Encinitas grown, San Francisco grizzled, and world-class editor by trade, Dana Shaw uses his filmmaking skills to sustain his lifestyle as a surfer and artist. We sat down with him recently to talk about shooting both still and motion pictures using analog film.
A Nikonos, a 35mm, and a Bolex 16mm film camera are your mediums of choice. When do you find yourself using each film camera and why?
I have a few different analogue cameras and I use them for the scenarios they are suited for. I have a Nikonos V 35mm body that I swim with in the ocean or take on rugged rainy situations on land. the Nikon F2 is my daily driver for street photography and or everything else generally. It’s simple, can be tossed over your shoulder, and it’s a classic journalism work horse. You can shoot from your hip with it by using the view finder just like medium format, I really like that function especially for capturing intimate moments while sitting with a subject. Last fall I inherited a Bolex H16 Rex 4 16mm camera from a longtime friend, Erik Hjermstad. Since then I’ve been brushing back up on shooting 16mm for the first time in a while, and it’s actually the only piece of motion picture camera equipment I own. Typically I buy a lot of old vintage lenses that fit the Nikon still body because I’m going to be exposing it to fucked up conditions like salt water and backyard pools. I like to pull from the $20 bins of camera shops more than break the bank, but I have one really nice Nikon Telephoto that I pulled coin on over at Dexter’s Camera up in Ventura and then I just got a century ultra wide fisheye that I really needed on hand. The fisheye frame reminds me a lot of old skate vids I grew up watching that still keep me motivated to stay after it.
Lately I’ve been working on finishing up a three year photo book project shot entirely on 35mm with the equipment I just mentioned. I’ve been holding this close to my chest because it’s a personally funded project and I’m still in final draft stages but I’m super excited to see it through and am getting very close to being able to share it with everyone. I spent the last three years documenting the people I grew up with skateboarding and surfing with all the way through to some new friends that I really enjoy shooting with. It spans communities from my home town of Encinitas, to Los Angeles, and all along the coast up to San Francisco. I’m titling that book “Evidence Of Shred”. The second thing I have in the works is a full length 16mm film titled “Circles”. Thats what I’ve been running around with the Bolex for and what I’ve been heavily focused on in my downtime between freelance projects. I’m aiming to tell some really great human stories about surfers and skateboarders who embody the spirit and ethos of each of community. I’m interested in what has shaped their perspectives not only in the water or on their boards, but in their lives. At the moment I’m working on getting a solid cast of people on board, getting out to spots and shooting scenes that I know are going to work, and then assembling rough ideas in an assembly edit. I tend to work that way on my own films, both because I have a tight budget and it also helps to know what will work before you roll film. It’s a process but it’s been fun getting in ditches and hunting swells that pop up with my friends. I’m looking forward to seeing how it shapes up over time but for now it’s been really rewarding creatively.
Why film over digital?
I think it’s important to say that the medium is not the most important decision in taking photographs or shooting films; it’s the story. Any type of texture you are choosing to use as an aesthetic which works for your film or portfolio is the right decision. Nowadays we just have a LOT more options and people have so many different opinions. I actually really like blending mediums together in most cases, I think you can motivate and cut back and forth from vivid 4k digital mediums, fucked up DV vibes 16mm formats and use them as storytelling agents. I work with all types of cameras including RED and Alexa or even Sony and they are all appropriate in their own way. “Spoons” was a mixture of digital interviews, archive 8mm, 16mm and freshly shot film we did on our end. The Director, Wyatt Daily, was clear with his direction and he also shot a good amount of those scenes in support of our DP Amado Stachenfeld. Amado is a talented 16mm cinematographer himself and I love getting knowledge from him. With “Given” it was Director Jess Bianchi’s call to roll the realism path and carve out really beautiful sequences with our DP Devin Whetstone on RED cameras with a really polished look. Devin is a total psycho when it comes to cinematography and he’s probably one of the most talented I’ve ever work with. We have done a lot of work together as a team and he’s always dropping clues about what’s next digitally. So overall, It’s a personal choice from project to project with how you select equipment and you treat each film as it’s own texture to establish a vibe you are looking for.
With my own personal projects I like the texture of film and the way it looks, feels and smells. It brings me back to 9th grade photo lab at San Dieguito Academy where we were taught to hand process our own negatives and print them with enlargers in a dark room. It was super challenging and frustrating which made a well exposed and printed image that much more of a unicorn. I remember turning pages of Thrasher magazine seeing the Kodak frames as boarders or watching films like “Feedback” or “The Sixth Sense” by Transworld and getting a small window into an artful perspective in their 16mm montages. All of the photographers and filmmakers I looked up to in surfing & skateboarding shot 35mm, 120mm, and 16mm and that inspired me to learn about the process and start to make my own films. The films I have on repeat at the moment are “The Endless Summer 1”, “Morning of the Earth”, “Streets On Fire”, “Super Sessions”, “Ban this”, “Tent City”, “Litmus”, and “The End”. These are are excellent examples of well made films (in my opinion) and they have been motivating to learn from. The texture of the cinematography differs from film to film and the editing [does] as well, each has its own aesthetic and importance. From early 70’s scenes of MP surfing transition boards in Australia to Andrew Reynolds’ iconic Birdhouse section, this is the stuff that gets me excited to shoot.
