Standard 16mm vs. Super16mm
the difference between a 16mm camera and Super 16mm camera? Which is better?
Should you buy a standard 16mm camera or a Super 16 camera? For
most customers, Super 16 is the way to go.
What is Super 16mm?
Originally, all 16mm film stock
had holes (called 'perforations' or
simply 'perfs') on both sides of the film.
This was due to the fact that some cameras use dual registration
pins, one on each side
of the film gate. Some cameras have only one registration pin. Others have
no pin and rely solely on the pull-down claw to position the film. This means
that on cameras with one pin (or no pin) the holes on one side of the film
are essentially wasted space that could be used to record image information
if the perforations were removed. In 1970, this realization led to the birth
of the Super 16mm format. By widening the opening in the film gate to include
the area of the negative that contained the unnecessary perfs and using single
perf 16mm film stock, a larger image area was obtained on the same size 16mm
film stock. Same cost for film, higher image quality!
Why Use Super 16mm?
Super 16mm was invented to provide
better image quality when 'blowing
up' 16mm film to 35mm film for theatrical release. The standard 16mm
frame is close to square. Its aspect ratio (the relationship between the width
of the frame to the height of the frame) is 4:3—four units wide by three
units high). For example, the scene below would appear like this in the viewfinder
of a standard 16mm camera:
What do the markings in the
standard 16mm viewfinder indicate? The outer most box is called 'projection'. All of the image contained inside this
box will appear when the image is projected on a 16mm projector. The four corners
brackets just inside of the projection marking show what is called 'TV
Transmission'. If the film is transferred to standard definition video,
the image contained inside these corner markings is what will be transmitted
from a television station. However, not all of the transmitted picture actually
shows up on a home television set. The box inside of the TV Transmission marking
is called 'TV Safe Action'. Not all television sets will loose
the same amount of image area from the transmitted signal. Some sets will show
more of the picture transmitted from the television station than other sets.
However, the image inside the Safe Action marking box will most likely appear
on all home television sets. Any part of the image you want to be sure 'makes
it home', as they say, should be kept inside the Safe Action box. Unfortunately,
where television is concerned, framing it is not an exact science.
In the past, 16mm has been used as a source medium
for productions that were intended to be released on 35mm film for exhibition
in theatres. The idea being:
save money on camera rental and film stock when shooting by using 16mm film
stock and then optically 'blow up' the 16mm negative in post production
to 35mm film stock for theatrical exhibition. Unfortunately, it’s not
that simple. In the U.S. the most popular aspect ratio for 35mm theatrical
release is 1.85:1 (1.85 units wide by 1 unit high). The 1:85:1 aspect ratio
of 35mm is a much more rectangular aspect ratio than the 4:3 ratio of standard
16mm. When shooting for blow up to 1:85:1, the scene that was framed earlier
a standard 16mm viewfinder would look like this though a Super 16 viewfinder
Prior to the availability of Super 16mm, shooting
16mm and blowing up the negative to 35mm would require severely cropping
the 16mm image in order to
obtain the 1:85:1 aspect ratio of the 35mm theatrical release format (incidentally,
this aspect ratio is normally referred to as simply 'one-eight-five').
This required having to enlarge the image on the standard 16mm negative resulting
in a loss of resolution and making the film grain much more apparent. Also,
if the cropping necessitated in going from the 4:3 aspect ratio of standard
16 to the 1:85 ratio of 35mm was not anticipated when shooting, very poor framing
could result in the blow up. If the scene above was shot in standard 16mm and
then blown up to 35mm, this is the cropping that would result in order to go
from the 16mm 4:3 ratio to the 1:85 ratio of 35mm:
Not only is the original framing severely compromised,
there is a serious loss of useful
image area on the 16mm negative—the less negative area used, the lower
the image quality. It should also be noted that an almost identical cropping
results when transferring images shot on standard 16mm to the High Definition
television format. The 16:9
(16 x 9) aspect ratio of HDTV is very close to the 1:85:1 aspect ratio of 35mm
theatrical. Standard 16mm cropped for HDTV would require cropping the negative
Again, notice how much of the original image area on the standard 16mm negative
remains unused when the image is cropped for HDTV. When transferring film to
video (standard or HD) you do gain the ability to reposition the extraction
box (something not easily achieved when doing an optical blow up to 35mm).
