16 mil – old, but not outdatedPosted: 2014/01/07
TLDR 16 mil has been in use all over the world for nearly 100 years; offers far better image quality than digital; continues to be in use, mainly by artists. As an artistic medium in it’s own right, 16 mil will continue to be available in the future.
16mm film was introduced in 1923 by Eastman Kodak as a less expensive alternative to 35mm, primarily intended for amateurs. The Kodascope library, where people could buy or rent films, and many labs available, further added to its popularity.
As material, acetate was used from the very beginning, a safer material than flammable nitrate, which, for 35 mm films, was only discontinued in 1952. Since around 1970, the nearly indestructable polyester has been in use.
3-tone Kodachrome colour film, a milestone in the history of photography, was introduced in the mid 1930s, even before it became available for photo material. Optical sound was available on 16mm since around 1930, after it was developped by RCA for any film material of that time.
From the early 1930s onwards, 16mm was used for educational purposes, most likely everywhere in the world. Myself, I remember well that in school films were screened regularly, for instance on history, geography, and in language courses. You may have experienced the same, I guess, and despite digitalization, educational 16mm film is still in use today.
Also in rural and remote regions of India For instance, the Majira Wildlife Sancutary in Andhra Pradesh have daily screenings of 16mm films on birds and animals.
During World War 2 and after, 16 mm was used more extensively, by governments, media, business. With the introduction of television in the 1950s, 16 mm experienced a surge in popularity. The lightweight format provided convenience and easy filming on location.
16 mm has always been used for feature films and, later, TV programmes, and still is today, the material nowadays usually being digitalised before editing. Many feature films of the last decades shot on 16 mm material were later blown up onto 35 mm. This was also the case with the first Indian Kodachrome colour film, Ajit, in 1948.
16 mm footage makes it possible to work with a smaller budget or make more of a given budget, for instance by using more than one camera to shoot from various angles simultaneously.
16 mm in India
Film as such has a very long tradition in India. The first film ever by the Lumiere Brothers was screened in Bombay in 1896. Indian film makers and companies started working around 1898. The first Indian feature film was shot in 1912. The first Indian colour feature film is said to be Sairandhiri, which was shot on German bitrack 2tone material and processed in Germany in 1933.
16 mm was used here shortly after its introduction, for feature films, documen-taries, educational and business films. Unfortunately, only a limited number of Indian feature film copies dating from before around 1970 do still exist today in Indian archives. Before that, it was not considered necessary to archive the movies. However, the majority of Indian productions, which were screened in the former Sovjet Union, can still be found in archives there. On the other hand, copies of more recent 16 mm feature films can be found on Ebay and similar platforms.
The National Film Archive in Poona holds a considerable selection of Indian 16mm films from all parts of the country, and also international films, such as a copy of the 1930 German classic The Blue Angel by Josef von Sternberg.
16 mm has always been an excellent medium for Indian and foreign film makers alike to document their exploration of the vast Indian culture all over the country and its unique wildlife.
And not that long ago, some 10 years only, Horilal Vishwakarma, a carpenter from Uttar Pradesh, received funding from the National Innovation Foundation-India for the further development of a light-weight combined 16 and 35 mm projector.
This so-called Petromax projector can be used with a storm lamp, thus making it independent from electricity.
In India, one can still have 16 mm material processed and copies made, although probably not for any material. Students also have the opportunity to work with 16 mm: At the Film and Television Institute in Pune, and also at several art schools all over India, 16mm facilities are available. And still today, you can enter 16 mm films to the National Film Awards in India, as well as many other festivals all over the world.
16mm in art
Analogue film – in any format – is to be considered as an artistic medium in its own right, such as is painting, drawing, or sculpture. Before analogue and digital video techniques were introduced, 16mm was the film format of choice for artists, besides the cheap and basic 8mm and the more expensive and bulky 35mm formats.