There is also a physicality to the process that is defining, I’ve noticed when I shoot celluloid mediums, each frame and take is far more considered. It challenges me to be prepared and knowing what to shoot, and how to make quick decisions and be selective. I’m not going to just shoot everything I see, I’m going be patient and take my time to shoot only what I feel is the most important. That could be waiting to pull out a camera after skaters are warmed up or knowing the interval of a swell and understanding the surf spots you are shooting. Putting time in those areas is important and knowing how a wave will section or when a barking german shepherd will rush you could mean getting the shot or not. The limitation of a 100 foot daylight spool of 16mm or 36 exposures to a roll of 35mm is real, and your approach to using each frame is important. Sometimes you get it, some times you blow it and that’s the best part about the process; it’s the cycles of anticipation and excitement. My favorite part is problem solving on the fly and I’ve actually never been more excited than the times that I’ve totally fucked up with the Bolex. Recently I was shooting some surfing and all of a sudden I heard the film backup in the camera during a shot. I was ten feet into the roll and had to just toss my towel over the camera, snip the film where it was jammed then close it all back up in time for the next set wave to get a shot. It’s a total rush because it’s precious and requires live editing, it’s probably what I imagine a surgeon feels like when they stop the bleeding.
So I guess overall I like shooting film because it has a language of awareness that you develop with your intuition. It keeps me on my toes and reminds me of films I grew up watching that I became inspired by in the first place. Anything from lost Grateful Dead tour reels, archives of filmmakers like Bruce Brown or Gregg Weaver to contemporary Transworld Skateboarding films by Greg Hunt, Jon Holland & Jason Hernandez. Jon was actually the first person I ever saw rolling 16mm and using a VX1000, he was the first guy to break it down for me and I’m thankful. It would be a life goal to create work as great as theirs, especially in the spirit of the mediums they used. That’s the goal; to give back to younger generations and to leave a bit of something for them to run with in the future. When you hold an old reel of 16mm in your hands it feels like it had lived a life and it takes on characteristics of the filmmaker’s history. That’s why film over digital, for me at least.
What makes a Bolex so special? How do you use it?
Just load film, make sure you don’t do that incorrectly, then wind and get shooting. Each take I wind the camera so that it has a steady and consistent tension which makes for a consistent frame rate. You can select between frame rate speed in intervals but typically I’m rolling 24fps or 64fps. The cam is super light depending on your lenses but honestly there really is not any guide how to shoot film besides the standard knowledge of light and aperture. I really dig run and gun hand held moments and shooting with sticks to track. I feel like shooting film is more about the awareness of how you use your resources and film in a shooting ratio. There no question, this is an expensive hobby and to put it in a cost perspective 100 feet of film is 3 min of action shot at 24fps. When shooting 64fps (over cranked slow) you get half of that for a daylight spool. It would be 1.5 minutes of available film. That’s when you really start to burn film and need to pay attention to how many feet you are rolling, so I’m selective when I shoot. It really helps to be the editor and director at the same time because I can see how shots will work in together in the sequence of an edit from my head to the field. That helps me make decisions and pay attention to the ones that work, drop the shots I wasn’t sure about, and move forward to find the martini shot.
What film stocks do you like to use?
With still photography in 35mm I really love to shoot Tri-X 400 black and white. I feel like that is my go to for portraits and street photography when the light is hard and contrasted. The grain is great, and it’s sorta my fave. A majority of the color 35mm that I shoot is expired grab bag hand me downs from friends. We trade film sometimes or have an abundance of it and pass it along to share with others to see how they use it. Earlier last year my friend Mason gave me a giant bag of expired Kodak Gold 400, all in various stages of decay and preservation. I usually reach in and pull out a case then smell it, whichever one smells less like vinegar goes in my cameras. It’s actually what defined the mood of the images I shot over the last year, I love it. Sometimes you don’t get a good one and then sometimes it lines up with a gesture or a flash or a light leak. Besides those stocks, I also really dig Kodak Porta 400 and Fuji Provia 400.
