The Early Years of Super 16 and How it All Started

Rune Ericson somewhere near the North Pole

Rune Ericson somewhere near the North Pole

Lets go back 41 years to April 1966. I was 42 years old and had been working in the film business for 24 of them.

But first, as a curiosity – My work with film began in a lab where I processed 35mm black and white negatives on wooden bars which took 60 meter film each and then dried them on a big wooden drum. That went on for six months – before the old-fashioned lab was closed down. After that, I got a job as an assistant cameraman. I worked mostly on feature productions, but shot some documentary films and some commercials too. After the war ended, they were suddenly producing a lot more films and, back then, most were made in the summer. So there was always a shortage of film crews.

In the spring of 1946, the manager of Sandrew Film studios called me into his office and informed me that I would be working on a film called “Mästerdetektiven Blomqvist,” which was to be directed by Rolf Husberg. OK, I said, who’s the DP? The manager looked me deep in the eyes and said, “You’re going to shoot that film.”

I can still remember how my heart thumped and my face grew pale (I was only 22).

The manager could see I was shocked, so he placed his hand on my shoulder and told me not to worry – the director had once been a cameraman himself. (I later learned that he’d been assistant cameraman on a few films). The film was no masterpiece – but at least you could see what was going on, on screen!

OK! That was that. Back to 1966, again.  By then I’d shot 27 features in 35mm, four of them in EastmanColor.

In the 40’s and 50’s, there was a wonderful Swedish actress named Mai Zetterling. She even had an international film career – particularly in the US, where she had leading roles opposite the likes of Tyrone Power, Danny Kaye, Peter Sellers, Dirk Bogarde, and so on. In the early 60, she decided to give up her work as an actress and become a director. She made some documentary films and one feature (which I didn’t shoot).

In the spring of 1966, Mai contacted me and asked if I’d like to make a film with her. “Of course,” I said. She told me that the story was an unusual one. The project involved traveling around the world for six months with a very small crew – around five or six people in all. But most of the filming would be done in Iceland, in the black-lava volcanic landscape.

We would have to do a lot of the work with a handhold camera, Mai told me. (Remember, the lightest, noiseless 35mm camera at the time was Arri 2C in a 120 Blimp, which weighed 20 kilos.) “No problem,” I said to Mai, we can shoot hand hold with a regular Arri 2C, but you’ll have to dub all of the dialog. “No. No. No,” said Mai, “I hate doing that.”

So, of course, we thought that shooting in 16mm might be a way to do it. At this point, I should mention that throughout my career as a cameraman, I’d been shooting with 35mm Debrie, Arriflex, and Mitchell cameras.

occasionally, I’d receive reels of Kodachrome 16mm as a gift from Kodak and I used it to film my kids and my family. That was more or less the extent of my experience with 16mm film.

There were two noiseless 16mm cameras we could use for our film: Arri 16BL  and Éclair NPR .

Mai and I went to Iceland to check out locations. Just for testing, I brought a little spring-loaded Kodak Cine Special camera and some reels of Kodak Ektachrome Commercial.

Back in Sweden again, the lab made a blowup to a 35mm internegative 1:1,66 wide screen by cropping the original Ektachrome.  We looked at the 35mm print in the screening room and agreed that the quality was quite acceptable – particularly for the type of film we were planning to make.

But as I sat there in that screening room in the afternoon in the spring of 1966, an idea popped into my head. Something just went click. And –  in a fragment of a second –  Super 16 was born. A very simple idea!

A simple idea – yes! But the rest of the Super 16 story became rather complicated.

But first . . . Mai Zetterling’s film project was cancelled by the producer. In the fall of 1966 I did shoot a film with Mai in 35mm black and white called “Night Game.” But that’s another story, altogether.

The idea of Super 16 was still firmly fixed in my mind. The first thing I did was to take a piece of a 16mm copy with sound track. I had a piece of paper, a pen, a slide caliper and a calculator. And I discovered that if I left 1mm of the side for supporting the film in the camera as well as for the lab, the widescreen area 1:1,66 was 40% larger than the cropped standard 16 and with widescreen 1:1,85, it was 46%. Theoretically, I understood that the results on a screen ought to be good compare to a cropped standard 16. But how to prove it?

First, I called Kodak’s man in Stockholm, Östen Söderlund, and asked him if it was possible to get single-perforation 16mm camera film. It was, he said, on special order. Good. That was one less problem!

But how to actually go about doing the tests? Before I went any further, I had to prove to myself that I was right. And what was the easiest way to do that? I didn’t have a Super 16 camera. And the lab didn’t have a Super 16 aperture plate for the Acme Optical printer.

