Darren Aronofsky on the Challenges of Shooting ‘mother!’ on 16mm Film
While mother! has elicited some very strong reactions from audiences and critics alike, something that seems to have gotten a little lost in the conversation is the craftsmanship on display in the allegorical drama. Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is no slouch, and he approached mother! with a very strong yet challenging point of view, opting to shoot the entire movie in 16mm on in a practical house with limited space. That’s tough in and of itself, but as Aronofsky explained to Collider’s own Steve Weintraub at the Toronto International Film Festival, the troubles only grew once he hit post-production.
But the payoff was absolutely worth it, resulting in a rich, textured aesthetic that reflects the Mother Nature allegory playing on the screen. Aronofsky explained that his decision to shoot in 16mm had a lot to do with that specific feel:
“We used an Arri, 16mm film stock. It was really a huge challenge to shoot 16, which is a shame. It’s just getting more and more difficult to shoot film. My editor was puling his hair out saying, ‘You can’t shoot film anymore’ because there’s basically one lab in the United States that basically develops 16mm and it’s very hard to work with, but it’s so beautiful. When [cinematographer] Matty [Libatique] was telling me I was like, ‘It kind of looks like a perfectly made crust of a tiramisu.’ It just felt like slightly roasted butter (laughs). You just don’t get that aesthetic from these incredible video cameras that kind of make everything look the same.”
Once the film entered the lengthy post-production period, however, Aronofsky ran into issues that were not easily solved because of a lack of celluloid experts working today:
“Post[-production] results of shooting 16mm were very complicated because technically we just ran into many, many, many problems, because there’s just not that many people who understand how to work with film still working. A lot of them are retired and it’s all digital everywhere, so finding people who can figure out problems and tracking down how to solve them was very complicated.”
Of course 16mm is a bit more of an obscure format as opposed to something like 35mm, which Steven Spielberg still works on, but Aronofsky revealed that even Christopher Nolan—a champion of celluloid IMAX, specifically—ran into issues on Dunkirk with his own photography:
“Even talking to Chris Nolan about Dunkirk, they ran into these weird flicker problems that they had that took them a while to figure out [how] to solve. I don’t know who they brought in but I’m sure they brought in some of the old school people to try and figure out what was happening, because just not that many people are doing it. Technically it’s more complicated to shoot film now than it is to shoot digital when it used to be the other way around (laughs).”
Again, obviously the payoff was worth the challenge, but Aronofsky brings up a good point here—the move to digital didn’t just limit the choices, it also made troubleshooting issues with film photography difficult because jobs developing and editing celluloid film disappeared. It’s a shame, especially given how rich celluloid film features like mother!, Dunkirk, and Baby Driver looked just this year, and one hopes these filmmakers pushing to use this format more and more can keep it alive.
For more on mother! peruse our links below, and look for our full interview with Aronofsky on Collider soon.