16 mm film

"16 mm" redirects here. For other uses, see 16 mm (disambiguation).

16 mm film is a historically popular and economical gauge of film. 16 mm refers to the width of the film, with other common film gauges including 8 and 35 mm. It is generally used for non-theatrical (e.g., industrial, educational) film making or for low budget motion pictures. It also existed as a popular amateur or home movie making format for several decades, alongside 8 mm film, and later Super 8 film. In 1923, Eastman Kodak released the first 16 mm "outfit" consisting of a camera, projector, tripod, screen and splicer for $335.[1] RCA-Victor introduced a 16 mm sound movie projector in 1932 and developed an optical sound-on-film 16 mm camera, released in 1935.[2]

16 mm sound movie showing a variable width sound track on single perforation film stock


Eastman Kodak introduced 16 mm film in 1923 as a less expensive amateur alternative to 35 mm film. During the 1920s, the format was often referred to as sub-standard by the professional industry.[3]

Kodak hired Willard Beech Cook from his 28 mm Pathescope of America company to create the new 16 mm Kodascope Library. In addition to making home movies, people could buy or rent films from the library, a key selling aspect of the format.

Intended for amateur use, 16 mm film was one of the first formats to use acetate safety film as a film base. Kodak never used nitrate film for the format because of the high flammability of the nitrate base. 35 mm nitrate was discontinued in 1952.

16 mm black and white reversal Silent Home Movie on double perforation film stock

Production evolution

The silent 16 mm format was initially aimed at the home enthusiast, but by the 1930s it had begun to make inroads into the educational market. The addition of optical sound tracks and, most notably, Kodachrome in 1935, gave an enormous boost to the 16 mm market. Used extensively in WW2, there was a huge expansion of 16 mm professional filmmaking in the post-war years. Films for government, business, medical and industrial clients created a large network of 16 mm professional filmmakers and related service industries in the 1950s and 1960s. The advent of television production also enhanced the use of 16 mm film, initially for its advantage of cost and portability over 35 mm. At first used as a news-gathering format, the 16 mm format was also used to create television programming shot outside the confines of the more rigid television studio production sets. The home movie market gradually switched to the even less expensive 8 mm film and Super 8 mm format.

16 mm has been extensively used for television production with light cameras in many countries before portable video cameras appeared. Replacing analog video devices, digital video has made significant inroads in television production use. Nevertheless, 16 mm is still in use in its Super 16 ratio (see below) for low cost productions.

Format standards

Standard 16 mm

The picture taking area of standard 16 mm is 10.26 mm by 7.49 mm, an aspect ratio of 1.37:1, the standard pre-widescreen Academy ratio for 35 mm. The "nominal" picture projection area (per SMPTE RP 20-2003) is 0.380 in by 0.284 in, and the maximum picture projection area (per SMPTE 233-2003) is 0.384 in by 0.286 in, each implying an aspect ratio of 1.34:1. Double-perf 16 mm film, the original format, has a perforation at both sides of every frame line. Single-perf is perforated at one side only, making room for an optical or magnetic soundtrack along the other side.

Super 16 mm

Super 16 and 16 mm film.

The variant called Super 16 mm, Super 16, or 16 mm Type W, developed by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson in 1969,[4] uses single-sprocket film, and takes advantage of the extra room for an expanded picture area of 7.41 mm by 12.52 mm with a wider aspect ratio of 1.67. Super 16 cameras are usually 16 mm cameras that have had the film gate and ground glass in the viewfinder modified for the wider frame. Since Super 16 takes up the space originally reserved for the soundtrack, films shot in this format can be enlarged by optical printing to 35 mm for projection. However, with the recent development of digital intermediate workflows, it is now possible to digitally enlarge to 35 mm with virtually no quality loss (given a high quality digital scan), or alternatively to use high-quality video equipment for the original image capture.

In 2009, German lens manufacturer Vantage introduced a series of anamorphic lenses under its HAWK brand. These provided a 1.3x squeeze factor (as opposed to the standard 2x) specifically for the Super 16 format. These lenses let camera operators use the entire Super 16 frame for 2.35:1 widescreen photography.

