Copyright 2017 by William Karl Thomas

In this day of overindulgence, there's one thing you can supersize without adding to your budget or your waistline. If you work with cine film, the film stock you're paying for could be improved in both format and resolution at no extra cost for the film, based on your initial choice of cine camera, or your willingness to invest in modifying your existing camera.

You probably know there are three principal film formats or gauges: 35mm professional, 16mm semi-professional, and 8mm amateur. There are supersized versions of these three formats, and there have been feature wide screen movies produced in all of these super formats. They offer a higher resolution at a lower cost. Briefly, here is the history and evolution of these three formats.

The original silent 35mm movie frame had an image area of 24mm wide by 18mm high. In 1932, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the guys who hand out Oscars every year, established the 'Academy frame,' a revised image format of 21mm wide by 15.2mm high, in order to accommodate the new optical sound track that ran beside the image area. Originally, optical sound tracks were recorded on the film in the camera in real time, a technique called 'sound on film.' With the advent of analog reel to reel tape recording in the late 1940's, superior and more manipulable sound could be recorded on separate equipment and synched to an optical sound track in post production, a system called 'double system sound.' Past that point, most 35mm camera manufacturers continued to use the Academy frame which allowed for 'contact printing' of the image, even though the optical audio track would be added in the final post production stages. But there was the option of using the camera's full 18mmx24mm frame for optimal image resolution, and using optical printing to downsize the image and combine the optical sound track in final post production stages. Camera manufacturers were slow to return to the original 18mmx24mm 'silent' frame, but many cinematographers modified their cameras to the silent frame and called it 'Super 35mm.' The reality is that, regardless of which camera format is used, final optical printing will determine what wide screen format, such as a 1.85:1 ratio or a 'squeezed' anamorphic print, would be used in the release prints. Machine shops catering to the industry can modify most 35mm camera film gates to Super 35mm, and, for perfectionist cinematographers, re-orient the lens mount of their Super 35 converted cameras to provide the 2mm offset of lens mounts designed for the Academy frame.

In 1923, 16mm double perf film was introduced by Kodak as a less expensive alternative to 35mm. It was originally intended to provide low cost film prints of entertainment films for sale to the public. It quickly evolved into an amateur format for home movies and, eventually, a low budget alternative for professionals working in industrial, educational, and the growing field of movie theater 'newsreels' and later television news programming. The image area of double perf 16mm film is 10.26mm wide by7.49mm high, an aspect ratio of 1.37:1. To add optical sound to 16mm, there was not enough image area to borrow space for a sound track, so the perforations on one side were sacrificed to provide space for it, creating 'single perf film.' 35mm cine film has never had single perf because its size and weight are too vulnerable to become unbalanced in continuous motion. 16mm single perf film was intended for optical sound prints and camera film to be used in cameras which incorporate optical sound recorders for 'sound on film' operation. For cinematographers who did not want to use the heavier 'sound on film' cameras and whose projects were designed to add sound in post production, single perf film provided the option to expand the image area of their camera's film gate to exploit the added area intended for the sound track. This provided an image area of 12.52mm wide by 7.41mm high and an aspect ratio of 1.67:1 with improved image resolution, a format known as 'Super 16.' This format came into existence in the 1960's and camera manufacturers offered both formats thereafter, although many earlier cameras have been converted to Super 16, some even with re-oriented lens mounts.

Regular 8mm film was introduced in 1932, nine years after 16mm was introduced and during The Great Depression when economy was a major issue. It was intended as an amateur home movie format from the start, and improved manufacturing technology made equipment, film stock, and laboratory costs low enough for widespread use. The format was exactly one half the width of 16mm, the vertical spacing exactly one half that of 16mm, and it utilized the same size sprocket hole, only twice as many of them. The camera film was on 25' spools of 'double 8,' which simplified processing equipment that handled both 16mm and regular 8mm formats on the same sprockets, then split the finished 'double 8' into single 8mm spliced together on a 50' reel. Regular 8mm image area is 4.8mm wide by 3.5mm high. In 1965, Kodak introduced Super 8mm film with the image area enlarged to 5.69mm wide by 4.22mm high, the sprocket hole reduced in size and centered on the side of the frame instead of on the side between frames, and the single 50' spool of 8mm width film side by side with the takeup spool in a light tight easy to load 'Instamatic' cartridge.

Vintage Media is a website that offers cine cameras, projectors, and editing equipment in 'Super' formats, and other equipment that can be modified for Super formats. They will advise you about the modification and use of equipment they sell, and refer customers to modification shops and film, lab, and other providers catering to Super formats. For those who chose to work in film mediums for quality and archival reasons, Super formats maximize your wide screen image quality, as well as provide the most bang for your buck. It's better than supersizing your Big Mac, and less fattening.


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