All about... 16mm
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All about... 16mm

Jan 30, 2024

1923 was the year the bitter, brutal Irish civil war ended. That same year, Pancho Villa was assassinated, Calvin Coolidge entered the White House following his predecessor's sudden death, and a bedridden Lenin stepped back from heading the Soviet state. It was in 1923 that the future George VI married the future Queen Mother, and it was 1923 that saw Wembley Stadium first opened to the public to host that year's FA Cup. But it was also that year, attracting less loud attention, that a significant media technology event occurred. An event that would prove at least as consequential for the world as these headline-grabbing occasions. It was in 1923 that Eastman Kodak launched 16mm film upon an unsuspecting world.

16mm film would go on to have a profound effect on the screen, and on society. In deep ways, it both predicted and influenced the moving image as we all experience it today in virtually every part of our lives.

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16mm is what we call a film ‘gauge’. Other gauges include 35mm, 70mm and 8mm. As the name suggests, it is a type of analogue film, 16mm in width, containing sequential still images that appear to move when projected.

By 1923, despite early experiments with wider formats, 35mm had long been the near-universal spec for professional film production. If we think of 16mm, then, as a new piece of software, what's culturally significant about its smaller size is what it meant for the hardware that runs it. 16mm cameras and projectors were, compared to 35mm, smaller, more flexible, more mobile – and like the film stock itself, they were cheaper both to buy and to operate. Those factors allowed both the cameras (and therefore filmmaking) and the projectors (and therefore film distribution and access) to penetrate more deeply into the world than ever before. Among other things, this was a profoundly democratisting development.

Indeed, Kodak initially had the home market in mind and it was because of 16mm that amateur filmmaking took off worldwide, a significant thing in itself. But it became the medium of choice for far more fields than just home movie-making – it became essential to such diverse screen practices as experimental artist filmmaking, ethnographic filmmaking, medical and scientific films shot in the lab, guerrilla activist filmmaking shot in the streets. This is to name just a few examples, and many of these things were virtually impossible to do, at scale, without 16mm.

The gauge also came to be crucial to many areas of mainstream production, especially on TV. Britain plays a key role here because the BBC worked closely with Kodak to help perfect the technology for widespread use by broadcasters across the globe. In the UK alone, thousands upon thousands of hours of footage, in many genres and ranging from prestige series – Brideshead Revisited (1981) and David Attenborough's first big natural history series Life on Earth (1979) are two high-profile examples – to all the exterior scenes in humble sitcoms, were shot on 16mm through the postwar decades. It remained the default choice for much outdoors shooting until the 1990s.

16mm was particularly crucial for non-fiction genres. The ease with which 16mm cameras could go on location, could be held by hand, could move around uninterrupted, and could, equally crucially, come easily to record sound and picture together, enabled entire documentary movements – such as cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema – but also countless numbers of everyday documentaries. The observational (or ‘fly-on-the-wall’) documentary so familiar to us is now almost always born-digital, but it was unimaginable before 16mm imagined it and actualised it.

For similar reasons, 16mm revolutionised news-gathering and current affairs reportage. To give an example of just one major post-war event, the Vietnam war saw many 16mm camera operators on the ground: their extensive coverage not only documented the conflict but also influenced the public impression and therefore the course of that war, by bringing it into the world's living rooms. Such scale, benefiting from such a sense of immediacy, would have been impossible without 16mm technology.

But if there's a strong case for 16mm as a production format having changed our relationship with the world we live in, that's only half the argument for its importance. The other half is about 16mm as a distribution format: not what the camera could do, but what the projector could, often when teamed up with a portable screen.

Suddenly, film was no longer confined to cinemas or other dedicated screening venues. That didn't just change where, when and how film was seen but also what films were made and for what purposes. From the 1930s, especially, a world of media possibilities opened up as it became understood that film could now be shown in classrooms, to teach their viewers; in political rallies, to persuade or inspire them; in work canteens or boardrooms to train them; in film societies hiring classics from libraries of world cinema; in village halls, clubs, churches, union meetings, charity fundraisers, trade fairs, art exhibitions. Thousands of films were made for screening in such venues, entire film industry sectors were devoted to making them and distributing them.

The 1947 film embedded below, an explanation of the workings of the government's Central Film Library, which distributed 16mm prints (of films usually made on 35mm) across the UK is a great gateway to that universe. On the one hand, it's a civil service primer on everything you ever wanted to know about 16mm film libraries but were afraid to ask; on the other it's a moving glimpse of a pre-television civic world of which film, thanks to 16mm distribution, was very much a part:

In the middle decades of the last century this so-called non-theatrical circuit was a whole world, a vast ‘third space’ of screens beyond the cinema and the TV set. That space eventually largely died away, in the 1980s. But now it's back, and it's called the internet.

The web is of course wholly digital, but it was analogue 16mm that laid the groundwork for so many of the things that digital film does online and for how deeply the moving image has come to suffuse our lives, to some extent even defining modern life itself. Film can now be anything – whether it's to teach, to persuade, to experiment, to train or to entertain. And, just as importantly, it can go anywhere, it can be shown and consumed wherever it needs to be seen (at least, as long as the wi-fi holds up).

That's our 21st century, but its first draft was written in the 20th. And 16mm was the killer app.

– Patrick Russell, senior curator of non-fiction film

A hundred years after the advent of 16mm, it's still a viable and living format, both in production and projection. At BFI Southbank, we still regularly screen 16mm prints to our audiences, and we hold many thousands of 16mm film prints in the BFI National Archive. 16mm is perhaps seen as lower quality than 35mm and 70mm, but it has its own unique aesthetic and as an organisation we are committed to maintaining our ability to screen 16mm for the foreseeable future.

