Most filmmakers are well versed on the iconic Super 16mm film format, but few have even heard of its younger cousin – Ultra 16mm. Both formats share a lot of similarities, but if you are considering shooting on film or converting an existing 16mm film camera, there are some notable differences to take into account.
Initially, 16mm film and cameras were designed to capture images in a 4:3 aspect ratio. That was more than enough for documentary, broadcast, industrial, or home movie purposes. But as widescreen grew in popularity, eventually there was a need to shoot wider aspect images on the 16mm format.
Thankfully, Cinematographer Rune Ericson came along in 1969 and figured out how to do just that. He used single perf 16mm film (with sprocket holes only on one side), and modified the camera so it could make use of this extra space on the film.
This resulted in a native 1.66 aspect ratio, noticeably wider than 4:3 (1.33) aspect, and much better suited for widescreen work. It could be more easily cropped to the standard 1.85 without losing nearly as much resolution.
From there, the rest is kind of history. Super 16mm became a professionally viable format and of course has since been put to use on countless features, television series, commercials and other projects.
The Invention of Ultra 16mm
Back in 1996, cinematographer Frank G. Demarco was shooting tests for Darren Aronofsky’s first feature film Pi, and subsequently invented a new format.
Rather than widening the camera’s gate only on one side (as was done with Super 16mm conversions), he widened both sides, left and right. This allowed the camera to capture exposure on more of the film stock by using the area in between the perforations.
The mount didn’t need to be shifted/re-centered (as with Super 16mm conversions), which made it simpler to modify and maintained compatibility with existing standard 16mm lenses. This was in contrast to Super 16mm cameras which would vignette when paired with some standard 16 lenses.
And best of all, the Ultra 16mm conversion resulted in a native 1.85 aspect ratio. Not as tall as the 1.66 aspect offered by Super 16mm cameras, but a little wider.
Here’s a rough visual representation of Standard vs. Super Vs. Ultra 16mm –
Ultra 16 never quite took off the way Super 16mm did. For many cinematographers, it felt silly to experiment with this new format which wasn’t yet battle tested, only to trade off some vertical resolution for horizontal. Finding people to service Ultra 16mm cameras or labs to scan the footage were big issues too.
25 Years Later…
With a few notable exceptions, Ultra 16mm has generally flown under the radar for the past (almost) 25 years since it was first introduced. That said though, I wouldn’t be surprised if it starts to re-surface, especially now that the popularity of shooting on film has yet again increased.
There’s no question that Super 16 is still the go-to format among cinematographers who shoot 16mm film. Those who already own Super 16mm cameras have no reason to ever modify to Ultra 16, and they are still in high demand even as rental items.
But for someone like myself who has only more recently invested in a Standard 16mm body, the Ultra 16mm conversion offers some distinct advantages…
The biggest being cost savings. I recently inquired with a few shops about converting my standard 16mm Arri SR II to Super 16, and was looking at $5K – $10K, depending on some variables. This would cover the modification of the camera itself as well as the mags, viewfinder and my Angeniuex 12 – 120. And even once converted, the lens would only be useable from 35 – 120, not the full range.
Ultra 16mm on the other hand, would cost just over $1100 to convert because the process is much simpler. Plus, my Angenieux lens would still function perfectly, with no vignetting issues like it would have on Super 16mm.
I had been warned beforehand to be cautious about Ultra 16mm as some labs aren’t able to scan the footage. Without the right type of scanner, they could scratch the areas of the image inside the perforations, making it unusable in post.
But after calling a few labs here in Los Angeles, virtually every one of them was set up to scan Ultra 16.
Knowing that, I decided to pull the trigger on the Ultra 16mm modification. For roughly 20% of the cost of a Super 16mm conversion, I could achieve an even wider aspect ratio, keep my existing glass, and didn’t have to worry about processing issues.
As of last month the camera went out for the modification and will be back in my hands within a couple of weeks. Once it returns, I’ll be shooting some tests that I’ll be sure to share here. I have some 16mm narrative projects in the works too, so lots of screengrabs and footage is coming your way.
Some final thoughts…
There are clear pros and cons to going the Ultra 16mm route, but ultimately for my situation it made sense. Specifically because I already owned a standard 16mm Arri SR II, had access to plenty of labs to scan the footage in LA, and enjoy experimenting.
But for those who don’t already own a Standard 16mm camera, you may be better off simply buying a native Super 16 camera and saving yourself the hassle. There are far, far more of them out there than Ultra 16 (by a long shot), and can often be found on the used market at a lower cost than what you’d pay to convert a standard 16mm camera. Not to mention, the format is standardized among cinematographers, technicians, and labs, which you have to take into account.
Check back soon for some test footage, follow up thoughts and more.
If you have any questions about shooting on 16mm or converting your 16mm camera, leave a comment below!