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Example of 16mm film short made for home market
Example of 16mm film short made for home market; Mickey Mouse cartoon sold by Cine Art Films; cardboard packaging

For Your Consideration: All About Film Formats!

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Film is like pizza–there’s far more than just one kind.  In fact, like pepperoni to pineapple, there’s lots of different kinds.  Actually, when it comes to film formats, there are actually hundreds that have been developed and used (even briefly) over the decades.  In our daily work at the Packard Campus for Audio-Video Conservation at the Library of Congress, we get to deal with a lot of them, almost every day but, for most people, from their vintage home movies to their neighborhood multiplex, there’s only a few film formats that really matter.  And in this short write-up, we’d like to explore and explain them.

First…  Pretty much since the dawn of film, film has been named/identified according to its measured width.  And, bucking the norm of the American-preferred inches, these widths (or “gauges”) have almost always been measured using the metric system, from 8mm to 35mm.

To get started—and for you trivia buffs–the very first film format ever developed was created in France in 1888.  This format measured an impressive 90mm across and was developed by Etienne-Jules Marey, a Franco scientist.  He called the format Chronophotgraphe.

Almost immediately in Marey’s wake there followed a variety of other formats none of which proved particularly enduring.  Some of them:  19mm, 60mm and 65mm.

    35mm

The first truly enduring format arrived via Thomas Edison and William Dickson and was developed around 1892.  It was 35mm.

35mm:  Since its introduction in the late 1800’s, 35mm has been the dominant film type preferred by Hollywood both in terms of shooting films and projecting them in your local movie theater.  35mm would endure in all the filmmaking capitals of the world until the early part of the 21st century when digital production and digital projection (more on this later) took over.

One can identify 35mm not only due to its size but also to its standardized four perforations (holes) per frame (or image) panel alongside its edge.

35mm endured so solidly because it proved to be so adaptable.  It was later able to successfully include sound, capture color, and accommodate various widescreen applications.

Though the Library of Congress contains thousands upon thousands of reels of 35mm, the format is slowing dying out, as digital recording and projecting becomes much more the norm for reasons of both ease and economy.  In fact, today, there are only a handful of companies that are still manufacturing 35mm film stock.

  9.5mm

9.5mm:  Begun in 1922 in France and mainly employed by Pathe studios, 9.5mm was another film format created for the home market.  Among other characteristics, 9.5 has a very distinctive look with its perforations down the middle of the film.  9.5mm’s heyday in the USA did not last long; it was soon eclipsed with the introduction of the 8mm, to be discussed shortly.

16mm:  As its name implies, 16mm film is 16 millimeters wide.  This gauge of film was first introduced in 1923.  Along with its size, 16mm is hallmarked with its two perforations per frame.

  16mm

Though 35mm was, easily, the industry standard it was not overly friendly—economically or in other ways—for the home/consumer market.  Hence, in 1923, Kodak introduced this smaller format and it quickly became the “go-to” format for amateur filmmakers, budget-strapped documentary filmmakers and home movie enthusiasts.

16mm was so applicable to home use that, for many years, via catalogs or the back of comic books, professionally-made 8mm films of cartoons, film shorts (of the Keystone Kops variety) and excerpts from larger films (for example, routines from various Abbott and Costello films) were sold for living room or rumpus room viewing.

After first dominating the consumer market, 16mm slowly migrated into the educational film market and the industrial film market as well as for the making of promotional films and avant-garde works.  16mm would also prove a popular format for news gathering and actuality.

It is also worth noting that, for those of us old enough to remember big, lumbering film projectors being wheeled into the classroom to show a film, most of those movies that we watched were shown off of 16mm.

Though 16mm has often, rather snobbishly, been labeled “substandard,” it has frequently been used in big budget entertainments—from the days of early cinema all the way up to present day.  Early installments of the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” in the 1950’s were shot on 16mm and far more recent programs from “Friday Night Lights” to “The Walking Dead” have been shot on 16mm.  Even the Academy Award-winning Best Picture of 2009, “The Hurt Locker,” was filmed on 16mm.

As with some other film formats, there are various “types” of 16mm.

Super 16 is a 16mm variant with just one sprocket hole and gives the filmmaker/user a wider width of picture or image.  It was developed in 1969.

Ultra 16 was developed in 1996 and widens the frame even more.

  8mm

8mm:  Again, true to its name, 8 millimeter film is eight millimeters wide.  It was first manufactured and made available in 1932, about 10 years after 16mm emerged.  8mm was also created to be friendly to the home/consumer market and was devised to be even more economical than 16mm.

Due to 8mm’s relative low cost and ease of use, 8mm was very widely used; the majority of home movies that were shot from the 1930’s all the way up into the 1970’s were shot on 8mm.  Additionally, many “home movies” shot by non-professionals that have, nevertheless, become vitally important historical documents were shot on 8mm.  A case in point, the Zapruder film documenting the assassination of President Kennedy was shot on 8mm.

As with 16mm, both underground filmmakers and filmmakers for the educational market, were prone to use 8mm.

An example of an 8mm film made for the consumer market

And, as with 16mm, there was once a considerable market for the sale of short 8mm films to movie enthusiasts that allowed them to purchase short reels of key scenes from classic monster movies or a short by the likes of the Three Stooges and watch them right in the privacy of their own homes.  Along with their 16mm counterparts, many of these 8mm film “loops,” still in their small, colorful cardboard boxes, can be found for sale on eBay.

As with 16mm, 8mm has its variants…

Super 8:  Super 8 film was introduced in 1965 and had the plus of being sound-friendly from the start.  And while that was one of Super 8’s greatest selling points, its downfall was that Super 8 could not be projected on regular 8mm projectors.  Still, the addition of sound, made it attractive to many families and would-be filmmakers even with the added expense of buying a new film projector.