Ultra 16 mm

The DIY-crafted Ultra-16 is a variation of Super 16. Cinematographer Frank G. DeMarco is credited with inventing Ultra 16 in 1996 while shooting tests for Darren Aronofsky's Pi.[5] Ultra 16 is created by widening the left and right sides of the gate of a standard 16 mm camera by 0.7 mm to expose part of the vertical area between the perforations. Perforation placement on standard 16 mm film (to the left of the division between frames) accommodates use of this normally unexposed area. The Ultra-16 format, with frame dimensions of 11.66 mm by 6.15 mm, provides a frame size between standard 16 mm and Super 16—while avoiding the expense of converting a 16 mm camera to Super 16, the lens requirements of Super 16 cameras, and image vignetting caused by traditional 16 mm cameras. Thus, standard 16 mm optics achieve a wider image. The image readily converts to NTSC/PAL (1.33 ratio), HDTV (1.78 ratio) and to 35 mm film (1.85 ratio), using either both the full vertical frame or the full width (intersprocket) frame, depending upon application.

Modern usage

The two major suppliers of 16 mm film today are Kodak and Agfa (Fuji closed its film manufacturing facility on 31 December 2012). 16 mm film is used in television, such as for the Hallmark Hall of Fame anthology (it has since been produced in 16:9 high definition) and Friday Night Lights and The O.C. as well as the The Walking Dead in the US. In the UK, the format is exceedingly popular for dramas and commercials. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) played a large part in the development of the format. It worked extensively with Kodak during the 1950s and 1960s to bring 16 mm to a professional level, since the BBC needed cheaper, more portable production solutions while maintaining a higher quality than was offered at the time, when the format was mostly for home display of theatrical shorts, newsreels, and cartoons, documentary capture and display for various purposes (including education), and limited "high end" amateur use. Today the format also is frequently used for student films, while usage in documentary has almost disappeared. With the advent of HDTV, Super 16 film is still used for some productions destined for HD. Some low-budget theatrical features are shot on 16 mm and super 16 mm such as Kevin Smith's 16 mm 1994 independent hit Clerks.

Thanks to advances in film stock and digital technology—specifically digital intermediate (DI)—the format has dramatically improved in picture quality since the 1970s, and is now a revitalized option. Vera Drake, for example, was shot on Super 16 mm film, digitally scanned at a high resolution, edited and color graded, and then printed out onto 35 mm film via a laser film recorder. Because of the digital process, the final 35 mm print quality is good enough to fool some professionals into thinking it was shot on 35 mm.

In Britain most exterior television footage was shot on 16 mm from the 1960s until the 1990s, when the development of more portable television cameras and videotape machines led to video replacing 16 mm in many instances. Many drama shows and documentaries were made entirely on 16 mm, notably Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, The Ascent of Man and Life on Earth. More recently, the advent of widescreen television has led to the use of Super 16. For example, the 2008/09 BBC fantasy drama series Merlin was shot in Super 16.[6]

The BBC considers Super16 a standard definition film format,[7] but other broadcasting and production companies may have different outlook. In particular, Scrubs has been shot on Super16 from the start and is aired either as 4:3 SD (first 7 seasons) or as 16:9 HD (seasons 8 and 9). John Inwood, the cinematographer of the series, believed that footage from his Aaton XTR Prod camera was not only sufficient to air in high definition, it "looked terrific."[8] However, the BBC has recently announced that it would no longer accept 16 mm as an origination format for High Definition video transfer.

The Academy Award winning Leaving Las Vegas (1995) was shot on 16 mm.

The first two seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer were shot on 16 mm and was switched to 35 mm for its later seasons.

The first season of the popular series Sex and the City was shot on 16 mm. Later seasons were shot on 35 mm. All three seasons of Veronica Mars were shot on 16 mm and aired in HD. This Is Spinal Tap, and Christopher Guest's subsequent mockumentary films, are shot in Super 16 mm.

The first three seasons of Stargate SG-1 (bar the season 3 finale and the effects shots) were shot in 16 mm, before switching to 35 mm for later seasons.

The 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, was shot using Aaton Super 16 mm cameras and Fujifilm 16 mm film stocks. The cost savings over 35 mm allowed the production to utilize multiple cameras for many shots, exposing over 1,000,000 feet of film.[9]

British Napoleonic era drama Sharpe (TV series) was shot on Super 16 mm right through to the film Sharpe's Challenge (2006). For the last film in the series, Sharpe's Peril (2008), the producers switched to 35 mm.

