Big advances in emulsion, lens, camera and digital intermediate technology are making Super 16 a more tempting option for cinematographers shooting on tight budgets. It’s the nuance that the DI process pulls out of the improved emulsion that’s caught their golden eyes. They can move quickly and cover scenes with multiple cameras, sometimes with just touches of fill light coming from handheld lamps and bounce boards, and still flawlessly match lighting in shots from different angles in the DI suite.
The Super 16 format traces its roots to the mid-1960s, when Rune Ericson began experimenting with ways to enhance the picture quality of low-budget films produced in 16mm. The Swedish cinematographer removed one of the two gear heads used to drive film through an à‰clair NPR 16mm camera and asked Kodak to provide a supply of film without perforations on one side of the frame. That expanded the useable image area on each frame by 45 percent, resulting in a dramatic improvement in picture quality. It also stretched the aspect ratio from 4×3 to 15×9. Ericson used the new format in 1970 to shoot a feature called Lyckliga Skitar. Many European filmmakers followed in his wake. When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recognized Ericson’s contribution to advancing the art and craft of filmmaking achievement in 2002, it noted that literally hundreds of independent feature films had been produced in Europe in Super 16. By then, many U.S. filmmakers were beginning to take notice.
Mainstream cinematographers who have recently lensed Super 16 features include Ellen Kuras, ASC (The Ballad of Jack and Rose), Paul Ryan, ASC (Admissions), Matty Libatique, ASC (Never Die Alone and She Hate Me), Haskell Wexler, ASC (Silver City), Nancy Schreiber, ASC (American Gun), and Amy Vincent, ASC (Hustle and Flow). Cinematographers who recently filmed Super 16 movies, episodic series and documentaries for television include Kees Van Oostrum, ASC (Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman), Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (Surrender, Dorothy), James Chressanthis, ASC (3: The Dale Earnhardt Story), Daniel Pearl, ASC (Frankenstein), Billy Dickson, ASC (One Tree Hill), John Inwood (Scrubs) and Ferne Pearlstein (Sumo East and West).
Haskell Wexler, ASC, Turns Sayles’ Silver into Gold
Haskell Wexler (Bound for Glory) credits director John Sayles with the decision to produce Silver City in Super 16. They produced the film at locations in Denver and the nearby mining community of Leadville. They worked at 51 locations during an ambitious 32-day schedule, taking maximum advantage of practical light.
Wexler cites a scene filmed in a dark mining tunnel, where actor Danny Huston is wading through waste deep water with the beam of a flashlight penetrating the darkness. Wexler was covering the scene with a single camera loaded with the 500-speed Kodak Vision2 7218 film. Someone in the crew was behind the actor waving a Maglite. The beam illuminating the walls and water in front of Huston seemed to be coming from the little flashlight in his hand, only with a brighter, wider beam. A small underwater light linked to a dimmer control was taped to the actor’s foot. Wexler used the dimmer to manipulate a glow of light in front of the actor, which silhouetted him. It’s a seminal scene in the story.
Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, Gets Extreme Contrast in Minutes
Surrender, Dorothy is a telefilm starring Diane Keaton. It was produced for CBS-TV at practical locations in San Diego with an ambitious shot list on a 21-day schedule. Zsigmond almost invariably covered the action with two Arri 16 SR3 cameras. One camera was generally on a master shot and the other on a close-up of either Keaton or another character responding to something she said or did. The cinematographer choreographed camera coverage with minimalist lighting that took maximum advantage of practical illumination.
In one moody scene, Keaton is in the foreground in a shadowy corner of a living room. She is singing along to a tune being played on a piano with other characters in the scene. A bright beam of sunlight is flowing through a window in the background. Zsigmond set up and executed the shot in one take just 10 minutes before the company broke for lunch.
"This new film  has a tremendous dynamic range, so we were able to set up and shoot this scene with extreme contrast in just a few moments," he says. "The film held all the subtle details we wanted in the shadows and highlights, and there’s no visible grain."
Paul Ryan, ASC, Goes Handheld For Freedom
Admissions was Paul Ryan’s first collaboration with director Melissa Painter. Ryan explains that the story is an intimate examination of a struggle for identity and control. He suggested shooting in Super 16, entirely handheld, to give the actors maximum freedom to perform spontaneously. His modest camera package consisted of a Panavision Elaine and an Arri SR3, usually with zoom lenses.
"I was struck by the lightness of the [Arri] camera," Ryan says. "It was important for me to be able to quickly get the camera just where I wanted it. Sometimes to get the right angle, I had to hold the camera while standing in an awkward position, or make a demanding move, which normally requires a dolly or jib arm."
Ryan mainly used Kodak Vision2 7218 film. The production shot primarily in a house with big windows.
"I knew that unless we grossly under- or over-exposed the negative, the images were going to be on the film," he says. "It saved time in the sense that I didn’t have to spend time controlling existing light. I knew we could smooth out rough edges in DI."
Kees Van Oostrum, ASC, Fires Up the Beauty Light
Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman is an original movie produced for CBS Television featuring Christine Lahti. The movie was filmed at practical locations and on stages in Los Angeles on a 20-day schedule. Van Oostrum shot about 90 percent of the movie with the new Kodak Vision2 7217 film. He explains that it’s a 200-speed, low-grain film with an expanded dynamic range for probing details in shadows and highlights. He covered most scenes with two Arri SR3 cameras. One was usually on a master shot, while the other camera, sometimes on a Steadicam, covered tighter shots.
"We were able to shoot in the tightest spaces with two side-by-side cameras," he says. "The [Russian-made] Elite lenses are phenomenal, with a great choice of 12 focal lengths. About a month before we started shooting, I asked if they had a 14mm lens, and they made one for me. That gave us the flexibility to shoot scenes in very small rooms."
