16mm cine film has matured like a fine wine over the last hundred years. The film’s life began as substandard: a reel marketed as cheap and, consequently, heavily judged by professionals. Yet, 16mm grew to become one of the most popular formats on television. And, now the reel is a deliberate art choice by directors, with films like Carol (2015) winning cinematography awards because of the reel’s soft and grainy appearance.
Entering The Market
Initially, Eastman-Kodak released 16mm in 1923 as a cheaper alternative to 35mm film. Alongside their new Kodak-Cine camera, the company advertised 16mm for amateur filmmakers. But 16mm was far too expensive for any amateur to pick up and use a camera. To put it in perspective, the Kodak-Cine camera, 16mm film, and tripod totalled $335 - equivalent to buying a second-hand car today.
Then came the problem that low-budget filmmakers did not want to use the film because the moving image industry had snubbed 16mm as substandard. Since Kodak designed the reel to be cheaper, it had a smaller frame size than 35mm, which caused the image to look grainier when enlarged on the big screen. As a result, the poorer image quality was unacceptable to show in cinemas.
Don’t Underestimate 16mm’s Purpose!
However, 16mm film did have its advantages! The smaller frame size meant the reel was much lighter to carry, and the Kodak-Cine camera was small enough to portably carry on your shoulder. Consumers could now document life outside of a static film studio.
Next came the added benefit that the film printed in positive. As a result, amateur filmmakers could develop their reels in fewer steps since they didn’t have to convert the negative to a positive. Once developed, the smaller size and fewer perforations made the reel much easier to mount onto a projector and opened a new opportunity for nontheatrical places to show films.
Most importantly, the 16mm was safe for anyone to use. One of the major flaws with the original 35mm film was that it was made with nitrate. A highly flammable base that could cause the film to combust if overheated or decomposition had started. In contrast, Kodak produced 16mm with acetate, commonly known as “safety film” because of its non-combustible plastic. It was the first time a non-flammable cine reel had been produced that was safe for amateurs to use and project outside of a theatre.
Thanks to 16mm’s lightweight design and non-combustible film, the Kodak-Cine camera was often used in daylight. An option that was never viable for the hefty and dangerous 35mm film had now become possible. Subsequently, many home filmmakers opted to film in natural light and documented the world outside their houses.
A Shift In Marketing
Within a few years, Eastman-Kodak learned that the 16mm film would benefit education and business purposes more than amateur filmmakers. The choice was partly to do with the motion picture’s anxiety about 16mm undercutting the industry with cheaper stock. But also because George Eastman (the founder of Kodak) was a keen advocate for education, and he frequently donated to schools. He founded the Eastman Teaching Films in 1928 to distribute 16mm education films.
Kodak’s change in marketing became more apparent after they released the 8mm film (an even cheaper and smaller film) in 1932. Consequently, 16mm became a tool for nontheatrical, professional work such as mass communication, public services, propaganda and the military. Much of 16mm’s success relied on the military’s love of its more portable, adaptable, and cheaper format to document World War Two.
During the War, American soldiers enjoyed watching 16mm short information films created to boost morale and counter battle fatigue. Soldiers often called these screenings “two-hour furlough” because it gave them a break from fighting. Even though these films were propaganda, mass-produced and distributed by the government to educate civilians.
Ironically, Disney became one of the key providers for these films. Due to the company’s financial crisis, Disney turned to make short propaganda cartoons. They used their infamous characters to educate adults on lessons like paying income tax or recycling kitchen fats. Disney printed the cartoons on 16mm to cut costs for distributing the cartoons across the country. Also, since 16mm was easier to mount on projectors, the cartoons could be shown in public spaces like town halls, schools and hospitals.
From A Propaganda Prop To Television’s Standard
Following the War, television production turned to 16mm film for recording scenes outside of the studio. In particular, documentary series and newsreels would choose to use the film because of how light the camera was.
By the end of the 1960s, the BBC became an influential player in developing 16mm for television. The British television company were desperate for a cheaper alternative to 35mm. So they worked with Kodak to create a higher quality 16mm film. Thankfully, their prayers were answered by the release of Super 16mm in 1969. The film gauge in Super 16mm was slightly larger, reducing the graininess when the images were expanded on a larger screen.
The End For 16mm?
The introduction of digital meant that 16mm could be scanned in high definition. BBC used Super 16mm to film shows like Doc Martin, Doctor Who and Merlin. Whilst in America, a few famous shows used 16mm like The O.C., Friday Night Lights and most recently, Scrubs.
Finally, low-budget indie film directors now purposefully use 16mm because of its softer appearance. Most notably, Wes Anderson filmed Moonrise Kingdom with 16mm. Critics also celebrated Carol and Black Swan for the grainy and darker appearance created by 16mm.