Dunkirk in Imax

(photo: Kathy Palmer)

If you get the chance,  do see Christopher Nolan’s  DUNKIRK in Imax. I found it stunning,  and the audience obviously thought so too. They clapped at the end.  And before the show, the manager of the BFI Waterloo Imax cinema gave a short introduction.  With arms outstretched he held up a 24-frame length of 70mm film,  with 15 perforations to each Imax image: they run horizontally.  That’s just one second of screen time !   He was keen on putting on more 15/70  presentations,  a refreshing attitude.  At present the digital Imax is 4K resolution on a smaller screen.   And the adverts we had been forced to watch (too large in my opinion) were only 2K,  he pointed out.  There was glee in his voice:  “Now you’re going to see 18K ! ”


As for the film,  great acting from Kenneth Branagh and Mark Rylance and others.  Very realistic sea and air action.  Fantastic sound effects.  Effective music…  Do see it.  I don’t think it will look much though on a small screen.   However,  another alternative is traditional 5 perf 70mm projection.   Indeed,  most of the sparse dialogue was done in 5 perf 65mm,  with black bars top and bottom of the huge Imax screen.   A similar method was used in Nolan’s previous movie INTERSTELLAR  but that was 35mm anamorphic. This time it’s less distracting.  Why not shoot dialogue in Imax ?  Apparently the cameras are just too noisy,  and Nolan doesn’t like adding dialogue afterwards.  However,  the close shots of pilots radioing were seen in full Imax:  their mouths were covered and not visible !


Can 16mm become wider ?

Remember he had claimed Henry.L.Buckingham (actually he was always known informally by his middle name Laurie) had invented the widescreen Variscope system ?  And Laurie had apparently written about it in the prestigious American Cinematographer journal.  Since then, thanks to researcher and archivist Guy Edmonds,  that article has come to light.  It’s dated November 1964.  However,  Laurie Buckingham had been using the system  since the early 1950s.  It turns out  that Laurie’s  system was called  ‘Varispect’  although the image size was identical to Ian Smith’s  Variscope.  In the AC article,  Laurie goes into substantial detail about the mods he made to his 16mm Bolex, even making a curved rear pressure plate to improve focusing of wide-angle lenses.  Also a cunning air-pump that held the film firmly in the gate !  Not to mention a registration pin for extra stability.  (Personally I have always felt Bolex’s have a superb steadiness anyway.)  There are illustrations of these mods in the AC article, however it would be fantastic if some time in the future we could all see the work of this engineering genius.  Again we have to thank Steve for telling us about his late father.  (Some of his exploits actually rubbed off on Steve, but there’s no space here !)

Now,  I don’t want to get into the game of who did what first. What I find intriguing is that all these years ago,  two chaps, Laurie Buckingham and Ian Smith, were working independently it seems on trying to create a non-anamorphic widescreen format for 16mm film.  It does look as if both Super-16 and the lesser used Ultra-16 formats were in fact born many years before we thought.  Lone inventors and engineers often are not too expert at getting their ideas taken up?  Then what of this majestic sweep of Variscope or Varispect whatever you want to call it,  why was this idea never adopted by the film world ?  Here we have surely,  a marvelous way of creating very wide 16mm film images.

WERE THERE OTHER VARISCOPERS ?!  Someone came into my shop a few days ago with a collection of 1950s  ‘Amateur Cine World’ mags.  I happened to open one (January 1954). There is an article mentioning the new widescreen systems then appearing,  with anamorphic lenses making their debut for the wealthier amateur cine enthusiasts.  The writer criticizes this development.  16mm he says  “is the one gauge which can afford to extend the gate aperture at either side.”   He proposes firstly a new format occupying the soundtrack area… (Super-16 !)   And  “a small reduction in the picture height would enable the gate to be extended between the perforations….  The aspect ratio of 2.33:1  so provided is almost the same as CinemaScope.   Extension of the frame area would make it easier to push through the film the extra light needed for wide screen projection.” Or would it ?  Remember in those days tungsten halogen lamps hadn’t  appeared.  So… because of the need for  “special projectors…. with optical systems capable of illuminating the larger gate…. the anamorphic lens won the day.”   The writer’s name is not givenIn another issue March 1960,  J.H.Wyburn describes the conversion of a 9.5mm Dekko camera to  “16mm wide screen format”.  From the small photo above he seems to use the full width of the film.    What this means is that way back in the 1950s and early 60s,  variscope or varispect perhaps was being tried by various (no pun intended) people !  Yet the manufacturers never took sufficient interest.  Anamorphic did win the day.

