The History of 16 MM Film and the Arriflex 16 S Camera

April 10, 2009

The New York Film Academy offers students an excellent opportunity to work with 16mm Film and the Arriflex S & SR 16 mm cameras.  Shooting on film has many inherent advantages, including the organic look, its unparalleled exposure latitude, natural color reproduction, and long term archivability.  Arriflex cameras are among the best in the world, and NYFA gives its students the instruction they need to join the ranks of legendary filmmakers who have made landmark films by looking through the Arri viewfinder!

The Arri company was founded in Munich in 1917 by August Arnold and Robert Richter, who began their career working as cameramen on over 100 films.  Arri introduced the Arriflex ST in 1952, it was the first professional 16mm movie camera with a reflex viewing system; the camera was a hit, selling over 20,000 units! The Arriflex SR was introduced in 1982 and was the first professional 16 mm camera to feature symmetrical construction and a swing-over viewfinder, enabling incredibly flexible operation.  In 1982, the Arnold and Richter were presented with an Oscar in recognition of their life’s work.

The silent 16 mm film format was initially aimed at the home filmmaker, but by the 1930s it had begun to be popular for professional use in the educational market. The addition of optical sound tracks and, most notably, Kodachrome in 1935, significantly boosted the 16 mm market. The format was widely used during WW2, and consequently there was a massive increase of 16 mm professional filmmaking in the post-war years. Films for government, business, medical and industrial clients created a large network of 16 mm professional filmmakers and related service industries in the 1950s and 1960s.

The advent of television also enhanced the use of 16 mm film, initially due to its lower cost and greater portability compared to 35 mm. At first used as a news-gathering format, the 16 mm format was also used to create programming shot outside the confines of the more rigid television production sets.

Even though Super 16 is used for all kinds of projects, its most common use today is for television productions and independent features. The three most common types of productions are detailed below.

1. Shoot Super 16, Post Video, Broadcast HD Broadcasters today are demanding content to be delivered in HD, and shooting Super 16 is the best way to create high quality HD programming.

The production is shot on Super 16 film, and then transferred to standard definition (SD) or high definition (HD) video on a telecine. Modern telecines can extract most of the image information from Super 16 film, and are one reason for the continued popularity of this format. Post production commences on SD or HD equipment in the traditional fashion, as does broadcast on SD or HD. This workflow maintains all the advantages of film and the creative options of film cameras and lenses. Once the program is aired, the film-originated material can be re-transferred to any foreign or future television standard.

2. Shoot Super 16, Post DI (Data), Theatrical Release The Achilles heel of shooting Super 16 for a theatrical release has always been the optical blow-up required to get from the Super 16 camera negative to a 35 mm release print. This optical blow-up is now being replaced by the Digital Intermediate (DI) process, which is quickly becoming a mainstream production tool.

The production is shot on Super 16 film, and then scanned on a pin-registered film scanner. Modern film scanners can record all the image information present on Super 16 film. The resulting image data is used for editing, special effects and color correction. Once in the digital realm, there is almost no limit to the image manipulations, effects or looks that can be created. The finished image data is then recorded onto 35 mm film with a modern film recorder to create 35 mm release prints. Since the DI process is completely transparent, there is no image quality loss incurred by going from a Super 16 camera negative to a 35 mm release print.

3. Shoot Super 16, Post DI (HD Video), Theatrical Release A hybrid option combining the other two workflows is also possible when a theatrical release is required from a Super 16 negative at rock bottom costs. The film is transferred by a telecine to HD video instead of scanned to image data. Post production is done in HD video, and the feature is output to 35 mm film on a film scanner. The result has slightly less image quality than a true data DI post production, but is substantially faster and less expensive.
Richard Crudo, President of the American Society of Cinematographers, said: “You’re going to see a huge resurgence in 16 as DI becomes more manageable and cheaper. People are going to say, ‘My God, look at the quality you can get out of this.’”

Studying at New York Film Academy is a great way to gain experience using a wide variety of top-of-the line equipment.  NYFA is proud to be able to offer its students the opportunity to use cutting-edge technology, such as the RED HD camera.  However, learning to master traditional filmmaking tools such as the Arriflex S cameras is one of the most challenging and rewarding aspects of a NYFA education!

Written by Brian Koplow, New York Film Academy Student Adviser