The Ins and Outs of Short Ends

So you’ve scraped together a few extra dollars to shoot film, but you’re still a bit tight on cash and somebody says, “Buy short ends!” Now, you’ve heard about them but aren’t sure you want to buy somebody else’s leftovers. Well, here’s the scoop on short ends, it’s film that was bought by a production that never got used and to make some money it is being sold. It comes in four types; short ends, long ends, re-cans and buy-backs.

Before we get into the details on these different categories you should first know where to buy short ends. My recommendation is to buy from a reputable dealer in short ends and new film. There are many companies that sell short ends like; Dr. Rawstock, Media Distributors and Short Endz, to name a few. (I do not work for these companies, but have had good dealings with them.) The advantage to going with an established company is they test the film they sell before it goes out the door. If you buy from somebody you don’t know or somebody off eBay, you don’t know if the film has been tested. For all your know it could have spent two long summer months baking in the trunk of some production assistant who now wants to make some beer money by selling some leftover film. Now, I’m not saying that all the film on eBay is bad film, but by going with a company that does this everyday who lives by their long term reputation, you’ll most likely get good film stock.

SHORT ENDS

Here’s where you save the big bucks, but there are always drawbacks to going the cheap route. Short ends are usually 250 feet and under. They are the cheapest of short ends because they plentiful, but there’s less to them. On 16mm that’s about seven minutes of film which isn’t that bad, but on 35mm that’s three minutes which after a color chart, head slate and regular slate isn’t a lot of film. If you go with a lot of short ends on 35mm, you better have a couple loaders ready load mags constantly. They can be had for under twenty cents a foot. I once picked up some for six cents a foot.

I should add this, 16mm short ends are hard to come by because 16mm is the staple of indie filmmakers who tend to not buy more film than they need and use every inch of their film. 35mm is much more plentiful because studios and medium sized companies dump a lot of film on the market after principal photography has wrapped.

LONG ENDS

Long ends aren’t all that different than short ends except they are usually over 300 feet and in 35mm can be up to 980 feet. They are more expensive because they are more rare and have longer running time, thus saving time by having less mag changes. I like them, especially when shooting 35mm. These long loads are usually film that had been loaded and had a color chart and head slate shot on it, but never made it on set. They can run .25 cents a foot and up.

RE-CANS

Re-cans are one of my favorites because they are usually full loads that were put in the camera, but never exposed a frame except maybe for a foot or so for threading up. It’s almost like buying new film. They can run high 20 cents a foot and up.

BUY-BACKS

These babies are rare and aren’t discounted a lot, but can save you a few pennies here and there. Buy-backs are film that was bought and never got out of the can. Often it’s the last batch of film ordered for a big picture or sometimes somebody gets excited and buys a batch of film, but then never gets anymore money to make the move, so they are forced to call Kodak or Fuji saying they need to return the film. Usually the manufacturers say tough luck, but sometimes if it’s less than 48 hours or a long time client they buy it back for a few dollars less than it was sold for in the first place. I shot a large part of feature with buy-backs with good results. Expect to pay 10-20% off standard rates.

Under buybacks I put just barely out of date film. Again, this is rare because the manufacturers don’t usually let film expire, but it does happen. When you start your search for film, you could call Kodak or Fuji directly and see of they have out of date film laying around.

An advantage of buy-backs is they will most likely come from the same emulsion batch which will make your cinematographer happy because they’ll be less variation in the stock. I should say, that isn’t that much of a problem today because the film manufacturing process is very consistent.

CLOSING POINTS

If you decide to try for short ends you should start buying them as soon as possible because assembling enough film, especially for feature, will take some time. You never want to run out of film or be forced to pay through the nose for film at the last minute. (But if you do, Kodak does offer a last minute film ordering service, but you better be ready to break out the gold VISA card.)

I have shot two features on 35mm with lots of short ends and one short on 16mm with primarily short ends, all with good results. On each of the features we did have one incident on each film even when dealing with reputable dealers. One time we had one roll that turned out to be two rolls that had been badly masking taped together in the middle. My guess is some tired loader was spooling up some film and didn’t even notice that he had one roll attach to another. The other incident was a mislabeled can and this is where having a good, heads up assistant camera person on crew can save you. My 1st AC noticed that the bit of film that was hanging out of a film magazine wasn’t the right color. Yes, unexposed film stocks of different ASA rating have different colors. Some are lighter in color and others are darker. My AC caught this, told me and I saw the problem. We put that roll aside.

If you do find a problem, contact the company that sold it to you ASAP and let them know. Most of the time they’ll replace the film immediately. Heck, sometimes if you gripe enough, you might get an extra roll or two.

The big thing to remember is short ends are a great way to save a few bucks, but if there is any questions about the film you’re using, don’t cheap out because in most occasions it will be more costly to assemble all of the crew, cast, locations and gear than the few dollars you saved with questionable short ends. Saying that, I’ve used short ends with great results and have helped the production values on some movies by upping the shooting ratio or getting a “name” actor in the cast with the savings. Final words of advice: do your research, have good assistant camera folks and start buying film early.

Scott Spears is an Emmy Award winning Director of Photography with 14 features under his belt. He’s also written several feature screenplays, some of which have been made into movies. You can learn more about him at www.scottspears.net