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The Florida Project director, Sean Baker, urges other filmmakers to shoot and preserve on film

  • January 15, 2018

“So beautiful, heart-breaking and unassumingly masterful – from beginning to end – The Florida Project is undoubtedly one of the best movies of 2017.” So reads the review in Australia’s Herald Sun about director Sean Baker’s sixth movie.

Shot on KODAK 35mm film, the $3M production premiered to critical acclaim at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. It was rapidly snapped up by distributor A24 before going on wider release in October 2017, steadily accruing an abundance of similarly rapturous reviews across the world, as well as a mounting string of awards.

What has moved the critics so much is how The Florida Project delivers a vivid and empathetic look at an underrepresented portion of the US population – providing an absorbing viewing experience, while simultaneously raising sobering questions about social welfare in modern-day America.

The plot follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) who lives in the Magic Castle Motel, located nearby Disney World, Florida, with her rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite). Moonee spends most of her day unsupervised, hanging out with other motel-resident kids, including Jancey, who lives at the Futureland Motel next door. The mischievous Moonee engages in pranks at other motels, scrounges from tourists at the local ice cream parlor, and even accidentally burns down a deserted condo, while her unemployable mother engages in various petty schemes to make ends meet. Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of the Magic Castle Motel, keeps an avuncular eye over the residents. But when Halley invites unregistered guests to her motel room to perform personal services, even he cannot prevent Child Protective Services from intervening. When Moonee realizes she will be taken from her mother, she runs away with Jancey to hide in the throngs in front of Cinderella’s Castle in the nearby Disney resort.

In a deliberately ironic twist, the title of the film is derived from the early project name for that resort, when Walt Disney first developed his “community of tomorrow” ideals for the Sunshine State.

Production on The Florida Project was conducted over 35 days at the vividly-painted Magic Castle Motel in Kissimmee, located a short distance from Disney World along on Route 192. Filming on 35mm in widescreen Anamorphic was supervised by cinematographer Alexis Zabe.

Baker says the idea for the film was brought to his attention by his co-screenwriter Chris Bergoch. “Chris had become aware of these motels being the last refuge of families who cannot find permanent housing. He brought the situation to my attention via a series of news articles based on the same juxtaposition that we focussed on in the film – of children growing up in motels, just outside of the most magical and happiest place on earth for children.

“So, we took a trip there to see who was enthusiastic to tell us their story – not just motel residents but also motel workers and managers, small business owners and even the agencies that provide social services to those in need. We got a lot of information and quickly realized there was quite an opportunity to make an updated version of Hal Roach’s The Little Rascals (1922-44, aka Our Gang). Set against the poverty of The Great Depression in the U.S., they focussed on the comical adventures of black and white children interacting as equals and the joy of childhood. We felt we could use the recession of 2008, and the impact it had on families and children in the Kissimmee area, to make a modern-day version of those stories.”

So why did Baker elect to shoot this poignant tale on film, and in vivid color? “I am an advocate of all mediums, but there is something about 35mm, and celluloid in general, that you really cannot achieve with digital, no matter what anybody says – and that is the organic quality of the imagery. Something happens in the photochemical process that is literally unachievable in digital, regardless of what filters you might want to put on the footage. I wanted a super-colorful filmic aesthetic for The Florida Project. I wanted the audience to be immersed in, to live and breathe, the real world and the real lives along Route 192, and that was best achieved on film.

“Also, over the years, I have seen a lot photographs, of children in difficult circumstances. There was always something different about the pictures shot on film, and I wanted to get a feeling of a photo book into the movie. So, I also needed that the look of film in this respect too.

On a practical level, film, by its nature, brings with it a rhythm and a pace during production. I really like the discipline and controlled approach you have on set when shooting on film.”

With this in mind, Baker’s DP Zabe selected a trio of film stocks for the production – KODAK VISION3 50D Color Negative Film 5203 for exteriors, VISION3 250D Color Negative Film 5207 for day interiors and cloudy afternoons, and VISION3 500T Color Negative Film 5219 for night interiors. The action was captured though classic Panavision E-series Anamorphics, with particular use of a macro 55mm for the close-ups on the characters.

“The 50D and 250D have lovely grain structure, but it’s not overbearing,” Baker said. “They both have a special, subtle something, with lovely rich colors, that elevate the picture in a special way, that you just cannot get from digital. All of which helped to put the story on a platform like no other.”

Baker shot the movie’s final scene in Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in clandestine guerrilla-style, using an iPhone, without the resort's knowledge or consent. Baker insisted that this sequence was shot back to film and rescanned for post-production. “When we did an A/B comparison of the original footage versus the film-out, there was a distinct and very positive difference in the film-out footage. [It] gave us that elevated look.”

The impact of The Florida Project and other movies within Baker’s oeuvre, including Prince of Broadway (2008), and Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015), has been such that he has been invited by the Library Of Congress to preserve his features on celluloid for posterity.

“I have shot four of my six films digitally, and I can’t begin to tell you the headache it has been of ensuring these are being preserved correctly in digital format,” he says. “The uncertainty of relying on LTO tapes and making sure hard drives are spinning is a real pain in the butt. I totally believe and support Christopher Nolan when he talks about film for preservation purposes. When it comes down to it, a 35mm print or negative guarantees your film will exist perfectly for several hundred years.”

What does Baker make of the swell of applause and appreciation of The Florida Project? “Every time we show the film, the response has been wonderful,” he said. “It’s very important for the U.S. Federal Government not to make cuts to the Department of Housing & Urban Development and to assist those agencies producing essential services to those in need.”

And his thoughts on shooting The Florida Project on film? “People say thank you for reminding us what 35mm looks like too. It is so clearly film that’s up there on the big screen, and it’s enjoyable to watch.”

Within this, though, Baker puts out a clarion call to other filmmakers. “We live at a time when there is a real threat to celluloid. It is the responsibility of filmmakers, who cherish the medium of film, to support it. Film created the wonderful art form that we call cinema, and we should not let that go just because something else comes around that people perceive as cheaper and faster, when it really is not. I had the means to do my part in helping to keep the medium of film alive, and I feel proud to have done that.”