SO  HOW ABOUT  NOW ?   There is no technical reason why many existing 16mm cameras cannot be converted to Varispect/Variscope.  Same film cost,  extra image information.  Projection conversion is easier now,  more light.  Digital scanning never existed in those days,  now it’s easy.  With a native widescreen film format you will get better definition without anamorphic lenses, and modern movie film is also better than before (excepting Kodachrome !).  Digital formats have got wider.  16mm alone among the gauges has the wider potential. So what is holding everyone back ?

FLY IN THE OINTMENT…. Yes, these days it’s those manufacturer’s  markings that appear every foot or so,  and disrupt the wide image. The Ultra-16 frames along the top row… see that faint ’76′ mark third frame from the right ?  No problem with 1.85:1,  but anything wider no way.

There is no doubt,  the film manufacturer must play ball and get rid of those intrusive marks.  The ultra-16 sample was on Ektachrome 100D.  (I don’t know the situation with Vision 3.)  Now take a look at the lower sample:  normal regular 16mm on Wittnerchrome (Agfa) 200D.  There are no marks whatsoever !  The black areas are crying out for IMAGE.

PLEASE manufacturers,  follow Wittner’s  example.  16mm film has this hidden potential for WIDE images.  As Laurie Buckingham says in his 1964   AC article “picture quality not far short of Techniscope (35mm) at a fraction of the cost.”



Henry L. Buckingham, Widescreen Pioneer

You may remember my post  “Who Invented Super-16 ?”  in which I described Ian Smith’s  16mm widescreen VariScope system:   http://filmisfine.co/who-invented-super-16/             Well, I recently got a comment from Steve Buckingham in Australia,  saying that he thought his late father had invented Variscope.   And way back in the early 1950s !  I was naturally incredulous about this. However, read on.

Henry Laurie Buckingham only died last December.  He was 92.   Steve has begun going through his dad’s film gear, and  he kindly sent me a video giving a taste of what he had achieved.  It shows an impressive array of projection apparatus and sound recorders.  As for Variscope,  Steve believes that the American Cinematographer magazine, no less,  published an article about Henry’s  system. It probably dates from the 1950s because…. click here  Variscope   (it may take some time to load up) and you will see an actual film clip taken in 1953/4.   That little chap sitting on Henry’s  knee is son Steve !

As you see,  the widescreen  image extends between the 16mm perforations just like Ian Smith’s  system.  Steve has written an account of  H.L.B’s  work  on this and other amazing projects….    Here are some quotes:

Dad was an engineer who ran his own small business L.B. Products in Mordialloc, but spent a lifetime making equipment and gadgets for his passion, cinematography, mainly 16mm.

As a child he was fascinated by film, and his earliest experimentation was to try to make a simple projector in his bedroom. He had obtained a length of film (nitrate in those days), a candle and, I’m not sure, possibly a lens. Without an understanding of the requirement for intermittent movement, simply passing the film in front of a light source produced no results of course. He did learn one thing however viz. nitrate and open flames don’t mix;  in no time there was a mini bedroom fire, but fortunately no substantial damage!

About twenty years ago, before the modern cinema digital era made 3D commonplace and a bit of a yawn, dad built his own Variscope  16mm 3D rig comprising twin Bolex cameras and twin polarised Eiki projectors, all converted by himself. All this equipment is still in tact at his theatrette but in later years he adopted miniDV because the 16mm system was not only very cumbersome to shoot, edit and handle, but when Kodak eventually stopped processing here in Australia the film had to be sent to the US, involving weeks turnaround.

Long before the steadicam era, dad designed and built a gyroscopic stabiliser unit for his Bolex camera. It weighed about 1kg with a battery pack worn separately. It gave very good results, I would guess similar to steadicam, although I ‘ve never tried the latter. The (one and only) Mk 1 would not have been suitable for sound work however as it produced a low-level whine from the gyros.

