nuanced drama. Hollywood hates unhappy endings and they rarely get green lighted to go into production. Spoiler alert! During Sebastian’s breathtakingly beautiful dream sequence playing the piano at the end of the film, I wished this was his reality. I rooted for Sebastian and Mia only to be disappointed by the outcome. Although their professional dreams come true — Mia becomes a successful actress, Sebastian a popular Jazz club owner — Mia is married to a stiff-in-a-suit and Sebastian ends up managing his club alone.

This film has Oscar written all over it, so it’s unsurprising that Sandgren won Best Cinematography & Chazelle scooped Best Director. There were certainly easier ways to make this movie, but the Oscars recognition is a nod to their commitment to shooting on film and pulling out all the stops to make a beautifully crafted piece of cinema.

Bibliography and further reading:

Shooting La La Land in CinemaScope and on Film!

Celluloid Makes A Comeback: The Resurgence of Shooting on Film Comes To NYU




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David Wells is a Producer, Director/ Cameraman, life-long technologist and the President of Moving Picture Rental, an integrated production services and rental house. Wells started in the film industry as a PA on the hit TV series Miami Vice. Wells has since produced and directed a multitude of music videos, commercials, television productions, and Fortune 500 corporate industrials. Most recently, Wells produced and directed Addy award winning content for Covergirl, PwC, Harley Davidson, and CNN's Heroes.
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