Blackmagic cintel moon garden

Independent feature film ‘Moon Garden’ is a fantasy shot on 35mm film with looks created using an array of old school filmmaking tricks from stop motion, puppeteering, time lapse photography, miniatures to extend wide shots and cloud tanks to create the nighttime skylines.

Written and directed by Ryan Stevens Harris, and produced by John Elfers, it follows the visions of a young girl who is submerged in a coma and, with the help of magical creatures, journeys through an industrial wonderland to find her way back to consciousness.

The film was transferred using the Blackmagic Design Cintel Scanner, and finished in post production using DaVinci Resolve Studio software.

Expired Film Stocks

John Elfers gathered a huge collection of expired film stocks for production, ranging from the primary stock Kodak 5212 (100T) to discontinued 800T. Meanwhile, cinematographer Wolfgang Meyer planned to shoot on several different film cameras.

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The goal for the filmmakers was to create a unique look and style for the fantasy film. “It was always the idea to create a world that seemed as if it were exhumed from the earth or repurposed,” said Director Ryan Stevens Harris. “‘Moon Garden’ was always meant to feel out of its time, as if an old dusty film reel were found in an attic somewhere, wound up on a projector, and rediscovered. One of the central themes of the film is whether broken things can truly be fixed, so to assemble the world out of crumbling machinery felt right.”

For John, the choice to shoot on film was also driven by a desire to take advantage of film’s unique look and feel. “Every time we’ve shot on film, we get the footage back and it looks exceptionally better than it did in reality,” he said. “Film has a way of binding everything together, glossing over imperfections, and elevating the imagery.”

Critical Hurdle

Though the team had the tools for production, and a style they were passionate to pursue, the final step was film scanning. “What made everything possible, is that our business partner Ken Locsmandi of Filmworks/FX had invested in the Blackmagic Cintel Scanner, removing one of the most expensive hurdles to shooting film,” said John. “I trained on the scanner, and after that, we had all the resources we needed for our own 35mm workflow.”

Since ‘Moon Garden’ used a multiple film cameras to achieve its look, managing the transfer process required a system like the Cintel Scanner. “Visually, it was a very ambitious film, both creatively and technically,” said Ryan. “To achieve many of the in-camera tricks and various shots, we used 12 different 35mm cameras, including two, three and four perf systems.”

Prior to the availability of the scanner, the complexity and potential cost of the transfers would have been a concern. “One of the biggest advantages of the Cintel is the ease of switching between perf formats,” John said. “With other telecine brands, if you wanted to switch between perf formats you had to physically change the gate in the scanner. With the Cintel, it can be changed by clicking a button. Labs usually separate each reel according to the perf format, which can triple costs when you shoot mixed footage. We saved a huge amount by being able to mix formats on the same rolls.”

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Colour Shifts and Film Grain

Scanning directly into DaVinci Resolve Studio added further features that helped manage the varying image quality due to the aged film stock. “Part of the aesthetic of ‘Moon Garden’ was shooting on expired film, which has organic colour shifts over time,” said John. “While we leaned into the look of heavy film grain, the footage still needed to cut together.

“Sometimes one roll would skew magenta, another green and so on, but the scanner’s Auto Black tool, where it analyzes the space between frames, and automatically adjusts the image to put the film base of the signal at the Dmin value (the minimum scanned signal value) of 95 for negative or, for print, to set the white point to 90%. That was a lifesaver, bringing the footage almost back to normal, while maintaining the vintage look.”

Ryan, a DaVinci Resolve colourist, also graded ‘Moon Garden’. “From the heavy grain to the organic film colour shifts, the colour process was intensive,” he said. “I initially did an extensive base grade, pulling all the various film stocks back into their correct ranges, and rebalancing some of the more extreme and damaged film stocks. From there I was able to use windows and trackers to isolate particular swathes of colour, the deep reds or midnight blues, to make sure they truly popped. After my grade, I handed the Resolve project off to Elliot Smith, a Los Angeles based colourist I've worked with before, who did his own pass, accentuating choices and honing in on the overall look.”

Clean Up

DaVinci Resolve Studio’s tools, from scratch removal to denoise, proved invaluable. “One of my favourite tools that I only began using on ‘Moon Garden’ is the curves tool, specifically for bending the hues,” Ryan said. “I would bend back magenta into red or down into midnight blue in a natural organic way, essentially ‘piping’ the colour so that only specific colours were allowed.

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“I would then bring the entire spectrum in an earlier node up toward the bent colour shift, which would result in a dense deep richness in the image, bringing out the rust and deep reds of the set. I really fell in love with this dense look that Resolve was able to bring out of our expired film stock.”

Some of the more damaged stocks revealed such heavy grain that the footage could turn quite murky. Resolve’s noise reduction was able to bring back some footage that otherwise seemed unusable. Fusion Effects was also used to clean up gate frames that would creep in. Ryan said, “We then did a careful dust busting pass to clean up unwanted film dirt or effects, particularly scratches, though many of these issues we opted to leave in as they contributed to the overall look of the film. Time and time again, Resolve proved itself to be robust and reliable.”

‘Moon Garden’, produced by Fire Trial Films, is being distributed theatrically by Oscilloscope Laboratories, and is available on Apple TV, Amazon and most other streaming platforms.