In the carbon-arc era before Xenons and other compact discharge lamps, he designed and built a mirrorless compact 8 x 6 x 4 inch 65amp, self-feeding, self-striking lamphouse for his 16mm projector. It used 5 and 7mm copper clad carbons and employed an innovative rotating feed system for the positive carbon. (H.L.B. tried to get it commercially manufactured, was unsuccessful, but it’s possible his invention may have been copied later,  Steve thinks.   Doug)

He spent years developing a superb, compact, lightweight, self-blimped 35mm Techniscope-format camera, initially for his own use but later made cursory attempts to see if anyone would want to make it under licence. After his experience with the lamphouse people dad was very secretive with this camera. I accompanied him to Sydney to have the camera evaluated by an industry expert so as to support any negotiations with prospective licencees. The report was generally excellent; the only negative I recall was that the film transport design would not accommodate reverse film direction, something I don’t think dad had ever considered in design, but a feature sometimes used for dissolves and other effects. In conjunction with the Techniscope project he made a 35mm B&W developer/processor (mainly I think for processing the miles of film he shot in developing the camera), an optical reduction printer (35mm Techniscope to 16mm anamorphic) for his own editing purposes and also a 16mm contact printer, with correction, for his own use .

In his account,  Steve tells more about H.L.B’s  achievements and experiments, such as the tape deck that had a blob of mercury for reading special holes in the tape !  25 times a second. Ask if you’d like to see whole account.

Thanks, Steve for letting us know about your amazing father.  And hope you find that elusive ‘AC’ article soon.  Can anyone help please on this ?   Whatever any of us folks think….   ‘The truth is out there !’

This entry was posted in Miscellany, Photo Movie Notes and tagged 16mm, anamorphic, Techniscope, variscope, widescreen. Bookmark the permalink.

Auntie brings 16mm in from the Cold

Spooks460For the past few years,  the BBC has boycotted the use of  16mm film on its HD channels.   This policy was because of technical problems they encountered in transferring super-16,   possibly due to the random grain structure of film ‘interfering’  with their compression system.  Dramas and documentaries they said had to be shot digitally in future.

Last April,  no less than 32  British directors petitioned the Beeb,  demanding a change of policy.  They include Ken Loach,  Terry Gilliam  and Kenneth Branagh.   And  now they have finally won the argument !   The BBC will  accept super-16  for HD  broadcast.   Apparently,   the technical problems have been overcome.

Strange is it not,  that during the Beeb’s  period of   ‘NO 16mm film’    they did allow  two shows to break their rules.     SPOOKS…  and MERLIN.



Life After Ektachrome

Many of us shooting colour  have been shaken by Kodak’s  decision to ditch Ektachrome,  in all its formats…. (seems such a short time ago that  dearest Kodachrome was lost.)  With all the panic-buying recently, I find it hard to accept the ‘low sales figures’ argument,  but whatever their reasons,  we shall soon have to make some serious choices.

Only one reversal film now, the one on the right

Reversal colour film has decided advantages over negative.  You see the image in its purest form right there on the lightbox.  Half a minute later it can be seen big on a screen. With Ektachrome’s  passing,   many will no doubt switch to Fuji reversal emulsions.  Others will adopt the colour negative approach.   The only reversal film now made by Kodak  is Tri-X  black and white,  available in Super-8  and 16mm. Fuji continues to manufacture a good range of 120 and 35mm slide film,  including a low-priced emulsion for Agfa.  But Fuji’s  share of the movie business has always been much smaller than Kodak’s,   maybe that’s  why they recently decided to quit altogether.   And yet  small firms have been slitting Fuji colour reversal film and putting it into Super-8 cartridges.  Wittner offer Velvia which is very sharp,  and is processed in the same chemistry as Ektachrome.  I don’t know if they can keep the price reasonable,  an important factor for people these days.There is currently a fairly good choice of still colour negative emulsions from Fuji and Kodak,  not to mention smaller suppliers like Agfa.   Meanwhile,  Kodak insists it is serious about staying in the analogue film movie business.  Indeed they have just introduced  a new and biting sharp Super-8 colour negative film:  Vision 3 50D.    This is the same stuff used in major feature films….  some of the faster  Vision 3 emulsions were used for Steven Spielberg’s  “Lincoln”.

