Well few things...
First off, if you're just starting out with film, I suggest buying a still camera and learning how to shoot and expose properly. The cameras are cheap, the film is cheap, the processing/printing ain't bad either. Once you understand the basics, then you can move on to shooting on motion picture film. A camera will run you $100 dollars, stock is around $12 and processing for that 36 exposure roll can be upwards of $50 with prints.
Second, I wouldn't worry about how things were done in the past because frankly, you're going to use the modern workflow. Yes I agree with Adrian, I would acquire an inexpensive 16mm camera like a Bolex and an inexpensive 16mm projector like a Kodak Pageant (easy to find, expensive and bullet proof). Then I'd go out with a simple mechanical light meter and your camera to shoot some film. Process and strike a print from what you make and then project it.
The cost to get setup with this equipment would be = $600 - $1000 for the camera, $250 - $400 for a working projector and $80 for a light meter. Film for that camera is around .38/ft (foot), processing is around .18/ft and making a print is around .50/ft, transferring to video is around .50/ft. With 16mm, it takes around 36ft to = one minute of run time. So you can do the math and figure out how much the price of admission would cost. Remember the camera I suggest takes 100ft rolls of film, so that's around 2.5 minutes of run time. This is also "retail" pricing, if you're a student you can get lower pricing for sure.
So today, nearly everyone does a "digital" finish. Original camera negative is transferred through a telecine, which is a film transport movement that slides the film across a video camera at real time speed (many are actually Kodak CCD driven funny enough) and frame samples are taken of each frame as it goes by. Those frames are converted into digital data and either sent to an external recorder or today, stored as digital files, usually a format called DPX first, then transcoded into a format more suitable for client playback (Pro Res, DNX, etc). These machines give a perfectly decent quality capture of your film for editing purposes. Once the film is edited, generally films will then be scanned, which is much slower process that creates complete RGB profiles of each frame. This allows the colorist to manipulate the image much more in post then the image coming off a telecine. It also delivers higher quality image because generally the modern imagers have higher dynamic range and resolution then a telecine would. It's quite common for 35mm features to be scanned at 6k and finished at 4k for example.
Here is a quick workflow breakdown of the film process:
- Original Camera Negative (OCN) is shot on set and delivered to lab with set audio
- Film is processed and prepped/cleaned for telecine
- Film is transferred via telecine and automatically synched with audio using the timecode slate
- Dailies are sent to the post production house for editing
- In some cases, one light prints are struck from OCN for viewing purposes. This is quite common for Christopher Nolan movies.
( This process will happen the same way until the film has finished post production. Generally film is sent once a day because labs don't process 24/hrs a day anymore like they did in the past)
The next process is different for digital post and film post.
- The OCN will be conformed/cut using keycode numbers on the edge of the film, to match the digital edit of the movie.
- Any visual effects shots will be lasered back to film and inserted into the cut negative of each reel.
- A print will be struck from the cut OCN to insure it matches the digital edit.
- The cut OCN will then be scanned into the computer for the digital releases.
- The OCN print (answer print) will then be screened and minor color changes made to it. These changes are written onto ticker tape which is fed into printer.
- The OCN will be threaded up along with interpositive stock and a colored IP will be made. This will be the (protection) element for the camera negative as it's only one generation removed.
- The IP will be threaded up with the soundtrack elements and an internegative will be made with those elements. These (IN's) will be used to strike theatrical prints from.
- Prints are struck and shipped to theaters on 20min rolls and then re-assembled at theaters onto a platter for continuous playback.
In some cases, the original camera negative will be used to strike limited release prints as well. With films like Dunkirk, all of the 5 perf 70mm prints were struck from the original camera negative. Since there aren't so many 70mm prints being made, generally 70mm prints are made from the OCN.
- The select finished shots from the OCN will be scanned.
- The EDL (AAF/OMF) will be put into the coloring software and everything will be re-linked to the newly scanned media.
- The film will be colored, visual effects added and the finished audio will be added to the output.
- A DCP (digital cinema package) will be made and sent out to theaters
Until January 2014, movies were then lasered back out to 35mm film for theatrical runs. After January 2014, the currently entirely digital outside of the very rare releases who still have prints made for theaters who haven't converted to digital yet. There are only a hand full of movies each year printed to film sadly and that list gets smaller every year.