Although the classic format of 16mm film has been around in cinema since the early ‘30s, the Super 16 variant was developed in ’69 by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson. Its format has a wider aspect ratio, making it able to be enlarged to 35mm for projection, with minimal tolls on the quality. There is also Ultra-16 (developed in ’96 during test shoots for Pi ), which exposes a previously unexposed area between perforations. Additionally, because of the wider frame size (somewhere between 16mm and super 16), it makes it easier for conversion, and is much more cost effective. All of this being said, filmmakers make the conscious decision to use Super 16 or Ultra-16 in a way that enhances the film’s narrative or aesthetic, as opposed to just using it as a means to film a movie. Choke (2008) was shot on 16mm, but its result isn’t particularly noteworthy, nor would it be considered a “beautiful” film. The following list, which is in no particular order, is a small collection of films that use the 16mm format (here just 16 and Super 16) with great intention, yielding provoking and gorgeous results.
1) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) dir. by Tobe Hooper, shot on 16mm (as Super 16 was at this time not yet a viable format).
Despite being a “low budget” horror film, Texas Chainsaw still manages to be an effectively chilling, and beautifully shot film. When a group of teens are on their way to visit their grandfather’s grave, they pick up a psycho hitchhiker, eat some “home-cured” meat at an ominous gas station, and then wind up the victims of a psychotic family of cannibals and one chainsaw-wielding, cross-dressing son. Now bear with me on the “beautifully shot” aspect. In one of my favorite scenes, a female teen enters the twisted family’s home, and explores a room filled with bones and feathers—it might not sound like much, but the contrast of creepy and beautiful makes for an unsettling yet beautiful combination. Though the film has been restored more than once (most recently to 4K—which Hooper himself worked on), there is a certain charm and roughness that remains in the original version. Not to mention one the creepiest, coolest soundtracks of all time.
2) Irreversible (2002) dir. by Gaspar Noé, shot on Super 16mm
This film is not for the weak. It depicts a young woman being raped and beaten over the span of one night in Paris, though the events take place in reverse chronological order. Using the format to his complete advantage, Noé’s shots in Irreversible have kinetic movement with twists and twirls. He was able to achieve these trick shots by using one of the smallest film cameras available. Had he chose to use 35mm, his fluid movements would not have been possible given the bulkier and heavier cameras needed to shoot in the larger format. Not to mention, the film also wouldn’t have the same gritty aesthetic had it been shot in 35mm or digital.
3) The Hurt Locker (2008), dir. by Kathryn Bigelow, shot on Super 16mm
The cinematography in films that depict war has a tendency to be on the glossier side (take for example a film like The Thin Red Line )—not that there’s anything wrong with that. In Hurt Locker, though, the film’s use of Super 16 highlights the coarser, un-Hollywood side of war. A maverick sergeant (played by Jeremy Renner) is newly assigned to a bomb squad in the Iraq war, and receives a lukewarm reception from his squad mates as a result of his unique approach to his work. A gorgeous representation of the intensity of war, Hurt Locker not only keeps you riveted throughout, but also has some of the best explosions caught on film.
4) Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), dir. by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, shot on Super 16mm
As the title suggests, Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) recalls his past lives while on his deathbed. This is a movie that takes its time, and because of this, it may lose some audience members quickly. In fact IMDb user MLin109 posted a thread in the film’s message board titled “Why so damn slow?” It’s an unfortunate truth that most mainstream films have the tendency to fly at an insane pace, so when a film like Boonmee surfaces and asks viewers to truly take their time, it’s not always a welcomed experience. On top of its pace, its content also borders on surreal. The ghost of Boonmee’s wife aids him as he is dying, and his long lost son returns, but not as a human. The use of Super 16 only helps in adding a more visceral and gorgeous layer to the film.
5) Moonrise Kingdom (2012), dir. by Wes Anderson, shot on Super 16mm
The reception to Anderson’s films tends to be slightly polarized (which is surprising due to how innocuous they are). Many argue, and I don’t disagree, that his style is redundant and too easy to imitate. Although I don’t like crowning him with the achievement of a “great auteur,” I do think that Anderson is a filmmaker who makes movies that are fun, intricate, and undeniably pleasing to the eye. Moonrise is an especially endearing film, following two young kids (one a boy scout, the other a precocious girl) as they run away from their lives to be together. Think Badlands (1973) through the eyes of a twelve-year-old, minus the casualties (dog death aside). The 16mm format seems to capture the nostalgia of being young and in love for the first time. It has a distinct summer camp feel to it, and represents the young lovers with a great respect (they seem to be the only ones who understand the purity of love). Despite being a typical Wes Anderson film in aesthetic and casting of a strong ensemble, Moonrise is as simplistic and sweet as a Wes Anderson film can be. Is it his best film since Rushmore (1998)? Who’s to say?
Honorable Mentions: Listen Up Philip (2014), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Squid and the Whale (2005), Pi (1998), The Wrestler (2008), Black Swan (2010), Primer (2004).
Note: City of God (2002) was disqualified due to its use of both Super 16 and 35mm.
Author: Catherine Haas
Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.