The BBC have told producers that they will no longer accept delivery of programmes shot on Super 16mm film. This is more serious than it sounds: I would imagine it’s been years since the BBC took delivery of anything on film – producers deliver on tape, or, in a pinch, on hard drives. But the broadcaster isn’t just rejecting film as a delivery medium: it’s rejecting anything shot on Super 16mm: which includes many British and independent features and TV shows, and a couple of my own features.
That these are dire days for film is no secret. The last manufacturer of black and white 35mm film is bankrupt. Kodak still makes monochrome stock. But for how long? Of course, broadcasters rejected black and white as a medium long ago (if you make a show for broadcast on the BBC or Channel 4 or the IFC or PBS you make it in colour!) but rejecting film as a medium seems arbitrary.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Super 16mm is harder to shoot with than 35mm. Financiers never believe this, imagining that a cost saving on stock and processing means cost savings everywhere – rejoice! But it is not so. The comparatively small area of film exposed translates into a need for lots more light. So what the production saves in one area it spends elsewhere: on more lamps and grip equipment, on extra crew, and on time wasted as lighting setups become more critical. You can “run and gun” an independent feature shooting on 35mm. It’s much harder on Super 16mm. So maybe indy productions shot on Super 16mm are tending to look under-lit and grainy. Still, one feels the BBC should not reject drama on the basis of film grain (especially when video producers often add “grain” to make their output look more filmlike), or make arbitrary rules proscribing all the work made on a good, if difficult, medium.
Rumour hath it that Alan Yentob, former BBC arts supremo, will intervene to grant Super 16mm a reprieve – at least for drama (does anyone still shoot documentaries on film?). Let’s hope so: otherwise films as diverse at THIS IS SPINAL TAP, LEAVING LAS VEGAS and MARCH OF THE PENGUINS can ne’er again be shown. The small pix accompanying this article are from my own film THREE BUSINESSMEN, shot and edited on Super 16mm. They’re taken from DVD screengrabs, not the original 35mm blowup, which would show considerably more detail. They look nice to me. You just need to shoot in daylight, or spend the time lighting!