Moonrise Kingdom was shot using super 16 mm.

Digital 16 mm

A number of digital cameras approximate the look of the 16 mm format by using 16 mm-sized sensors and taking 16 mm lenses. These cameras include the Ikonoskop A-Cam DII (2008) and the Digital Bolex (2012). The Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera (2013) has a Super 16-sized sensor.


Professional cameras

A 16 mm spring-wound Bolex camera.
A modern 16 mm Arri camera.

Today, the professional industry tends to use 16 mm cameras from Aaton and Arri, most notably the Aaton Xtera, Aaton XTRprod, Arriflex 16SR3, and Arriflex 416. Aaton also released the A-Minima, which is about the size of a video camcorder and is used for specialized filming requiring smaller, more versatile cameras. Photo Sonics have special extremely high speed cameras for 16 mm that film at up to 1,000 frames per second. Panavision has produced the Panaflex 16, nicknamed "Elaine".

Amateur cameras

For amateur, hobbyist, and student use, it is more economical to use older models from Arri, Aaton, Auricon, Beaulieu, Bell and Howell, Bolex, Canon, Cinema Products, Eclair, Keystone, Krasnogorsk, Mitchell, and others.

Film reproduction methods

Most original movie production companies that use film shoot on 35 mm. The 35 mm size must be converted or reduced to 16 mm for 16 mm systems. There are multiple ways of obtaining a 16 mm print from 35 mm. The preferred method is to strike a 16 mm negative from the original 35 mm negative and then make a print from the new 16 mm negative. A 16 mm negative struck from the original 35 mm negative is called an original. A new 16 mm print made from a print with no negative is called a reversal. 16 mm prints can be made from many combinations of size and format, each with a distinct, descriptive name:

Film traders often refer to 16 mm prints by the print's production method, i.e., an original, reversal, dupe down, double dupe, or double dupe down.

Color fading of old film and color recovery

Over time, the cyan, magenta and yellow dyes that form the image in color 16 mm film inevitably fade. The rate of deterioration depends on storage conditions and the film type. In the case of Kodachrome amateur and documentary films and Technicolor IB (imbibition process) color prints, the dyes are so stable and the deterioration so slow that even prints now over 70 years old typically show no obvious problems.

Unfortunately, dyes in the far more common Eastmancolor print film and similar products from other manufacturers are notoriously unstable. Prior to the introduction of a longer-lasting "low fade" type in 1979, Eastmancolor prints routinely suffered from easily seen color shift and fading within ten years. The dyes degrade at different rates, with magenta being the longest-lasting, eventually resulting in a pale reddish image with little if any other color discernible.[10]

In the process of digitizing old color films, even badly faded source material can sometimes be restored to full color through digital techniques that amplify the faded dye colors.

Technical specifications

A strip of single perf 16 mm film with Super 16-sized frames.
A 100-foot tin of 16 mm Fujifilm.
16 mm
Super 16
Ultra 16

See also

Related film genres


  1. Kattelle, Alan (2000). Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979. Transition Publishing. p. 334. ISBN 0-9654497-8-5.
  2. Kattelle, Alan (2000). Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979. Transition Publishing. p. 231. ISBN 0-9654497-8-5.
  3. Eisloeffel, Paul (2013). "16mm Format History" (PDF). Archives Filmworks. Retrieved 2016-11-10.
  4. Rune Ericsson: The Revelation of Ultra 16mm
  5. [probably.imdb.com/name/nm1054979/trivia] (Frank G. DeMarco/trivia)
  6. "Mill TV Taps Baselight to Work Magic for BBC's "Merlin"". Archived from the original on July 18, 2011.
  7. "Television Delivery To Network Programmes" (PDF). United Kingdom: BBC. p. 12.
  8. "A new HD frontier for Scrubs" (PDF). Retrieved November 1, 2009.
  9. "Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd Discusses Oscar Winner The Hurt Locker". Filmmaker Magazine.
  10. "A History of Low Fade Color Print Stocks". In70mm.com. 1963-07-11. Retrieved 2014-05-20.

External links

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