Choosing a Camera

Selecting a camera involves considerations of cost weighed against expectations. Along with determining the most appropriate camera to use in a production, choices must be made regarding film stock, lenses, and filters. Then there's the matter of transferring the finished footage into the appropriate format. For the wide screen, the only choice is to transfer film to 35mm prints for running on standard theater projection equipment. Going directly to videocassette or DVD sidesteps this expensive transfer process, but it also limits the opportunity to screen the film theatrically.

Super 8

In the early 1930s, 8mm cameras were designed as a cheap consumer-oriented alternative to larger film sizes by slitting 16mm film stock right down the middle. Super 8 film cameras have been around since 1965, when Kodak introduced an upgraded version of the 8mm format. By eliminating the magnetic soundtrack tape on the edge of the film, the usable image area was increased by a substantial 40 percent.

Significant graininess results when Super 8 film is transferred to videotape, and becomes impossible to ignore when blown up to 35mm prints for theatrical release. Although Super 8 cameras are abundant and can be acquired for next to nothing, the drawbacks in cinematic quality usually outweigh the low cost. For film productions that are intended for distribution, the Super 8 format is probably not the ideal investment.

16 Millimeter

When people today discuss shooting with 16mm film, they're either referring to standard 16 or Super 16 sizes. Standard 16mm cameras and film result in box-like screen images that don't easily transfer to the rectangular dimensions of 35mm prints without significant cropping on the top and bottom of the images.

Most filmmakers believe that their budget is the determining factor in choosing a film format. A production budget of approximately $200,000 is a benchmark figure that is considered to be sufficient when deciding whether or not to use 35mm film.

Super 16 film is 40 percent wider than the standard 16 size, and correlates very well to the rectangular-size ratio of 35mm prints. Many feature films are shot on 16mm film, and with good cinematography, the audience is rarely the wiser. The real value of the standard 16mm format is that cameras are relatively common, inexpensive, and easy to acquire. Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez shot El Mariachi entirely on a borrowed 16mm camera. Modern film for 16mm cameras is extremely high quality, and it stands up well when blown up to 35mm print sizes for theatrical distribution.

Worldwide Standardization

Since the time of Thomas Edison's filmmaking empire in the early 1900s, 35mm has been the standard size film for feature films. The reasons for this are a combination of chance, availability, and economics. Edison's early motion picture camera utilized rolls of still camera film that were 70mm wide. Edison ordered rolls of this film split in half lengthwise for his project testing and development. The resulting 35mm film proved to be the ideal size for his first Kinetoscope. By protecting product patents and eventually obtaining a virtual stranglehold on the film industry in later years, Edison's 35mm format became the worldwide standard for professional filmmaking. That distinction remains true to this day, and virtually all theater projectors in the entire world are designed to handle only 35mm print stock.

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