How come 16mm?

Technically-oriented discussion of classic films on everything from 35mm to Blu-Ray
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gkoch

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How come 16mm?

PostWed Jun 04, 2008 6:20 am

While sitting in the dark at one of the hotel-bound film fests I got to wondering when and why so much originally 35mm film wound up on 16mm?

Was it mostly for TV?

Thanks in advance to those with any answers.
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silentfilm

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 7:16 am

There are several reasons:

    When the home fomat first came around in the late 1920s, 16mm became more popular than 9.5mm (except in Europe). Many early Kodascope films remain from the 1920s through the 1940s.

    Film distributors like Blackhawk, Thunderbird, Griggs-Moviedrome and Niles had a booming business selling 16mm and 8mm and Super 8mm films to collectors in the 1960s and 1970s. This was before video tapes, so if you wanted to screen a film in your house, 8mm and 16mm were your only option. David Shepard has used the Blackhawk collection for many of his DVD releases.

    Colleges and libraries bought many 16mm prints in the 1960s and 1970s for classes, film series, and for general rental.

    Local programming for TV stations was 16mm films up until the early 1980s. Movie packages were sold to stations, who showed old films in the afternoon, early morning and late at night. There are many, many prints of all kinds of TV shows like I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone,Star Trek, M*A*S*H, and The Odd Couple on the collector's market. Although I usually collect silent films and 1930s films, I just bought a beautiful low-fade color 16mm print of a Mary Tyler Moore episode last week.
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Mike Gebert

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 7:39 am

Or to back up even further, 16mm was made by splitting 35mm in half (yes, I know that's not mathematically exact), and 8mm by splitting 16mm in half. So when it came time to introduce a sub-professional format, those sizes were easy to produce.

The need for a sub-professional format was driven by lots of things-- the desire of what would come to be called "non-theatrical" markets (everything from schools to churches to prisons) for movies, a small amateur market for home movies, and so on. A film in 16mm takes up one quarter the film stock of the same film in 35mm, thus making it more affordable to produce (and ship) for these outlets, and also preserving a quality distinction between your best customers, the theatrical 35mm houses, and everybody else.

So yes, mostly for TV if you're talking about films from about 1933 to 1960. Others, including silents, tended to be for the collector market, which by definition consisted of the only people who cared about that stuff at a certain point.
Last edited by Mike Gebert on Wed Jun 04, 2008 7:40 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Peter Kalm

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 7:40 am

There are other reasons as well. Since early movies were all on nitrate film 16mm was much safer to handle and reduction prints on 16mm were often shown in schools, church halls, community centres, etc. There were many tragic accidents involving nitrate film and safety film elininated the possibility if this kind of thing happening. Also, since 16mm was much lighter, it was easier to transport to remote locations. Many isolated islands and mining and farming communities had only horse, plane and water access and 16mm was easier to take to these locations. As a result, only 16mm reduction prints of many films have survived when the original 35mm versions are long gone.
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deverett

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 2:24 pm

Let's not forget cost, as some of the early individuals like John Hampton were downsizing rare 35mm material simply because it was most cost efficient for him to have the 16mm printing material than the 35mm. We have an ongoing preservation project at UCLA of slowly enlarging many of his old 16mm prints back up to 35mm.
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radiotelefonia

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 5:30 pm

My friend, the late Roberto Di Chiara, had tons of films of 16mm including ones that he himself had transferred from 35mm prints to preserve them.

Television stations, before the introduction of video tape (which took place in 1964), either used kinescopes but for television series they filmed the shows in 16mm.

He used to tell me that when video tape was introduced that was a catastrophe.

16mm films were abandoned by television stations in Buenos Aires around 1985.
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gjohnson

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PostWed Jun 04, 2008 10:32 pm

I was aware of most items mentioned here except when Bruce said that local tv stations broadcast old movies in 16mm. I guess I just never thought of it. It guess it would of been quite cumbersome to ship 35mm copies all around the country.

deverett wrote:Let's not forget cost, as some of the early individuals like John Hampton were downsizing rare 35mm material simply because it was most cost efficient for him to have the 16mm printing material than the 35mm. We have an ongoing preservation project at UCLA of slowly enlarging many of his old 16mm prints back up to 35mm.


Would the image quality be lost at all from enlarging something that was previously shrunk?

GJ
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Jim Reid

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16mm Prints

PostThu Jun 05, 2008 5:15 am

radiotelefonia wrote:Television stations, before the introduction of video tape (which took place in 1964), either used kinescopes but for television series they filmed the shows in 16mm.