On the bolex I shoot a lot of Kodak 50D, then 250D when for lower light and then if anyone ever wants to hand me expired 16mm I’m super down. I also really love grainy black and white reversal like Tri-X 16mm film. I’ve been shooting skate stuff with Danny Dicola lately, we go hunt ditches and for some reason black and white just works so damn well with that stuff. Recently I got a few solid ones of him and Blake Hansen doing ditch bomb doubles and that was deff a fun roll to scan and watch come in. I feel like you cannot go wrong with black and white reversal film ever, it’s such a classic and does well in a variety of lighting situations. With color reversal, I just wait for the right time of the day and hopefully the waves are working when the light is good enough, that’s been fun to hunt with cats like Kyle Kennelly who surf really beautifully. Finding ways to shoot surfing with film stocks that evoke more than just what progression means in any specific time and trying to find those classic shots that keep us in the water for generations to come.
What are some things people should know about shooting with Nikonos cameras?
If you are a control freak and like to be sure that you got the shot, these cameras would be a test of your patience but a lesson in perspective as well. I’ve not nearly cracked the code on them and I also know that’s sorta what they are all about. Happy accidents, misfired frames, soft tones and odd patterns. Things that we don’t get when we have control are the target. Nikonos cameras range find focus and are not reflex. Which means your viewfinder is a good guess but not actually what your lens is seeing. The photographer sets the boundaries of which the camera is allowed to operate and then the camera makes the call, so it’s sort of a collaborative experience. That’s how I work with directors when I cut films like “Spoons – A Santa Barbara Story” or “Given”, the director and I set creative boundaries to operate within. We consider the look, feel, depth, and tone, and then I run with direction and put my head down to cut a scene. I think that’s why I like shooting with the Nikonos, because it’s like a silent partner who can choose a path and share its ideas with me. Here’s the film stock, here’s the range I’m thinking, that’s the frame I want… what do you think?
Where do you get your 35mm still film processed and scanned? Where do you get your 16mm film developed and telecined?
For 35mm still photography I trust North Coast Photo Services (NCPS), over in South Carlsbad. Bonnie and the troop are really knowledgeable and honestly I just really enjoy talking with them and love that they know the medium soo well. They have developed/scanned many of skateboarding and surfing’s history as well as many other types of photography. I grew up going there and whenever I drive back to Encinitas to visit family and friends, I usually drop off rolls or pick up negatives. Their enhanced scans always turn out beautiful and they are wizards.
With 16mm motion picture film I get all my developing over at Spectra Film & Video in North Hollywood. That’s where pretty much everyone goes if you shoot surfing, skateboarding and even snowboarding. When you walk in they have a whole wall and table of films with noteworthy titles and by really talented filmmakers who they have served as clients. I dig that they are extremely knowledgeable about what they do and that they are open source about sharing information. I get all my developing and sonic clean prep work done there and then I take my reels to Justin Mische over at Origins Archival to scan/telecine to 4k. He’s got a pretty neat archival scanner for 8mm, 16mm, Super 16mm which he used to scan archives for “Spoons”. He got to unearth reels given to us by Bruce Brown that hadn’t been scanned before, so it’s pretty special to be able to scan my work with him there because he nerds out on the best possible way to treat your film and can give you all sorts of RAW or 4K options in digital format. Lately he’s working with surf filmmaker Albert Falzon, they are remastering a 4k un-cropped version of Albi’s 70’s classic, “Morning Of The Earth”. That’s another reason why I like hanging in Justin’s garage, because we get to collaborate with people that we are inspired by and sit and talk history while we scan. It’s like stepping back in time a little and I’m extremely thankful for that kind of exposure and information.
Talking to Albie about shooting “Morning Of The Earth” is such a trip and it’s amazing to sit there and learn that his experience was similar to the ethos we still carry today. It’s just like when I used to work at McGills Skateshop, Mike would usually have a story about him stunt doubling for Christian Slater then he would pull out his stash of “Boneite” prototypes from the late 80’s and talk about the making of “The Search for Animal Chin” and what it was like working with Stacey Peralta when he would come to town and shoot on the chin ramp. Shit like that is priceless and I’m always aiming to learn as much as I can and it’s shops like NCPS, Spectra and Origins that make the experience worth it. It’s important to support the small shops because they are the people who shepherd these crafts from then until now and that is something to consider.
- Sage for the bad vibes
- Surf Fins – 9″ True Ames Greenough 4A + True Ames Lovelace 8.5″
- Knife – Davey Patterson Custom
- Dana’s grandfather’s sketchbooks. These notes are on organic theory from 1983. He wrote code for programs later sold to Apple.
- Yucca Soft Flex Swimfins
- Nikon F2
- Bag of film – Kodak Expired Gold 400 35mm film
- Bolex H16 rex4
- Kodak Tri-X 250 16mm film
- Nikon 70-200mm telephoto
- Nikonos V & 35mm Lens
- Manfrotto 504HD
- Lovelace 7’6 Orange Thick Lizzie & 7’11 Hull bottom surfboard
- Succulents, of course