So … I took a 35mm Arri 2C camera, removed the aperture plate and glued in a piece of black paper with the Super 16 format cut out in the center. I removed the ground glass and marked the Super 16 format with a pen. In the center of that, I marked the standard 16 cropped to 1:1,66.

I filmed around ten shots, wide angles, mediums and close ups. I did the same scenes framed in exactly the same way with the cropped standard 16 format. I used EastmanColor film.

Now, for the first time, we could blow up “Super 16” using the 35mm optical printer.

I’m glad to say that the Filmteknik lab, under the management of John Egermark, helped  me considerably. Without the support of Filmteknik, I don’t think Super 16 would ever have been born.

We made a direct blow-up to a 35mm copy. Looking at the result on a big screen was wonderful to me, of course. The difference in quality was enormous. The test proved that the Super 16 just might be the format of the future.

You can laugh, but the first Super 16 camera ever was a converted 35mm Arri 2C.

Eclair NPR with lens removed, showing widened Super 16mm gate. Notice how the lens mount has been shifted 1 mm so the optical axis of lens is centered on the gate.

Eclair NPR with lens removed, showing widened Super 16mm gate. Notice how the lens mount has been shifted 1 mm so the optical axis of lens is centered on the gate.

I showed the test to colleagues at the Swedish Society of Cinematographers and they were all impressed. I also spoke with some interested producers. But nothing really happened. though I did receive economic support for some more experiments from Lars Svanberg at the Swedish Film Institute. We started trying to convert an Arri 16 BL. But the construction of the mirror shutter and the size of the ground glass made the conversion difficult and expensive.

After examining the Eclair NPR, we came to the conclusion that it just might be possible to make a Super 16 adaptation with this camera. By we, I mean Carl Hellstrand and myself. In my opinion, Carl was the best camera technician in Sweden.

That was the situation around 1966 – 67. Over the next few years, I filmed as usual with 35mm,and the Super 16 idea was more or less asleep.

Rune Ericson and Vilgot Sjöman

Rune Ericson and Vilgot Sjöman

But in early 1969, a director called Vilgot Sjöman contacted me. He said, he’d heard about my idea for the “RuneScope” (That’s what my colleagues had dubbed Super 16 in the early days, after my first name). Vilgot had just had a box-office success with the semi-documentary feature in 35mm black and white, called, “I am Curious Yellow”. It was the film of the year, even in the US. Maybe because of some (for those days) extremely sexy scenes.

I showed him my early experiment and he told me that he wanted to do a semi-documentary film where around half the story took place aboard an old 50-60 foot boat. We’d have to spend around 20 days filming below decks in narrow, cramped areas. And many of the dialog scenes were to take place in the cab of a big truck as it was driving along. “I think ‘RuneScope’ is perfect, Vilgot said, “because my film can’t be done with a 20-kilo blimped  35mm camera (Remember, The Arri 35 BL hadn’t been built at that time).

Vilgot and I went to Sandrew Film and spoke with the producer Göran Lindgren. We described the Super 16 idea etc. After a while he asked: “Do you have a camera?”

“No, not yet. We have to convert an Éclair NPR.”

“Can the lab process Super 16?”

“No, not yet. They have to convert the processing machine etc.”

“Can you look at the dailies?”

“No, not yet. We have to convert a Siemens double-band projector.”

“Do you have an editing console?”

“No, not yet. We have to convert a Stenbeck table.”

“Can you blow it up to 35mm?”

“No, not yet. We have to order a new special aperture plate from ACME in the US.”

Göran Lindgren paced around the room and looked at us very seriously for at least 5 minutes. Then he turned at me and said: “Rune, I know you as a very serious and skilled cameraman. Do you really believe in this?” What should I answer? “Yes, of course I do.” Then he turned to Vilgot with the same question, and Vilgot answered, “Yes of course”.

Göran walked around some more and was silent for another few minutes. Then he turned to us. “OK,” he said, “if you two really believe in this, then let’s do it!”

Now the throttle was on full speed. We ordered an Eclair NPR. We bought a Siemens double-band projector to be converted. A 16mm Stenbeck table moved into our workshop. Filmteknik started to convert the processing machine and all the rollers etc, which would be in contact with the larger image area. Many of my experiments during the years were financed by the Department of Technical Research at the Swedish Film Institute. This included a Super 16 wet-gate aperture plate made especially for this purpose by Acme in Hollywood.

There was no problem moving the optical axis, getting the shutter to cover the enlarged aperture.