With a few exceptions, the studios shot tv shows in 35mm but made 16mm prints for local station syndication.
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Jay Salsberg

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PostThu Jun 05, 2008 12:39 pm

From the very beginning, the industry knew that a format for non-theatrical (i.e. school, home & institutional) distribution could not be manufactured on nitrate. It was simply too dangerous to put nitrate film in the hands of people who didn't know how to work with it safely. Although 17.5mm would certainly have been easier to manufacture, it was felt that such a gauge would encourage unscrupulous film manufacturers to simply slice 35mm nitrate in half. A new safety stock was created for non-professional use; 16mm was chosen as the gauge because it could not be cut down from 35mm (well, without completely reperforating the film, that is). 16mm has never been manufactured on nitrate.
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radiotelefonia

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Re: 16mm Prints

PostThu Jun 05, 2008 5:04 pm

Jim Reid wrote:
radiotelefonia wrote:Television stations, before the introduction of video tape (which took place in 1964), either used kinescopes but for television series they filmed the shows in 16mm.


With a few exceptions, the studios shot tv shows in 35mm but made 16mm prints for local station syndication.


I was speaking about Argentina. The shows were all filmed in 16mm, with very static camerawork (two cameras).
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Jack Theakston

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PostFri Jun 06, 2008 4:19 pm

35mm was used on television in the large market areas, mainly LA and NY. It was also far more popular in Europe, as well.
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Ray Faiola

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PostSun Jun 08, 2008 1:04 pm

Military use of 16mm was huge during the 40's. There were several exchanges in the States (including Brooklyn) and overseas. All the studios participated. In 1946, MGM led the way for the studios in foreign distribution of 16mm prints, primarily to war-torn countries where it was far more feasible for small towns to install 16mm equipment.
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Richard P. May

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PostMon Jun 09, 2008 8:59 am

16mm was used extensively for TV broadcast use until around 1990. When Turner Entertainment was in full operation, our distribution facility had around 25,000 prints on hand of the MGM, pre-1950 WB, and RKO films. Prints were inspected on return, and lots of big boxes came and went every day.
After tape took over, many of these prints went to George Eastman House, UCLA Film Archives, and a few other institutions.
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gjohnson

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PostMon Jun 09, 2008 8:56 pm

Are you saying that now with the video tape era that Turner Entertainment only has to be at half operation?

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Richard P. May

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PostTue Jun 10, 2008 8:58 am

Turner Broadcasting merged with Warner Bros. in 1996, and TEC went away at that time. It is now just history.
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Rodney

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PostMon Jul 28, 2008 8:45 am

gjohnson wrote:I was aware of most items mentioned here except when Bruce said that local tv stations broadcast old movies in 16mm. I guess I just never thought of it. It guess it would of been quite cumbersome to ship 35mm copies all around the country.

deverett wrote:Let's not forget cost, as some of the early individuals like John Hampton were downsizing rare 35mm material simply because it was most cost efficient for him to have the 16mm printing material than the 35mm. We have an ongoing preservation project at UCLA of slowly enlarging many of his old 16mm prints back up to 35mm.


Would the image quality be lost at all from enlarging something that was previously shrunk?

GJ


This can be beneficial if your 16mm print is considered "archival" -- that is, it's a rare print that can't be sent out to be shown publicly. Any time you copy film, you lose detail, just from the nature of copying. You can make a 16mm copy for screening, and you'll lose a certain amount of detail. Or you can make a 35mm blow-up of it, and because you're copying it to a higher "resolution" medium, you lose less detail, so the 35mm copy looks better than a 16mm copy. Neither looks quite as good as the original. The recent 35mm print of BEGGARS OF LIFE was made in this fashion, and it looks better than any 16mm print I've ever seen; though that also has to do with the fact that it's several generations closer to the original.

I'm not a projection expert, but I would guess that there's also the factor that 35mm projection equipment tends to be better quality than 16mm projection equipment, and you can pour more light through a larger piece of film, so in a large theater, a 35mm print may have more advantages.
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Penfold

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PostMon Jul 28, 2008 11:16 am

Another aspect is that decades ago cash-strapped archives would duplicate 35mm prints on to 16mm to save money....or preserve more at the same cost, which is how they saw it.....an example of course is the 16mm dupe of the nitrate 35mm print of Metropolis, now causing such a fuss.
I could use some digital restoration myself...

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