Single 8:   This format was developed by the Fuji Corporation in Japan in 1965.  Single 8 was the same basic format as 8mm or Super 8 but in a different, arguably more convenient cassette/cartridge.

YOU MIGHT ALSO BE WONDERING ABOUT….

A reel of badly decomposing nitrate film

NITRATE:  If you’ve watched any stories or read any articles about film preservation over the years, you’ve probably come across the word “nitrate.”  In the world of film preservation, it is practically a curse word.  Nitrate—short for nitrocellulose–is a type of film base i.e. the stuff that the film is actually made out of just as your car is made out of metal or your house is made out of wood, etc.  Nitrate was one of the very first film bases used, it was most prevalent during the silent film era.  Nitrate is almost exclusively 35mm.  Unfortunately, nitrate is extremely flammable.  Back in the early days of going to the movies, it was not uncommon for the film booth and projector to catch fire as the heat from the projector ignited the nitrate.  To make matters worse, when nitrate burns it creates its own oxygen, thereby making it very difficult to extinguish.  Then, to add insult to injury, nitrate does not age well.  In time, nitrate not only emits a flammable gas but it becomes sticky and begins to ooze into liquid.  The good news is that nitrate film stopped being used, largely, around 1951.

IMAX film
IMAX film

IMAX:  Nearly since the birth of film showings, film professionals have been working to make the movie screen bigger and the movie-watching experience more immersive.  This was especially true in the 1950s after television entered the home and film studios and theater owners worked to find new, exciting ways to pull audiences away from that small box in their living rooms and bring them back into brick-and-mortar theaters.  Cinemascope, launched in 1953 and utilized until about 1967, was one of the more prevalent attempts to make the picture on the wall as big (or bigger) than life.  Other attempts, also all beginning in the 1950s, were VistaVision and Cinerama.  Today, this this sort of wide-screen effect usually means an IMAX film.

In regard to IMAX, once again, millimeters matter.  IMAX film stock is 70mm wide.  That width and its frequent projection onto large, wraparound screens has made IMAX presentations an eye-popping treat.

IMAX was created in Canada and had its debut in Montreal at Expo ’67.  The film shown was titled “In the Labyrinth.”

A digital projection cartridge

DIGITAL PROJECTION:  Today, when you go to the movies, nine times out of 10, what you will be watching on that big screen—from the trailers through the final feature presentation–is not an actual reel of film threaded through a projector (like we always saw in old films and on old TV shows).  No, more than likely, your local cinema is no longer getting film canisters or film reels shipped to them but, instead, are getting large disk drives called Digital Cinema Packages (DCP, for short) sent to them on which is stored the “film” you are about to watch.  Often as well, for purposes of copyright, these hard drives are encrypted to, basically, be un-openable after a predetermined set of days.  That way, the latest blockbuster doesn’t make its way into the hands of someone for home or illegal use, sale or distribution after its initial showings.

If you are watching an actually threaded film, you are probably in either a major city or in one of the increasing number of “boutique” theaters, the kind with the full bar and recliners.

Moreover, more and more “films” coming out of Hollywood and other movie production capitals are not “films” at all.  That is, they are not shot on any sort of film from 16mm to 35mm.  Rather, they are recorded, edited, and distributed digitally.

This changeover to a largely digital world has not been completely embraced by the filmmaking community.  Many of today’s most prominent directors—including Christopher Nolan and Quintin Tarantino—insist on shooting their productions strictly on film and to have them, as much as possible, exhibited only on film, a request that could become harder and harder to fulfill (in both production and showing) via digital’s ever increasing use.

In a few weeks….all the types of videotape!!

[My thanks to George Willeman for his invaluable assistance with this article.]

Comments (4)

  1. Thanks, this is extremely useful!

  2. I enjoyed this fine essay on the history behind the various film gauges. I began collecting in my teens with the 8mm format and also made home movies in that format with Kodacolor film. I was a regular customer of Blackhawk Films in Davenport, Iowa, that sold silent films and some early talkies, especially the Laurel & Hardy films, in both 8 and 16mm. I couldn’t afford the 16mm format but 8 worked well with my small budget.

    In college, and working by that time, I “upgraded” to 16mm from the “used film” market. I began a film society in college and sponsored a weekly film series on campus. Most of those films I ran then in the early 70s, would be banned from campuses today.

    These days I marvel at DVD and especially Blu-ray quality. Those 16mm films, no matter how carefully they were printed, can not compare with the clarity and sound of those same titles when seen today on large screen monitors via digital media.

    I still have many of my 16mm films but sadly, I have lost a few through “vinegar syndrome, which like nitrate film deterioration, destroys the film stock. Of course, 16mm is not flammable but it emits a noxious vinegar smell, hence the name. It’s caused by the type of plastic used in the film stock.

    Finally, the American film industry experimented with expanded film size, 65 mm I believe, during the early talkie era. THE BIG TRAIL, SONG O’ MY HEART, and THE BAT CREEPS, all from 1930, were filmed in “Magna-Vision” and at least TRAIL and BAT can be seen now on home video. The image quality is stunning, almost 3-D.

  3. Hi, interesting article ! With a couple of friends, we made some black and white animation films on Super 8 … a long long time ago 🙂
    Kind regards,
    Guy
    PS : is it not Chronophotographe instead of Chronophotgraphe ? And French scientist instead of Franco ?

  4. I disagree totally with Bob Fells – I project 16mm film all the time, reduction prints from the 1950’s
    blow away digital everything! No matter what, a good print on film, beats digital / DVD / whatever
    Maybe Bob didn’t clean his gate after every reel? Or He bought dupes! See it on film!
    It’s still the best!

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