I had an optics factory make a new ground glass for the viewing system. In addition, Carl Hellstrand partially removed surfaces from wheels and other places in the magazines and camera body where the sound-track side of single-perf 16mm film would ordinarily ride. These were milled down to the point where there was only one millimeter of surface left.

Of course, we had a certain amount of trouble with scratches at first (I used up ten 400-feet rolls of film just for scratch research), but we worked on this problem and managed to correct it. Most of the scratches originated in the aperture itself. The tracking of the film didn’t go so well after almost all of the one side was removed, so we had to redesign and modify the aperture plate. We also redesigned the pressure plate for the magazines.

During the filming of Vilgot Sjöman’s feature picture we shot 50,000 feet of film, and we had to reshoot only three scenes due to scratches. I think that wasn’t so bad.

Then there was the matter of lenses. Most standard 16mm lenses will not cover the enlarged field of the Super 16 frame. I found Canon lenses made for television cameras – 13,5mm, 25mm, and 50mm – that were surprisingly good. Plus a Kineoptik 9mm and Schneider 18mm.

In the fall of 1969, the whole chain was ready to be tested – camera, processing, contact printing (using a standard Bell & Howell C printer), sound syncing, screening the 16mm rushes, editing, negative cutting, blow-up to 35mm Color Reversal Intermediate Negative, and release print.

At last, all of us who had been involved for six months, more or less, brought our baby to a big movie theater in the downtown Stockholm. All of us were very happy! I think the result was better than we had expected. In any case, the quality was good enough for the semi-documentary feature we were planning. Of course, it wasn’t 35mm. But look at the up side. We got pictures that would be impossible to shoot with heavier cameras. With a light-weight Éclair NPR, we could hope to capture the essence of the story in a better way.

The film, called “Blushing Charlie,” was shot between February and April, 1970 – a dark season in Sweden, so I had to use a fast film. Eastman Color Negative 7254 was really my only choice. I remember being very worried during the entire shooting period. Only one Super 16 camera existed in the whole world – what if something would happen to it! Accidents, dropping it on the floor, getting it stolen from the car, mechanical breakdowns, the list goes on. We were lucky though –nothing bad happened.

American Cinematographer Magazine has been my main source of information through the course of my carrier as a cinematographer. It was very natural for me to contact the editor Herb Lightman about our Super 16 experience.

Then I went for a week’s vacation in my sailboat before shooting my next film. It was early spring, and I was way out in the Stockholm archipelago. There were no other boats in sight. Through my PB radio, Lars Svanberg at Swedish Filminstitute read the answer from Herb Lightman. Here’s a quote from his letter:

“…However, we have been forced to move our deadline up to so that we will publish the Super 16 article in our June issue, now in preparation. I realize that this leaves you very little time to respond to our request. Nevertheless, if you could possibly prepare a short article on these phases to accompany the material sent by Mr. Svanberg, we will hold the presses until the very last moment, hoping that it will arrive in time.”

I had a pad and a pencil in the boat and I remember starting to write that same afternoon. 12 hours later, in the early morning, I was done. I sailed to the nearest civilization and mailed those pages of almost unreadable, handwritten “swenglish”. I’m still very impressed by the marvellous editing Herb did. The story was published in the June ‘70 issue of AmCin. Actually, the lion share of the magazine was dedicated to Super 16. Most of it was written by me and Lars Svanberg, including articles about blow-up techniques, wet gate and more.

Of course, reactions were mixed. Initially, most of the negative ones came from conservative film people – “stupid idea”, “better to go 35mm for feature”, and so on. Most of the big film labs were rather negative too. “Dangerous”, “it will scratch”, why rebuild a lot of equipment”, etc.

What surprised me was that even Kodak was very negative back then. Who knows, maybe they feared that Super 16 would cannibalize their sales of 35mm?

Arri declared that is was a stupid and unrealistic idea from a man living close to the North Pole. They said, if you use an Eclair NPR you would need a bigger negative area. But if you use an Arriflex, this would not be necessary. OK – it took them almost 20 years, but in the end they admitted that Super 16 was a nice idea.

But in all, there were more cheers than boos. Many cameramen around the world wrote to me asking for more informations – how to convert cameras, can you do it for us? And so, we rebuilt more than a dozen NPR cameras over the subsequent years.

Just the other day, I found an old letter written by me on August18,  1970. Here’s a quote:

“We have rebuilt altogether four NPRs and two features are being made in Sweden. One is in production and two in pre-production. Norway is planning one and in Denmark one started August 10.”

It still startles me, 40 years later, that it all took off so quickly, just a few months after my first film.

