What I Learned Shooting My First Feature Film on 35mm

Published on in Advice / Tips & Tricks

By Director, AR Hilton

In 2015, I started production on my first feature film, ANONYMOUS KILLERS. Shooting on 35mm was very important to me because the quality of film makes for a more natural, grainy look than filters applied to digital. I found that this choice also made me a much more disciplined filmmaker. During each stage of filming, a filmmaker must make difficult decisions. Shooting on 35mm added to these challenges, but the end effect was worth it! 

Here’s what I learned during Development, Pre-Production, Production, Post Production, and the Film Festival and Distribution phases: 

Development: Build a filmmaking family you trust 

Making a movie is difficult, especially if it is your first feature. Room for mistakes is limited to nonexistent, so when deciding how to make your story come to life 35mm is not a usual first choice. With all the cool tools that are available, it’s easier to find yourself gravitating towards digital. Before starting the process of filming anything, one of the main things I realized was that having people around you that trust your decision making is key. The moment I found people willing to support my vision, wanting to shoot on 35mm became a more attainable goal. During development discussions, we decided to move forward with 35mm film, and built the movie around that decision. 

Pre-Production: Creating a solid plan

Most people will tell you that pre-production is over 60% of making your film. When using 35mm, I feel this percentage is even higher. Using actual film means that any mistakes on set can be very costly, and for this reason creating a good pre-pro plan is extremely valuable. There is an almost exhaustive list of decisions to be made and discussions to be had to make sure you limit the number of possible mistakes that can happen. That said, even with the best pre-production in the world, you still want to leave room for some errors! They’re just bound to happen.

Production: Checking the gate

Once you get into Production, that feeling of making magic happen with your friends becomes real … and when you’re using 35mm film, you better make sure your friends know what they are doing. In the indie film world there is no money for top of the line tools -- even in our case, where we got lucky and had a grant from Panavision --  there was still a lot we didn’t have. Playback was one of the main things we were missing, and one of the areas which proved it was super important that I had a team I could trust. Our DP Bob Nguyen was the one looking through the lens, and his word became everything. As a team, we made sure we did everything we could do to check our work and ensure our success rate was as high as it could be.

Post-Production: Digitizing the dream

Outside of dailies, Post Production is the first time you see things really come together. 35mm creates a beautiful film grain unlike anything on digital, or any filters applied or fabricated in post. This is the phase where you really see if the people you trusted were worth trusting. Your movie is coming together --  but you still might need to make that list of pickup shots which are crucial to finishing your film. With 35mm you can’t just pick up a camera and drive around to grab those shots, and the deals you had before on film stock and other equipment might no longer be there. But believe you me, the nostalgia you feel looking at your existing footage will keep you going and asking for more.

Distribution: Seeing your premiere!!

Finishing your independent film is not something that is easy -- and finishing an independent film on 35mm makes you feel like you did the unthinkable. For myself and my team, having a film that was shot the way we did was a blessing in the end. People were intrigued by the fact we tried and finished a film that was shot on actual film. And that extends outside of film festivals; distribution companies really liked the idea as well. We were very fortunate to have multiple offers on the table, and were accepted to a dozen film festivals all over the world.

Shooting my film on 35mm was an enriching learning experience for me as a first-time filmmaker on so many levels. ANONYMOUS KILLERS was such an ambitious project for a first time filmmaker. I had to cut away so much from the original script to realistically get anyone to entertain making it, and we still walked away with a very ambitious project for a first-time independent filmmaker. My Producer Timothy Gagliardo would say, “They say as a first-time filmmaker don’t have a lot of locations; no animals, no kids, and special effects in your film if you want to successfully get it made.” --  and we had them all in ANONYMOUS KILLERS. Adding in shooting on 35mm definitely shortened my learning curve. Tim said he’d have my first film looking like my third, and he delivered. 

I’m proud to have shot my first feature film on 35mm, in essence, paying homage to the films I’d grown up watching as a kid. I’m immensely proud of that. Thank you, Panavision.


A.R. Hilton is an entrepreneur, author, and filmmaker who lets his work unfold much in the same way he sees life, unexpectedly. Driven by his past but not beholden to it, he creates work that evokes the paradox of his upbringing in Mount Vernon, New York which led to over 18 years in Federal and State prisons. With his first feature, Anonymous Killers, debuting at AFM in 2019, Hilton broke into the market with a culturally and morally charged entertainment vehicle. Anonymous Killers will be available on-demand in October 2020. 

ProductionHUB ProductionHUB Logo

Related Blog Posts
A Filmmaker's Guide to Navigating Their First Project
A Filmmaker's Guide to Navigating Their First Project
Independent filmmaking is a great way for first-time filmmakers to dip their toes in the water and learn the ins and outs of movie-making without the resources that come with studios and higher budgets. While making a film, even on a lower budget, takes a lot of time and effort, anyone can do it with the right dedication and preparation.
Published on Monday, November 13, 2023
Behind the Scenes of Starting a Film Agency: Key Steps and Insights
Behind the Scenes of Starting a Film Agency: Key Steps and Insights
Do you have aspirations to launch your own film production company? Whether you're an established industry professional or a beginner with a love of the cinematic arts, this article will guide you through the important steps, considerations, and insights required to launch a fruitful film agency. We'll give you useful information and direction for starting this exciting endeavor, from identifying your niche and assembling a great team to navigating the nuances of film production and distribution. Let's explore the process of establishing a film agency from the inside out and learn how to make your vision a reality.
Published on Wednesday, November 8, 2023
How To Start a Video Production Company [In 12 Steps]
How To Start a Video Production Company [In 12 Steps]
In the ever-evolving world of media, video content has cemented its place as a powerful storytelling medium. Whether it’s for advertising, educational content, or entertainment, the demand for high-quality video production is undeniable. For the aspiring entrepreneur, this presents an exciting opportunity to venture into the video production business. In this comprehensive guide, we provide you with a 12-step process to start, operate, and thrive in the video production industry.
Published on Tuesday, November 7, 2023


There are no comments on this blog post.

You must be logged in to leave a comment.