Few things have had as much of an impact on filmmaking as the 16mm format. Initially intended for amateur use, in 1960 the French manufacturer Eclair released their NPR camera, which was ultra-portable and capable of silently running to allow for sound to be recorded. Its impact was so strong that the cinema verite movement emerged, having suddenly been given a camera perfect for documenting reality, and a wide array of smaller productions were provided with a more economically viable medium.
Much of my day-to-day is spent working with modern digital cameras, but as someone who frequently works with and advocates film, I am often asked about the ins-and-outs of working with it: the potential risks, the runtime, the attention to detail, and especially the cost. I also often get asked “What camera should I buy?” As an owner of a 16mm camera, who works with it on a regular basis, I’ve become very familiar with these factors and would like to shed some light on what it takes to get started in working with 16mm!
Regular 16mm is a square frame, at a 1.33:1 ratio, meant to leave room on a print for an optical soundtrack. In the 1970s, cameras began to be converted to Super 16, which meant a wider gate using the entirety of the negative, at a ratio of 1.66:1. It’s often preferable to use Super 16, since most filmmakers today are working in a digital post workflow, and gain more resolution by doing that.
There are two types: sync-sound and MOS. Sync-sound cameras are designed to be quiet, and use a quartz crystal to insure that the film moves through the camera at exactly 24 frames per second, just like a quartz watch might move a second hand. MOS cameras are too loud and tend to run at imprecise speeds for sound recording, although that hasn’t stopped people from trying.
Sync-sound cameras in today’s market will cost between $1500 to $4000, depending on their age and condition. The Arri SR2 and SR3 are a great option, and were considered industry workhorses until only recently. For a more ergonomic camera, the Aaton LTR or XTR cameras were designed for handheld work and are considered more comfortable on the shoulder. Most of these cameras were built in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so upkeep and history should be looked into. I personally own an Arri 416 Plus, which is the most recent model, but the great thing about film is the camera only matters to a point: they’ll all give you the same image if you use the same film stock!
MOS cameras are a bit more rugged, and far more portable. Popular models include the the Arri 16S, Canon Scoopic MS, the Bolex H16 or Rex-V, and the Soviet-built Krasnogorsk-3. All of these can be found for under $1000, and besides the Scoopic, are able to be hand-wound.
Renting some of the more expensive cameras is often a better way to go, at least while learning what you prefer and like best. It’s far easier now than it ever was before – thanks mostly to KitSplit! – and you’ll be less tied down to maintaining the gear, allowing you to focus more energy on the creation process.
If you do decide to buy, while eBay is a great resource for finding cameras, I would personally recommend a place like Visual Products for their options and warranty offered. I bought my camera from a rental house that serviced it regularly, and chose it based on my experiences with it.
Any 35mm-format lenses will work on a 16mm camera, as long as they’re the same mount. Because 16mm was the go-to documentary format for decades, zoom lenses are where this format shines. Lenses include the Zeiss 11-110mm, Angenieux 12-120mm, Canon 8-64mm, Canon 11.5-138mm, and Angenieux 11.5-138mm.
Odds and Ends
You’ll need a light meter. Some cameras might have this feature built-in, but it’s best not to rely on that. You’ll also need a film-changing bag, since loading film requires complete darkness.
16mm film running at 24 FPS will use roughly 36 feet per minute, making the standard 400 foot load run 11 minutes total.
Color-negative film stock is available from Kodak, in both Tungsten balance (200T and 500T) and Daylight balance (50D and 250D). Unlike digital, film takes well to a lot of light and not-so-well to very low light, so it’s best to be conservative withwhat you order. These films will give you about 14 stops of dynamic range.
Black and white films haven’t changed much in recent decades. Kodak offers Double-X, which is a negative film, and Tri-X, which is reversal. Filmmakers looking to experiment with analog editing should look into Tri-X, since you can edit and project straight from what you’ve shot. Orwo offers two films as well, UN54 (400ASA) and N74 (100ASA).
One of the greatest parts of shooting with film is the attention to detail it requires, and the rewarding feeling of seeing something you’ve shot turn out well. Since you can’t see what you’ve shot until after you’ve processed it, pre-planning is essential. I generally prep all of my gear the night before, and if I’m working with an assistant, will work with them in getting everything ready.
Learn to load your mags with dummy film, and practice until you can do it with your eyes closed. This is important, since film can’t be loaded in the light (not even in a darkroom). When you’re done, label each can with the mag and roll number, along with your project name and the type of film being shot. This will help your lab keep track of things later on.
When you’ve composed your shot, take a light meter reading of your subject, set your iris and focus, and roll. That’s really all there is to it.
Once you begin shooting, keep track of how much footage you’ve shot (most cameras have a counter for this ). The worst thing is running out in the middle of an important moment.
After each setup, a quick and easy procedure called “checking the gate” is done to make sure there are no small specs of dust or hair between the shutter and the film plane. It requires moving the lens and inspecting it yourself, and should only take a few seconds.
Several labs in North America still work with film. To name a few: Cinelab, Continental, Colorlab, and Video & Film Solutions all serve the East Coast, while Fotokem and Yale Film & Video are in California.
If you’re looking to transfer to digital, most labs can give you ProRes versions of whatever you have shot. Metropolis is great at doing this. Editing analog requires either shooting reversal, or making a work print and editing on a flatbed – the way it was done before Avid and Premiere took over. For workshops in analog editing, Mono No Aware is a great resource and renowned for their workshops.
Digital cameras have made the price of shooting film seem prohibitive or daunting, but with the right budgeting and planning, it can be done. The current prices from Kodak for color film are $176 for a 400 foot roll. Black and white is roughly $100 from either Kodak or Orwo. It’s often possible to get discounted re-cans and short ends (the stuff other productions purchased but didn’t use) from dealers like Reel Good Film. Kodak is also eager to introduce new filmmakers to their products, and a call to one of their sales people can go a long way.
Assuming we’re shooting color at full price, the price for 11 minutes of footage is about:
-Transfer to digital: $80
The more you shoot, the lower the price-per-foot is, since a lab will often prefer to run more film at once than several small batches over time. These prices also go up if you’re looking into something like a 4K transfer, which would cost about 10 percent more to scan. Discounts are often given to students and indie filmmakers, and it’s usually easiest to call ahead with your budget and see what they can offer you.
For filmmakers who previously have not worked with film, 16mm is a great place to start. The cameras are portable, simple, and intuitive – and thanks to KitSplit, easily attainable. While the filmmaker’s toolbox has never been more diverse, shooting on film remains a very viable and rewarding option. So go pick up a roll and start shooting!