David Samuelson invited me to London to show tests. Color Film Service Lab was interested. Al Maysles contacted me. Haskel Wexler visited me in Stockholm. Irwin Young at Du Art Lab contacted me and liked the idea. I’m very happy that I kept all my correspondence from those days – 1970 to ‘73. There are hundreds of letters from all over the world, asking all kinds of questions about Super 16.

Today, as I go through all those papers, it makes me proud that I actually answered almost every letter. Remember, I was just a cinematographer. And Super 16 generated no income at all in the early years. Just a heck of a lot of work. But I was an obsessed man back then.

I remember, just as I started shooting the first film in Super 16, I told Östen Söderlund at Kodak in Sweden that if Super 16 becomes a success  I should be entitled to, at least, 0,5% of all revenue from the sales of single-perf camera film in the world. It was a joke at that time. Unfortunately, it still is.

A letter came from Paris soon after that June ’70 issue of American Cinematographer magazine was out. It was from Mr. Coma, the manager of Eclair. He was neither positive nor negative – just invited me to visit him. He pointed out that I had done things to his camera. Honestly, I was quite nervous when I went to meet him. Was he going to be angry or what? But I had no reason to be afraid. He shook my hand and patted my shoulder with a friendly smile and said: “Well done! I like your idea.” Then he promised me about $1000 in French Francs. A great deal of money for me at the time. Then he showed me around in the factory, and we went to a counter where a young man with enormous black hair was sitting. He was Jean-Pierre Beauviala, an electronics engineer working on the design of the first crystal-controlled motor for the NPR. Mr. Coma introduced us and asked him to take me to lunch.

In the restaurant, the table was covered with plain white paper, very common back then in Paris. I understood immediately that Jean-Pierre really liked my idea. Not only liked it. He was extremely enthusiastic. His English was as bad as mine, but with so much uniting us, we had no problems to communicate. He had a pen and started to make drawing on the table paper. Before long, there were aperture plates and pressure plates.  There was an NPR camera completely redesigned. You could hardly recognize the old NPR. Two years later, I realized that these were the first sketchy  drawings of the AATON camera. We shook hands, and promised to stay in touch.

He soon left Éclair and went to Grenoble, where he proceeded to build crystal-controlled motors. You guessed it – for the NPR. I actually sold some of them. He told me he was also working on a new Super 16 camera.

Jean-Pierre and I met again at the Photokina in Cologne, in 1972. He was sitting at a small desk showing the prototype of the AATON camera. The camera looked very neat and handy. Perfect for handholding. Later he used the expression “Like a cat on your shoulder” in the advertising. You can’t  find a better sentence to describe the camera. I looked at it carefully and discovered that one thing was missing: there was no carrying handle. I made sketch of a handle and showed it to Jean-Pierre. Jokingly, I used to say: “The handle is my contribution to the AATON camera.”

Jean-Pierre said to me: “Now that you’ve made me build a Super 16 camera, it’s your duty to sell it up there in Scandinavia.” Well, why not, I thought. Selling a camera and shooting pictures – what a great combination!

Another word about lenses. I already mentioned how, in the early years, it was tricky to find good ones for Super 16. I tested quite a few, and found these quite acceptable: the Kinoptic 9mm, the Cooke Kinetal 12.5, 17.5, 37.5, 50 and 75mm. Canon’s TV lenses 25 and 50mm were very good.

The big problem was zoom lenses. The standard 16mm zooms didn’t cover the Super 16 area. After the article in AmCin, I came in contact with Canon and discussed  zoom lenses with them. They said it would be possible to convert one of their TV zooms to Super 16. “Great!”, I said.

Believe it or not – just a few months later, two prototypes of Canon Super 16, 14 – 84mm lenses were sent to me for testing. They were very good and I asked them just to make the meter scale bigger and easier to read for the camera assistant. That lens became more or less the standard zoom for Super 16 during the ‘70s and beyond.

In early 1976, Jean-Pierre Beauviala delivered the first AATON camera  to me from the serial production. I started a company called “Rune Ericson Film AB”. Suddenly I was a business man. But my life-long profession first and foremost, was that of a cinematographer. Fortunately, after a year I had hired two very skilled technicians, which meant that I could still shoot at least one feature a year.

Here’s more about the zooms. We really needed one that was wider at the short end. At Photokina and other exhibitions in the years to follow, I often met Brian Newman from Rank Taylor Hobson. They were making a very good zoom, Cooke 9–50mm. I always asked Brian, “why can’t you convert that one to Super 16? He always answered, “Sorry, it’s too expensive. This went on for a few years. Suddenly he said. “OK, if you order 20 lenses, we’ll do it for you. I was shocked, that was such a lot of money. But I did want those lenses. I spoke with my customers, other cameramen, AATON etc. In the end, it looked like it might be possible to sell most of them.

