16mm has gone through many wonderful changes over the years. It was originally created in 1923 by Kodak as an amateur format, but today it holds its own as a professional gauge right along side 35mm and 65mm. No longer restrained to industrial, educational, and television films, 16mm has risen to remarkable heights thanks to innovation in lenses, fine grain film stocks, and wide-screen modifications. One of these new revelations in advancement is called “Ultra 16mm.”
Before jumping into Ultra 16, one must start at the beginning with Regular 16mm. Regular 16mm has a native aspect ratio of 1.33:1 or 4×3, which is nearly square. The actual camera aperture measurements are 10.26 by 7.49 mm. The 1.33 ratio matched that of the original aspect ratio of 35mm film. A regular 16mm print can contain both picture and sound. An optical soundtrack can be included right along side the image. Originally, if you were to shoot and finish on 16mm with sound you needed to shoot on straight up 16mm. Regular 16mm was double perforated for registration. This is where the modified “silent” 16mm formats of Ultra 16mm and Super 16mm differ.
You are probably familiar with Super 16mm – which uses the soundtrack space to maximize image resolution on the 16mm negative. Super 16mm has a native wide aspect ratio of 1.66:1 with gate measurements of 12.42 x 7.49. This aspect ratio makes Super 16 excellent for blowing up to 35mm and/or transferring to high definition video (1920×1080 pixels) which has an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Super 16mm was created by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson who in 1970 modified an Eclair NPR camera in 1970 to shoot the film Lyckliga Skitar (Blushing Charlie). He widened the gate to one side so that the image ran from inside edge of the perforation all the way to the other edge of the film. You can read more on Ericson’s story on Kodak.com. Nearly all of today’s 16mm film is single perforated for this factor – one can shoot Regular 16, Super 16, and Ultra 16 on the same piece of film. Only when high speed cameras are needed would double perf be necessary. So from 1970 onward, independent filmmakers began embracing the new Super 16mm conversion, which allowed them to shoot wide-screen movies with very compact and versatile cameras. Recent films like The Hurt Locker, Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan continue to use Super 16mm for its painterly and malleable qualities.
Ultra 16mm is the inexpensive brother to Super 16mm. A Super 16mm conversion usually prices around $1,200. In many cases one also needs to buy new lenses to cover the larger gate. Ultra 16mm widens both sides of the gate between the two perforations that define the frame. This creates a native wide aspect ratio of 1.85:1 with a gate measurement of 11.80 x 6.25. When scanning to HD 1.78:1, you use about 95% of the total format. Since you are widening between the perfs, there is no need to recenter your lens mount or purchase new lenses. You simply widen the gate and add the new aspect ratio markings to your viewing system, and voila you are ready to go! The cost of an Ultra 16 modification can usually be done for around $600 for smaller cameras like the Bolex H16, Krasnagorsk K3, or the Canon Scoopic. Full package cameras like the Eclair NPR will cost anywhere from $900-$1400. The overall cost of Ultra 16 will be about half of what it would cost you to convert to Super. And the best part is you can still frame and shoot 1.33:1 Regular 16mm with your converted camera. So if you love shooting reversal film and projecting it, this is still an option for you.
These 16mm cameras can be picked up on ebay or craigslist for low prices. They offer great versatility in size and lens selection. They are perfect candidates for the Ultra 16 treatment. Whether you make visual poetry or prefer to write lengthy dialogue, the list below offers just the camera for your style.
Arri BL, S, M – The 16 S is small and capable of both 100ft and 400ft magazines.
Beaulieu R16 – Inexpensive, well engineered camera with 200ft magazine capabilities.
Bolex H-16, Rex 4, 5 – Extremely versatile spring driven camera that continues to do it all!
Canon Scoopic – Compact motor driven camera that is upgradable to a crystal sync motor.
Cine Kodak K100 – Non-reflex camera with sharp glass and 60 seconds on a wind!
CP Gizmo, 16A, 16R – Quiet news camera that mounts a nice 12-120mm Angeniux lens.
Éclair NPR, ACL – If you want a whisper quiet levels suitable for sync sound, stop here!
Kinor 16mm – Great camera that bridges the gap between Eclair and Krasnagorsk K3.
Krasnagorsk K3 – Fast zoom lens and great construction at extremely low prices.
You can also research these models on the Kodak Camera Info page.
You should budget any camera you purchase on ebay to be serviced (clean, lube, and adjustment) on top of an Ultra 16mm conversion.
Super 16mm, Inc. which is owned by Bernie O’Doherty and his wife Julie offer exceptional camera services at fantastic rates. Bernie can work on any motion picture camera model from any era. The VCUarts Department of Photography and Film recently had Bernie convert their Eclair NPR to Ultra 16. Once you talk to Bernie and Julie they will quickly become your best friends. Bernie will make your camera better than new with his golden touch. They offer both student and academic pricing.
You cannot just go to any lab or post house for Ultra 16 processing and HD telecine transfer. It is extremely important that the lab takes great care of the film so as not to scratch the picture information between the perforations. Labs that are not used to handling Ultra 16 may neglect that the film needs special considerations.
“When we were pioneering the post work-flow for U16mm we tested a lot of different processors. What people need to ask for is a “Demand Drive” processor that has no sprockets.” – Paul Korver: EP/Principal, Cinelicious
Alpha Cinelab in Seattle, WA has been working with independent filmmakers for years. They mix great soup and keep a clean house. Nobody does black and white processing like Alpha.
Cinelicious owned by Paul Korver is a wonderful haven for celluloid filmmakers of all types. Paul and his team really love film and are passionate about the indie artist. They offer academic pricing and an inexpensive Ursa Diamond scan for the budget conscious. Truly, they lead the pack in Ultra 16mm to HD scanning on their Spirit Datacine. You have to see it to believe it! Ultra 16mm Demo from Cinelicious on Vimeo.
Cinelab in Fall River, MA offers good budget friendly service with generous student discounts. A number of my students like the work done here.
Bonolabs – located in Arlington, VA gives the Richmond filmmaker the closest thing to a local lab and post facility.
There is no reason for anyone to default to shooting digital video when there are so many amazing options for working with film! Simply look around you and get involved. From the James River Film Society to the VCUarts’ BFA Film program, you are just one step away of being a part of a historic and magical process. Ultra 16 is just one of the many celluloid revelations that has been making its way through the filmmaking community. It is a format that offers a 1.85: 1 aspect ratio which is great for both HD scanning or 35mm blowups. Compared to Super 16mm, you maintain more of your original resolution in the HD telecine process. The cost of conversion is relatively inexpensive (I have had students pick up a Bolex H16 Rex 4 for $80! Add $800 for Ultra 16 and cleaning and you are set!), and you can continue to use all of the lenses and accessories that you use for Regular 16mm.
Trust me, once you put a fresh role of Kodak Vision 3 200T 7213 or Fuji Eterna Vivid 160 8643 stock into one of these classic 16mm cameras converted to Ultra, and there is no going back to digital. So log onto Ebay, scout local yard sales, and start making images that last!