Film Resources – The Super 16mm Format


CinemaTechnic Film Resources – The Super 16mm Format

What is Super 16?

• Super 16 is a relatively new film format that takes advantage of the unused sound track area in 16mm film to increase image quality by 20% to 65% depending on the desired aspect ratio.
• Super 16 was originally developed in Sweden in 1969 as a means to shoot low budget feature films for blow-up to 35mm in the European 1.66:1 cinema aspect ratio.

The Super-16 format was developed by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson, beginning in 1965. Ericson was looking for a way to shoot feature films for 35mm exhibition with a lightweight 16mm camera. He was supported by the Swedish Film Institute, and the film lab FilmTeknik.

The first feature film shot in the Super 16 format, Lyckliga Skitar, with Ericson as the Cinematographer, began production at the end of 1969 and was released in Sweden in September 1970. This story is covered in the June 1970 issue of American Cinematographer.

Description of Super 16

Simply put, Super 16 is a variation of the original 16mm format that increases the exposed negative (image) area by extending it over the area of the film that was reserved for the optical soundtrack in the standard 16mm format.

Originally 16mm camera original film had perfs on both sides. Because 16mm had become the preferred format for television news gathering, many 16mm cameras were equipped to shoot on magnetic striped film, which had perfs on one side only. Because of this, nearly all 16mm cameras manufactured after 1950 could shoot single perf film.

The soundtrack area could not be used for increasing the image size if the resulting film was meant to be printed and shown on a 16mm projector, because this area was needed for the optical soundtrack. In the case of 16mm film that was optically printed (blow-up) onto 35mm film this was not a problem, and the increased image area greatly improved the quality of the resulting blow-up.

Cameras for Super 16

When the Super 16 format was developed by Ericson, there were no cameras designed to shoot it. All Super 16 cameras before 1977 were modified 16mm cameras.

The first 16mm camera successfully converted to Super 16 was a Eclair NPR. Subsequently an Éclair ACL was converted. Eventually Aaton became the first camera manufacturer to offer Super 16 cameras (Aaton 7 LTR) from the factory. ARRI began offering special order Super 16 versions of the Arriflex 16SR. With the introduction of the Aaton XTR in 1983, all Aaton cameras were Super 16 ready from the factory. ARRI did the same with the introduction of the Arriflex 16SR3 in 1992. Today all new 16mm cameras are Super 16 compatible. All professional grade 16mm cameras can be converted to Super 16, with the exception of the Arriflex 16BL.

The need for Super-16, Part One

The Super-16 format was originally devised to solve the problem of the low quality of standad-16 optical blow-ups to 35mm prints. All 35mm non-anamoprhic film prints are exhibited in either the 1.66:1 format (in Europe) or the 1.85:1 aspect ratio format in the USA. Standard-16 has a 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

When a 35mm blow-up is made from a standad-16mm negative, less than half of the original negative image area is transferred to a standard 35mm 1.85:1 internegative, due to the amount of cropping that is needed to convert the aspect ratio from 1.37 to 1.85. By both making the image area larger and changing it’s shape to a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, Super-16 makes for much higher quality optical blow-ups to 35mm.

Improvement in Quality with Super 16

The standard 16mm aperture is 7.5 x 10.4mm, giving an area of 78mm square.

The Super 16 aperture is 7.5 x 12.4mm, giving an area of 93mm square.

Therefore Super 16 gives an total image area 20% larger when the full apertures are compared in their original aspect ratios.

The difference becomes more dramatic when we compare standard and Super 16mm at the 1.85:1 aspect ratio required for 35mm blow-up exhibition:

Standard 16mm 1.85:1 extracted image area for blow-up: 5.21 x 9.60 mm = 50mm2

Super 16mm 1.85:1 extracted image area for blow-up: 6.46 x 11.95 77.2mm2

Increase in image area with Super 16 for 1.85:1 blow-up 55%

Diagram of standard and Super 16 exposed negative areas.

The Need for Super-16 Part Two – HDTV

Originally, there was not much reason to shoot Super-16 for video transfer. The television aspect ratio was 1.33:1 in the US (NTSC) and the rest of the world. This all changed with the coming of the HDTV format. Also referred to as the Advanced Television Standard Committee (ATSC).

Although there are several HD formats, the most common being 720p and 1080i, they all share a common aspect ratio 1.77:1, commonly referred to as 16×9. Super-16’s native aspect ratio of 1.66:1 is a near-perfect fit for HD video transfer.

Standard over-the-air NTSC television transmission (referred to as “analog” TV) went permanently off the air in February 2009.

The increase in image area transferred to video for film to HDTV transfer in going from standard 16 to Super 16 is a 64% increase!

Standard 16mm HDTV 16:9 Transmitted Area 5.25 x 9.35 mm, area = 49.1 mm2

Super 16mm HDTV 16:9 Transmitted Area: 6.72 x 11.95 mm, area = 80.3 mm2

Increase in HDTV Transmitted Area with Super 16: 64%

The reason 1.66:1 and not 1.77:1 is the ideal format for film origination for HD is because it is always preferable in a film format to have some buffer zone around the frameline. Sometimes small specs of emulsion build up on the edge of the aperture in the frameline area, causing a rough appearance to the frameline. This problem does not exist at the sides of the aperture. Also, it is always preferable for camera operators to have some area above the top frameline that is visible in the viewfinder to know when the boom operator’s microphone is close to the top frameline.

Image Resolution: Super 16 versus 1080p/24sf Digital HDTV Video

Super-16 is also a perfect fit for HDTV in terms of it’s resolution performance. The highest resolution HD format is 1080p/ 24sf 1080 x 1920 pixels progressive-scan format.

However, true 1080p content is almost never seen in the home environment due to the following factors:

Most consumer displays can’t really deliver true 1080p image quality

Most consumers are viewing content through digital cable, digital satellite or increasingly through internet services such as Amazon, Apple TV or Netflix. And many are simply viewing content on their computers through one of the above services or through youtube.

In all of the above cases, due to the high data rate of 1080p video, the content will be subject to a high rate of digital compression to reduce the data size for streaming.

This results in a negation of part of the resolution advantage of 720p or 1080p video over NTSC. The end result is that the resolution and MTF advantage of 35mm content is not as pronounced as you might expect when viewed as compressed HD video.

It is only in the case of Blu-Ray discs, which have the highest data rate of consumer video products at the moment, that the difference might be perceptible.

This does not mean that Super 16mm content will be indistinguishable from 35mm or HD video content when viewed as a compressed HD video stream. The difference in edge sharpness (MTF below the HD video resolution limit) can still be noticable, and Super 16mm film will impart a “grain texture” to the image. But the resulting image is completely Acceptable in terms of viewing quality for HD viewing.


Techincal dissussion of Super 16 and HDTV resolution

Super-16 Conversions for ARRI 16 SR We offer Super-16 conversions by P+S Technik

Optics for Super-16 Information on which lenses will work in the Super-16 format.


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