Columbia alum, film industry professionals continue urging college to bring back celluloid film

By Noah Jennings, Staff Reporter

Ryan Brumback

Months after the college announced the decision to eliminate the instruction of shooting on celluloid film, dozens of industry professionals—including some Hollywood heavyweights led by a Columbia alum—continue to pressure college administrators, asking them to reverse course on the decision.

Columbia alum, director and cinematographer Hannah Welever sent a letter Feb. 10 signed by 68 other industry professionals to a group of Columbia administrators, including President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim, asking them to reverse the decision to eliminate the use of celluloid film, or 16 mm and 35 mm film, in classroom instruction.

Academy Award winning director Martin Scorsese later lent his support to the cause.

The Cinema and Television Arts Department’s decision to eliminate celluloid film from its curriculum was announced in an email to cinematography students on Sept. 14, and faced criticism from students in the department, as reported by the Chronicle on Dec. 14. The decision goes into effect in the Fall 2021 semester.

In the September email, Chair of the CTVA Department Thelma Vickroy stated, “While we understand this changeover may be upsetting to some of our students who still favor shooting on film, it is a necessary change we must face in today’s entertainment industry environment.”

Students and alums created a petition in October 2020 on to convince the CTVA Department to reverse its decision. As of publication, the petition has more than 2,300 signatures.

Months after creating the petition, Welever emailed the Feb. 10 letter signed by dozens of industry professionals to Kim, Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David, Dean of the School of Media Arts Eric Freedman and Vickroy, asking the college to reconsider its decision.

The letter was signed by cinematographers, directors, International Cinematographers Guild (Local 600) members, alongside director Alejandro González Iñárritu and cinematographers Hoyte van Hoytema and Reed Morano, and stated the importance of celluloid film in the industry.

“We believe one cannot truly learn the art or craft of filmmaking until they’ve learned how to shoot on film,” the letter states. “We fully realize the negative impact that the removal of these technologies will have on the future of the college, as well as the industry at large.”

After the Feb. 10 letter had been sent to administrators, Scorsese submitted his digital signature to Welever. An updated version of the letter featuring Scorsese’s signature was shared through the “Film Roundtable” podcast’s Instagram account Feb. 12.

In 2016, Welever spent a day loading 16 mm film into cameras for a project directed by independent film director Joe Swanberg. While she did not get paid to do it, the work led to her getting a job on Swanberg’s Netflix show “Easy.”

“A big part of my career … is because I was able to load 16 mm on a shoot,” Welever said.

Welever, a 2014 cinematography alum, said this is why she wanted to reverse the college’s recent decision to eliminate the instruction of celluloid film.

“If Columbia wants to still be a cut above the rest of these other schools, it needs to consider how [celluloid film] is going to be sewn into the curriculum,” Welever said.

When she heard news of the decision, Welever contacted Allison Anderson, a 2013 cinematography alum, to brainstorm an action plan and get more industry professionals involved.

Anderson said teaching students how to operate celluloid film cameras is an important element in their education because it allows students to make mistakes.

“You can’t get out of school and say, ‘Hey, I can shoot this on film,’ get hired for a job and then make a mistake,” Anderson said. “It’s going to impact you so much more in a professional space than if you just jam a camera at school.”

In a Nov. 30 email to the Chronicle in response to questions for a previous story, Vickroy said eliminating celluloid film and investing in a digital cinematography platform would keep the program “current and relevant.”

Welever said film is not out-of-date, and is still relevant in the industry.

“Film is never going to be obsolete, and new technologies are always going to be obsolete,” Welever said. “Think about a $4,000 laptop you just bought from Apple—that in five years is essentially going to be obsolete. When you buy a brand new, fancy, shiny product, you think that it’s the future. But in time, that goes away.”

Welever also moderated an episode of the podcast “Film Roundtable” on Feb. 12 to discuss Columbia’s decision to eliminate film with several industry professionals.

One of the panelists on the episode was Steve Bellamy, president of Kodak Motion Picture and Entertainment. Bellamy said Columbia would no longer be a film school if it removed celluloid film. Instead, it would be a “file school,” because students would be working with digital files in their classes, rather than film, he said.

“There will be no [lasting] record if we don’t have film,” Bellamy said. “When [schools] make ignorant decisions, it’s simple—don’t go to those schools. Drop out that day, change schools and go to one that does [teach film].”

Maria Prieto, the co-founder of “Film Roundtable” and a professional director, said her college, Chapman University, eliminated celluloid film the year after she graduated, and she witnessed the effect it had on students.

“I remember my cinematography fellows being really saddened when there were certain courses that they couldn’t take because they just didn’t offer those cameras anymore,” Prieto said. “For me having seen that program shut down [firsthand], it’s something that I don’t want to see happen to other students.”

Kim, David, Vickroy and Freedman did not respond to multiple emailed requests for an interview regarding the letter or the college’s decision as of publication time on Friday, Feb. 26.

Prieto said she hopes the letter and discussion lead to Columbia reconsidering its decision, along with schools around the country who have already eliminated celluloid film.

Welever said the story of her career beginning with celluloid film is not unique, and the college’s decision would take those stories away from other students.

“There are so many people who have stories like [mine] from Columbia, because the art doesn’t really go anywhere,” Welever said. “Again, [film] is not going anywhere [in the industry].”