Many audiences’ experiences of seeing 16mm projected would be via portable 16mm projectors, and there still many of these in service across the arts sector, used in classrooms, lecture theatres, cinemas and art galleries. However, at BFI Southbank we have permanently installed 16mm projectors with large – for 16mm – Xenon lamphouses, and, unusually, in theatres NFT1 and NFT2 we have dual projectors for 16mm, which means we are able to project rare, uncut prints from archives and collectors.

In these theatres we are also able to screen the widest possible range of 16mm prints, including prints with separate magnetic soundtracks and 16mm scope using anamorphic lenses. We like there to be no checks for our programmers on what they are able put on screen. At the BFI, artists’ film is by far the most common type of 16mm screening, both recent and archive films, followed by TV prints and occasional classic features.

16mm projection also comes with a wide range of challenges: the reduced size of the print compared to 35mm increases the fragility of the celluloid, and dirt and scratches are more noticeable in projection. This can be reduced through careful film handling and regular maintenance, but 16mm prints are more prone to damage through use. The smaller frame size also makes it harder to achieve deep focus, and, particularly with permanently installed projectors, competition for projection booth floor space means that 16mm projectors are often installed to one side causing issues with geometry and keystone. As with all film projection, 16mm projectors are effectively obsolete, posing challenges in finding spares. However, the projectors are built to last and options such as 3D printing might offer a path to replacing easily damaged plastic elements such as gate runners and skates.

The robustness of the equipment and the popularity of the format and its unique aesthetic should ensure that 16mm screenings will be a small yet important part of the BFI's future programme.

– Dominic Simmons, head of technical services

16mm film is technically different from 35mm film in several unique ways, not least of which is obviously the smaller gauge. Despite being introduced in 1923 when nitrate stocks were still readily available, it has also only ever been produced on a safety (acetate, polyester etc) base. No nitrate 16mm has ever been produced.

There are also key differences in the ways 16mm and 35mm are printed and projected. 35mm film is always double perforation, with a set of perforations on either side of the film to allow sprocketed transit through a camera or projector. It is projected emulsion (printed) side to lamp and upside down, which is corrected via lens and mirror within the projector.

In contrast, 16mm can be much more diverse, with both double and single perforation versions readily available. It can either be read through the emulsion side (DIN) or base side (SMPTE) on any positive (in other words, projectable) print.

Double perforation prints tend to be silent, whereas single perforation prints leave room for a printed optical or magnetic soundtrack. Unlike 35mm, where any soundtrack is printed in line with the perforations, 16mm tracks lie adjacent, reducing the need for any projector modifications to produce sound.

16mm also has standard and ‘Super’ variations, which is indicative of the aspect ratio it can produce. Standard 16mm has an aspect ratio of 1:37:1, whereas Super 16 has an aspect ratio of 1:66:1.

35mm also has myriad available aspect ratios, but can still be projected on any 35mm projector with an adjustable gate. Standard 16mm can only be played on a standard 16mm projector, and Super 16mm can only be projected on a Super 16mm machine, unless the projector has been modified to accommodate.

In terms of preservation and access, due to its sole production on safety stock there are less stringent regulations regarding storage, access and projection of 16mm. Indeed, it is often referred to as the home-movie lovers’ format because of this.

At the BFI, 16mm access materials (in other words, stuff that regularly gets accessed for viewings, research, festivals etc) are kept in a temperature-controlled environment of between 10 to 12°C, with a relative humidity (RH) of 35%, which is the same storage conditions as for 35mm safety access material.

For long-term deep storage, 16mm can sit happily at -5°C with a 35% RH alongside 35mm film, as long as it doesn't have a magnetic sound track. Mag tracks don't survive being stored at this temperature so they are stored long-term at our access environmental control levels, with the same rule applying to any 35mm mag track material. You can find out more about our vaults and how we store film in our article on nitrate film.

– Louise Allum, image quality specialist, BFI conservation team

The BFI Reuben Library at BFI Southbank holds a wide range of books related to the technology of 16mm and films shot on the format.

Filming with 16mm, Denys Davis, 791.45-7

Instructions for Filming, Robert Bateman, 791.45-7

16mm Sound Motion Pictures, William H. Offenhauser, 791.45-7

The Complete Book of Amateur Film Making, Philip Grosset, 791.45-7

Clerks & Chasing Amy, Kevin Smith, 791.451.9 CLE

Leaving Las Vegas, Mike Figgis, 791.451.9 LEA

The Squid and the Whale: the shooting script, Noel Baumbach, 791.451.9 SQU

Rebel without a crew, includes script of El mariachi, Robert Rodriguez, 791.458 MAR

Studying The Hurt Locker, Terence McSweeney, 791.487 HUR

GB catalogue of 16mm. entertainment films 1948-49, GB Division, Pamphlet, 778.55-7

Dimensional standards for 16mm. motion picture film and equipment, adopted Nov 1934, Society of Motion Picture Engineers, 778.45-7

How to make good movies; a non-technical handbook for those considering the ownership of an amateur movie camera, Eastman Kodak Company, 791.45-7

Explore the 16mm selection at the BFI Film on Film Festival, which runs 8 to 11 June 2023.

The smouldering screen: Kevin Brownlow on the lustre of nitrate

All about... nitrate film

By Bryony Dixon, Louise Allum and others

10 great films shot in 70mm

By Matthew Thrift

10 great modern films shot in Academy ratio

By Leigh Singer

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