Van Oostrum took a painterly approach to lighting Lahti. He used a custom-made "beauty light" imported from Holland. It consisted of fluorescent tubes with little lenses that enabled him to put dabs of soft light anywhere on her face from any angle.
The camera lenses were usually set at stop T-2.8, though there were exceptions, including a long scene with "a Barry Lyndon look." A house was primarily lit with romantic candlelight augmented with a few Chimeras. He shot that scene at T-1.4.
Van Oostrum lensed a few of the darkest scenes with the 500-speed Kodak Vision2 7218 film, and he used Ektachrome color reversal film to cover a few flashbacks.
"The Ektachrome recorded more saturated colors and a slightly harsher look, which tells the audience there is something different about these scenes," he explains
The cinematographer composed images in 4×3 format and protected for 16×9. The film was timed in HD at Modern VideoFilm, but will air in NTSC for now. He estimates that the decision to shoot in Super 16 trimmed about $50,000 in film and lab costs with no aesthetic compromises.
Daniel Pearl, ASC Gets Gritty, But Not Grainy
Frankenstein is a contemporary version of the classic thriller based on Mary Shelley’s 1910 novel. The film, which premiered on the USA Cable Network on Halloween, was scripted by novelist Dean Koontz and John Shiban. It marked the second narrative film collaboration between Daniel Pearl, ASC, and director Marcus Nispel, who have frequently joined forces to create award-winning TV commercials. Last year, they teamed up on the remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Pearl shot the original version of that thriller when he was 23 years old.
"New Orleans was a fantastic place to shoot Frankenstein because of the architecture and locations," Pearl observes. "There are many old buildings with kind of a moldy coating on exterior walls that was just right."
They had a week and a half of prep time and 20 days to shoot a 90-minute movie. Nispel and Pearl were told up front that the cable network planned to air the film in HD. Pearl says the decision to shoot in Super 16 was a nod to a relatively modest budget. He also felt that the compact cameras would enable them to keep pace with the ambitious shot list.
His camera package consisted of two Arri 16 SR3s with Angenieux 11-135mm and Canon 7-63mm zoom lenses and a full set of primes. Pearl generally had the two cameras tracking on side-by-side dollies. There were no cranes and only a few handheld shots.
"We’d start by shooting wide and medium shots at the same time, and sometimes I’d push in with one camera for a close-up with a 55mm prime lens, which gave the audience a sense of the space behind the character," he explains.
The close-ups are on the screen for just a few fleeting seconds, but Pearl believes that they bring the audience into more intimate contact with characters at critical moments.
Pearl recorded most of Frankenstein on 500-speed Kodak Vision2 7218 film. He rated the film for an exposure index of 400, which resulted in a slightly richer look. Pearl describes Frankenstein as "a dark, scary drama with a slightly gritty look. There’s a line between that look and obtrusive grain that [Nispel] didn’t want to cross."
The cinematographer inaugurated a new generation of Kino Flo lights on Frankenstein. "I told Kino Flo that I needed to hide compact lights in tight spaces," he says. "They gave us prototypes of two mini-tubes. One was five by eight inches long and one inch thick. The other was 16 by eight inches, and it’s brighter than conventional Kino Flos. They didn’t have names yet, so I just told the crew to get the big or small pancake. They are more intense than the original Kino Flos, with a different quality of light. The shadows aren’t as soft, which was perfect for this film, and we could hide them in small niches in minutes."
Pearl put final touches on the look while timing the film for continuity at Company 3 in Los Angeles. He says the experience convinced him that Super 16 is a viable option for films slated to air in HD.
Billy Dickson, ASC, Shoots for a Realistic Ambience
One Tree Hill is one of the many episodic series filmed in Super 16. The WB program chronicles the lives of a group of teenagers who are growing up in North Carolina in contemporary times.
The series is produced in Wilmington, NC, which provides background for the story. Dickson’s camera package includes a couple of Panavision Elaine bodies and a set of Canon prime and zoom lenses. He rates the 7218 emulsion at speeds ranging from 80 to 800 depending on lighting. For instance, in brighter daylight scenes, Dickson sometimes rated the film at E.I. 80 and compensated by using polarizers on lenses to reduce light coming through the lens. It also took the glow off faces.
"We lit city blocks, the ocean and beaches at night," he says. "One night scene was staged on a balcony with the ocean about 100 yards away. We wanted realistic ambience that suited the mood, so we used a few Condors to put sidelight on the ocean and also lit a walkway facing the beach."
Dickson shot dramatic scenes with a single camera, usually on a Steadicam, crane or tracking on a dolly. The second camera was used for occasional close-ups.
"We had some helium balloons, which were lifesavers," Dickson says. "We filmed basketball scenes in a gym. I turned off all of the sodium vapor lights, and flew four 15-foot sausage balloons and two 12-footers. Instead of filling them with helium, we used air and attached the balloons to the ceiling. I turned them on and off as needed. We had three floaters, which gave us a quick way to create believable light over a big area."
Ferne Pearlstein Finds Running and Gunning Easier
Pearlstein directed and shot Sumo East and West in Super 16. The film was co-produced and co-edited by her husband Robert Edwards. The story, which documents how sumo wrestling created a link between U.S. and Japanese cultures, will air on PBS stations.
"A big thing about Super 16 is how much freedom it gives you to frame images," she says, "especially in run-and-gun documentary situations, where composition becomes more of a dance. There is something special about the texture and beauty of film that reflects the emotional content. When you put your heart and soul into a project, you want it to last, so shooting on a proven archival medium is very important."