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Celebrating 100 years of 16mm - despite its flaws

The Bolex H16 16mm camera - eBay is full of them if you fancy experimenting
4 minute read
The Bolex H16 16mm camera - eBay is full of them if you fancy experimenting

Roland Denning on 16mm: the amateur format, first launched by Kodak in 1923, that became a big part of many people's professional lives and still persists to this day.

This year is the 100th anniversary of 16mm. For all of us working in film and TV, it’s always been around, still just hanging on by a thread even more precariously than 35mm. It’s a Cinderella format desperate for attention or perhaps the rowdy, younger sibling of 35mm, never quite achieving the status of its elder sibling. It‘s been a companion and foe for most of my working life.

16mm was launched in 1923 by Kodak as an amateur format, and it maintained that role through the first half of the 20th century. By the end of the 1950s, 8mm had become the dominant medium for home movies and 16mm moved on to become the format for more serious enthusiasts. Many were introduced to 16mm by the ubiquitous and versatile wind-up Bolex H16, a camera that started the careers of many animators. 

It was in the late 1960s that 16mm really came into its own. Without the relatively lightweight and quiet 16mm cameras like the ARRI16BL, Éclair NPR, and the CP16, shoulder-mounted and equipped with a long-range zoom lens, the observational documentary movement could never have happened, and it is with documentaries that 16mm will always be associated.

In the UK, 16mm became not only the format for news and documentary but the standard for TV single-camera drama. 16mm was also used for exteriors and fight sequences for multi-camera video shows - something that, even as a kid, seemed very weird (when Dr Who went outside the building, why did it look like he was travelling into the past? And why did it go all flickery when there was a fight?).

While the USA shot its TV dramas on 35mm, British TV stuck with 16mm. In the days of standard definition, this didn’t seem a problem, but, looking back at some of those shows now (for example, the original 1990 BBC production of House Of Cards), the grain and general softness is all too apparent.

16mm becomes Super

Like 2-perf Techniscope, which stacked two widescreen frames above each other in the space of one 4-perf standard 35mm frame, Super 16 was a valiant attempt to use filmstock more economically. In 1969 Swedish DoP Rune Ericson realised that a 1.85:1 frame on 35mm stock was very wasteful. If you expanded a 16mm frame widthways into the sprocket area where the soundtrack would be, you’d have a wide frame (1.69:1), getting close to the size of that cropped 1.85 frame on 35mm.  Super 16 was never a projection medium (where would the soundtrack go?), it was always intended to be blown up to 35mm. Unlike Techniscope, you could make use of lightweight, portable and cheaper 16mm equipment.

With improvements in lenses and filmstock (deep depth-of-field then was seen as an asset rather than a drawback), the format became sophisticated enough for features without much sense of compromise. The first notable cinema film shot on Super 16 was The Draughtman’s Contract, followed by many more in the subsequent decades including Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Black Swan, Carol, Moonrise Kingdom, Beasts of The Southern Wild, The Last King of Scotland and The Hurt Locker.  The TV series The Walking Dead is, as far as I know, still shot on it.        

Super 16 gained a new lease of life as a television format when TV began to move to 16:9 and HD (16:9 happened a little before HDTV in the UK, but that’s another story). The Super 16 frame is not quite as wide as 16:9 or 1.85:1, so DoPs still had that area top of frame that you had to keep mics out of, even though it would probably never be seen. Ironically, although 16:9 might have given Super 16 a new lease of life on TV, HD was its death knell when the BBC declared it was not up to scratch for high definition - a decision later rescinded in 2013 following a campaign by directors. But, by then, it was too late. More thoughts about Super 16 here.

Those clattering Bell & Howells

There’s another crucial aspect of 16mm that should not be forgotten: for many generations, 16mm was what we watched at school and university.  Many were introduced to the wider world of movies not at the cinema but at the local or college film society. Through those clattering Bell & Howells we were introduced to Bergman, Fellini and Orson Welles.

It was via 16mm that movies were screened on ships, oil rigs and in prisons. It was even how in-flight movies started in the 1960s (to be replaced by Super 8mm in the 80s and then video projection in the following decade).

As in production, 16mm was mooted as a cost-saving replacement for 35mm.

I once managed a small 16mm arts cinema. High-powered Xenon projectors with spools big enough to hold an entire feature made this viable. In principle. In practice, 16mm prints are very vulnerable and would often arrive horribly scratched. Our Fumeo projector was intolerant of joins and would respond by adding a few more breaks. The quality of prints was very variable: sub-titled prints were the worse as they were usually fuzzy reductions from 35mm release prints. 16mm optical sound was always poor – about the same standard as a 78 RPM gramophone record. 16mm is disappointing for exhibition.

Despite all that, it's still with us

Against the odds, 16mm still struggles on today. If you yearn for the grain of film, 16mm has got it in spades. Some filmmakers adore it for all its flaws, others just because it has a slightly different texture to 35mm. It’s cheaper than 35mm, but not by much. There’s a very limited number of film labs available now, and 400’ of 16mm – that’s about ten minutes – could cost you over £300 to buy, develop and scan. That’s something like an additional £2K per hour of footage compared to shooting digital. 

But a well-balanced, 16mm camera sitting on your shoulder with a manual zoom lens feels a lot different to shooting digital.  Film makes you work in a certain way; the stuff going through the gate is precious, and there’s a lot you can’t fix or change in post. That camera is also a hand-built machine that has evolved over decades of filmmaking. It’s a tool with a personality, and for some that’s important. If you want to play around with it, get hold of a Bolex H16 (there’s plenty around) and discover the joys and sorrows for yourself.

Tags: Production 16mm