Colour negative is one option for stills and movies,  but there needs to be a decent range of emulsion choices,  both negative and reversal,  to suit all artistic projects.  Every film has its own unique look.   It seems crazy to me,  throwing  away that time-honoured  and well-loved reversal film… Ektachrome.

UP8… a large glass please

There have been many movie film formats using narrow gauge film.  We are all familiar with Regular 8mm and Super-8.  Then there’s the various  16mm formats and of course 9.5.   But have you heard of UP8 ?

up8-bolex-150x150 up-150x150UltraPan8  is  becoming increasingly popular among  independent film-makers and artists.    Nicholas Kovats of Toronto,  Canada  is an enthusiast  of this system.  UP8′s    main attraction is the ultra widescreen frame of 2.8  :1  ratio.   And this is achieved without using anamorphic lenses.   How ?   By using ordinary regular old standard 8mm film !

Regular-8  film is of course 16mm wide.   The UP8 image extends the full width allowed between the perfs.   This makes for a rather large image area.  Nicholas and other UP8  fans use modified Bolex H8 cameras to transport the film.  This means that it’s  possible to use very wide angle lenses that give a cinerama-type  effect.    You can get a taste of UP8 if you look at the new facebook page he has made:


Bolex cameras can be fitted with all kinds of exotic glass.  Of course the H8 camera has to take 16mm lenses.  I presume that means an additional modification at the front of the camera to get the focus correct… if I’m wrong please correct me someone in the UP8 community !   Even long telephoto shots can look amazing with this native widescreen system.  I see that Glenn Brady has been using a massive Century 500mm lens on his camera.   And at the other end of the scale he’s  fitted an ultra wide Century  1.9mm.  Yes that does read  1.9  !!

So,  if you are looking for a slightly different look for your next film,  how about UltraPan8 ?

Thanks to Nicholas Kovats for sending me these closeups of his camera modification (carried out by Jean-Louis Seguin I believe).   By the way,  I understand there is also a super-8 version of this format,  using the double variety. This takes us out to– wait for it— 3 to 1 image ratio.

Ferrania Making Progress with Analog Film

The Ferrania team are forging ahead with their 100asa colour reversal film.   It will be soon available in 35mm and 120 sizes,  as well as Super-8 and 16mm movie.   And this is just the beginning !  Their slogan is  100 More Years of Analog Film 

But they could do with some help from you.  They are currently making great progress with a Kickstarter campaign in an effort to rescue,  then restart the very big processing machines that will make their films cheaper.  In a short time they have succeeded with the amount pledged:  quarter of a million dollars, but they could obviously do with more to speed up the work.  When you make a pledge you can choose a reward,  some film that will be made early next year in smaller machines.  Mine was a roll of 16mm film, and I’m looking forward very much to trying it out.  There are plenty of different rewards.  Go to

And then you will also have the satisfaction of making it all happen !

Why Film matters

I was looking at the Kodak site,  and rather liked these comments by some film users….

Jean-Paul de Claite-Ross:
FIlm Matters for many reasons, one reason is because it last generations and does not become an obsolete codec in a few years.

Jeff Dorer :
The random pattern of film grain is an unpredictable element of the filmic image, and one of the last that’s still beyond the control of the contemporary filmmaker. This collaboration with the whims of photo-chemistry is a reminder that filmmaking as an art form is a collaboration with the  uncontrollable forces of chance and nature; and art is best when the artist relinquishes at least some control to these collaborators.

Mark Siebert:
Light is analogue, film is analogue.
Film is sympathetic in the image creation process. It leans towards
the senses when you work it, and is full of hidden surprises in
aesthetic conclusion. Digital is just hard work. You’re always
searching for that emotional resonance, form acquisition to final

Robert Stroud:
Film matters, because no one tries to make film look like digital video.

Film is not merely a recording of an image: it is an image.  The physical reality of film makes it into an art like oil paints, pastels, charcoal or stone. Light is engraved into emulsion like a chisel hammered into marble. A miracle is created by film: reality, time and space are captured and can be held in your hand.  The light of a projector shining through film is like the light of consciousness illuminating moments of time. Film is a great art and will never die.

And there are many others,  at


How do you feel about FILM  ?