In this case the extraction box indicating what part of the negative will be
used to make the HD picture could be moved down the frame in the transfer process
thereby creating a better composition which
includes the wheels of motorcycle. However, the fact remains that while more
flexible framing can be easily achieved when transferring to HDTV than can
be achieved in an optical blow up to 35mm, a large portion of the already small
standard 16mm image area remains unused when transferring standard 16mm to
HDTV. This is due to the difference between the standard 16mm aspect ratio
and the aspect ratio of HDTV. Any time less negative area is used to create
the final image there is a loss of quality in the final image.
Before Super 16 the only other option when blowing up 16mm to 35mm was to put
the standard 16mm frame inside of the 1:85 aspect ratio which would result
in blacked-out bars on the sides of the 16mm frame-- not a very attractive
Widening the gate of the 16mm camera to include the area normally occupied
by the perfs creates an aspect ratio on the negative that is very close to
the 1:85 ratio of 35mm. Much less cropping has to be done when blowing up Super
16 to 35mm. Shot on Super 16, the motorcycle scene would appear like this in
the viewfinder of a Super 16mm camera:
When cropped and blown up to 35mm, this image would result:
Compare this image to the 1:85 image extracted from the standard 16mm source,
and the benefits on Super 16 become readily apparent.
Unlike standard 16mm, when blowing up Super 16 to 1:85 very little of the
image captured on the 16mm negative is lost, and the original framing is barely
compromised. The resulting 35mm image has much more resolution than an image
blown up from standard 16mm.
Shooting Super 16 for blow up to 35mm results in the
use of almost 50% more 16mm negative area than shooting standard 16mm for
blow up to 35mm. That’s
a tremendous difference in image quality. There is also a much added benefit
of not having to be as concerned about severe differences in framing when shooting
Super 16mm for blow up to 35mm. Additionally, the aspect ratio of Super 16
matches the aspect ratio of European 35mm theatrical release (1.66:1), so it
works perfectly when blown up for the European theatrical format.
Until recently the use of Super 16mm added no benefit if the end use was standard
definition television. Standard definition television uses the same aspect
ratio as standard 16mm (4:3). The height of the frame is the same in standard
16 and Super 16. When the image on the Super 16 negative fills the frame
top to bottom on a 4:3 standard definition TV the extra width of the Super
16 frame on the negative is not seen on the TV screen.
The only way a standard definition TV can display
the full frame captured by Super 16 is to fit the Super 16 frame within the
4:3 frame. Doing this leaves
an area at the top and bottom of the TV frame that has no image. These areas
are usually filled with black, and the resulting image is called 'letter-boxed'.
With the advent and increasing use of the High Definition Television format
(called HDTV, Hi Def or simply HD). There has been a renewed interest in Super
16 not only because the added image area on the Super 16 negative captures
the additional resolution necessary for HD but because the Super 16 aspect
ratio is very close to the 16 x 9 ratio of HDTV. The motorcycle scene captured
on Super 16 would appear like this on a High Definition television:
There is a small amount of cropping that has to happen on the sides of the
Super 16 frame
when transferring to HDTV, but it is quite minimal. Almost all of the area
gained on the negative by using Super 16 is utilized when transferring to HDTV.
Again this amounts to much better image quality than transferring standard
16mm to HDTV. There is also
the issue of serious framing differences when transferring standard 16mm to
16mm image has to be greatly enlarged to fill the width of the HDTV format,
and this enlarging causes serious image degradation. If the standard 16mm frame
is not enlarged to fill the wider HDTV frame, black bars can to be placed along
side the standard 16mm frame when it has been placed inside the 16 x 9 frame
of HDTV. Again, not a terribly attractive solution:
So while Super 16 (unless letterboxed) offers no real immediate advantage
for standard definition television, it offers tremendous advantages for High
It delivers higher resolution than standard 16mm blown up to fill the HD frame
and uses an aspect ratio very close to that of HDTV so very little framing
compensation is needed.
Additionally, it is important to keep in mind the idea
of 'future proofing' your
footage when choosing a camera. Eventually standard definition television will
give way to HDTV. While it is true that Super 16 offers no advantage for standard
definition TV, footage that has been shot on Super 16 is more 'future
proof' because it can produce a 4 x 3 extracted image for use on standard
definition television as well as an HDTV version, as long as the area in the
16 x 9 framing was protected when shooting (no mics, lighting instruments or
other unwanted items appearing in the 16 x 9 frame). When shooting Super 16
you are capturing an image on the negative that will be easily transferable
to standard definition TV and HDTV. It is also the best possible source material
for blowing up to 35mm theatrical format both U.S. and European.
A Super 16 camera can do everything that a standard 16mm camera can do. However,
there are definite advantages to a Super 16 camera that a standard 16mm camera
simply cannot match.