Beyond shooting the film, processing and, sometimes, editing, there are a lot of other techniques and methods applied on film material by artists in order to bring moving images onto a screen. Some artists draw on, paint or scratch the material. Some manipulate the chemical process of developping by using, for example, coffee or wine instead of chemicals, with remarkable results in terms of colours and textures.
This artistic approach has a very long tradition, and also in India: In Calcutta, for example, artists made trick and experimental films in the early 1910s already. And there is a tradition of grassroots movements, in which artists work with these techniques with, for example, school children, prisoners or refugees in many countries worldwide.
And while the world is going digital, artists continue to work with analogue film. Some do so, because they prefer working with something tangible instead of manipulating a keyboard and a computer mouse. Or, more importantly, because of the quality: Analogue film can relay far more depth of colour and detail than any digital color space, and any digital projector, or screen. Often, the act of projecting an analogue film in a space is an artistic statement onto itself.
Many festivals worldwide, dedicated to feature, documentary or experimental films, still screen 16 mm. So does the Experimenta Festival for Moving Image Art in Bangalore. In 2013, the program comprised more than 20 mostly short 16 mm films by artists from India, Great Britain, Canada, the US and Japan, created between 1951 and 2013.
Since the introduction of video and digital photography, 16mm has seen several shifts in popularity and availability of material, laboratories, and screening facilities. Today, 16mm is still available from big companies such as Kodak or Agfa, which have also introduced new material and new emulsions. As for laboratories, there have been ups and downs during the last fourty years. Presently, there are probably more labs than in the 1980s, but less then some 15 years ago.
Screening in cinemas is becoming more and more difficult everywhere. In India, as well as in Europe and many other countries, most theatres have switched to digital projection, and abandoned their 16 mm projectors for reasons of space. On the other hand, museums, galleries and alternative spaces have aquired many of these projectors. Besides that, non-commercial networks are thriving world-wide, with new ones being constantly established, where artists cooperate and support each other in working with film material.
Why is Deborah Phillips persisting on screening her films on 16 mm
„Digitized versions of my 16 mm films are akin to photocopies of oil paintings,“ she says.
It would be much easier for her to transport her films on disk, drive or via ftp, screen them in a high quality digital format, or even stream them.
(By the way, she rather speaks of her 16 mm films as „material used for projections or in performances“, in order not to get them mixed up with feature or documentary films, to avoid confusing audiences, who might expect a plot with a beginning and an end.)
A couple of her films are available digitally, though. Mainly to give people an impression of what she’s doing at all, what her style and her technique is, and for festival and award applications. However, she strictly says No! to using digital copies for screenings at events such as the one you are attending today, at festivals or in her performances that include films.
Because a digital copy of a 16mm film, of any film, will never be the same as the original. Digitalising, that is scanning, always results in a reduction of the information originally available. In many cases, we will not notice or it will not matter. In feature films, for instance: Even if the colours seem a little bit strange, if delicate details are gone, there is still the plot, the actors, the music.
That would not be the case with Deborah’s films, and this probably also applies for many other artists. For when viewing one of Deborah’s films in a digital version, no matter how fine the scan was in the first place, no matter how good the resolution and the equipment: All the subtle shades and details, especially in the very dark and very light parts, would be lost, as they cannot be reproduced.
Deborah is, as she often says, on an „analogue djihad“. She insists, that digital technologies should complement, and never fully replace, analogue techniques. Besides quality issues, a further important aspect is the different approach regarding the quantity of material used in analogue and digital film making. When shooting in analogue, one cannot produce hours and hours of footage to select from later, as is often done in digital: A proper concept is essential. That is why she – like many others – thinks that young artists should work with analogue material at least once, and profit from that focussed approach in their digital work, too.
So, hopefully, 16 mil material, processing labs and projectors – such as the one we were using at 1, Shanti Road Studio Gallery in Bangalore, thanks to Shai Heredia – will continue to be available all over the world for present and future artists working with film, students, and film enthusiastic audiences like you.