My wife and I had a nice summerhouse on an island in the Stockholm archipelago, though I was the formal owner on paper. So the first thing I did was to give the house to my wife. (Not a bad gift, but I think you can understand why.) Then I ordered the 20 zoom lenses. I’m happy to report that the house is still in our possession. The lenses were delivered one by one and were sold right away on arrival.

I said earlier that the interest in Super 16 was low in the US. But I have to add that on the East Coast, I heard from many people – most importantly from Irving Young at Du Art Laboratory. Early and on, I showed him excerpts from  “Blushing Charlie”. He liked the idea and started to convert the lab – and did a great deal of PR. Later he bought an AATON, and his brother Bob shot many tests for demo – even parallel shots with Panavision 35mm. From my heart, I’d like to say, “Thank you Irving, you did a great job for Super 16 in the US.”

Remember, when I pioneered Super 16 exactly 40 years ago, I had just one goal. It was not to make film production cheaper, but to make better semi-documentary feature films for cinema release.

In those early days, TV was in the 4×3 format. There was no interest in the Wide Screen format at all. But a ghost was looming in Japan in the ‘80s: HDTV in the 16×9 wide screen format.  Some TV production companies started to wonder if HDTV some time in the distant future might become the new TV standard. “In other words,” they thought, “if we make our important drama productions in wide screen today, these productions may have a second life some time in the future. And there’s only one medium that can store today’s productions for the future – FILM.” That was a pretty good thought back in the ‘80s.

I’m happy to note that Swedish Television came to that conclusion very early. They decided to shoot most of their main drama productions in Super 16. For me it was a fantastic situation. I sold altogether 48 AATON cameras to them. Swedish Television’s decision to go Super 16 was not lost on TV companies around the world and many followed. Of course, 35mm is even better, but few TV companies can afford to take that route.

Well, this was my story about Super 16 in the early days. What’s happening today, you know much more about than I do.

Over 31 years after Super 16 was first introduced in the American Cinematographer Magazine, I received an Oscar (Sci-Tech Award of Commendation). I couldn’t have been more proud and happy: my struggle – and the years of work I put in – for Super 16 hadn’t been in vain.

In 1986, I shot the first feature film ever in 35 mm 3-perf with the two first Golden Panaflex cameras which were converted for me by Panavision. But that is another story.

 

PS. Today, as an old and carefree senior citizen, and after 52 years behind a film camera, I sometime play around with a little mini DV camera. It’s great fun!

Editors note: The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented an Award of Commendation to Rune Ericson at the Scientific and Technical Awards dinner on Saturday, March 2, 2002. The award was accompanied with the following words:

“Rune Ericson is being honored for his ground-breaking efforts on and dedication to the development of the Super 16mm film format for motion pictures.

“For more than 30 years, Ericson has tirelessly worked to improve the Super 16mm format, which has been used for more than 500 feature films shot throughout the world since the 1970s. The Super 16mm film system gives the camera extreme mobility, allowing cuts in production costs and shooting time without corrupting the quality of the image.

“The 16mm film format also has played a significant part in furthering the mainstream success of low-budget films. By extending the width of the 16mm frame, more of the frame height can be used, which allows low-budget films to be produced in a technically compatible version for widescreen theatrical release.”

“This technology has furthered the film industry overall, and in particular, provided enormous advantages to low-budget productions,” said Richard Edlund, chair of the Scientific and Technical Awards Committee. “Ericson is a pioneer in this field and a worthy recipient of the Academy’s Award of Commendation.”

Ericson has worked as a director of photography since his first film in 1946. The Swedish film “Ronja Rövardotter” earned Ericson the Guldbagge, the Swedish equivalent of an Oscar, for best photography in 1984.

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3 Responses:

  1. David Schwartz:

    Came to this page through a link from the article about Rune’s passing http://www.fdtimes.com/2015/02/05/rune-ericson-1924-2015/
    As a long time fan and user of Super 16, this is such a fascinating story. I’m sorry I never met Rune. He seems like a really nice guy, the warmth of his words coming through the page. I love his last line “…as an old and carefree senior citizen, and after 52 years behind a film camera, I sometime play around with a little mini DV camera. It’s great fun!”
    None of that “You young punks with your digital cameras, get off my lawn!” nonsense.

  2. It’s “Irwin” not “Irving” Young at DuArt.

    • Jon Fauer:

      Ed–thanks for spotting the typo. Also Wexler not Wextler :)

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