Why Did Anime Use 16mm Instead Of 35mm Film?

by Justin Sevakis,

Elliott asks:

With the recent push of Gundam productions put on Blu-Ray in North America I've become curious about the usage of 16mm film versus 35mm. Most of the TV productions seem to be printed on 16mm. However, the first several episodes of Victory Gundam and the entirety of Turn-A Gundam used 35mm. I can only presume that most anime on TV used 16mm for cost reasons, but how prevalent was 35mm throughout the decades? Was it only used for shows they knew would be a hit?

Back in the film and cel paint days, most high budget stuff was shot on 35mm film, the same kind that was commonly used for movies and live action TV shows. 35mm looked great -- it's roughly the analog equivalent of 1080p HD video. With the right film stock and a good photographer, a 35mm film image could be filled with detail, lush colors and, by the late 80s, really not that much grain.

But 35mm was expensive. Film stock, processing and video transfer all added up to quite a sum -- as much as US$10,000 per episode would be spent just on film stock and lab costs, and that's cutting every corner. With TV anime budgets so tight, this was seldom a luxury that could be afforded. Most anime ended up only using 35mm film for the really visually splashy stuff: the opening sequences, and occasionally really big episodes. Only the highest budget TV series went 35mm for their entire run.

Instead, most TV productions used 16mm film. 16mm has an image roughly 1/4 the size of a 35mm film image, and this makes for a much softer, grainier picture. It was also much cheaper to buy film stock and much cheaper to develop. And even though the picture was much blurrier than that of 35mm, analog SD video was significantly worse than either one, so for decades it was considered "good enough" for TV.

16mm was originally intended as a format for hobbyists -- something better than the "home movie" format of 8mm (which was so soft and grainy that it's worse than VHS in many ways), but still not really intended for professional use. It was commonly used in schools as an exhibition format -- libraries often stocked 16mm prints of short films, documentaries and occasional feature films. TV networks used 16mm to shoot many TV series, and also to distribute programming to affiliates before video tape was common. Higher budget commercials also were shot in 16mm well into the 90s. Lower budget indie movies also were often shot in 16mm (or its refined, known as Super16, used a larger surface area of the film and eked a little more quality out of the format late in its life).

With modern digital restorations, it can be hard to tell what originated on 35mm and what was shot on 16mm. However, one easy give-away is in those ugly film splices that can often be seen in 90s anime for a single frame, whenever the shot changes. 16mm is tiny, and so physically splicing and gluing the film was pretty much impossible without affecting the picture. To cut the budget even further, many TV series employed hot-splicers to work directly on the final film stock, rather than properly cutting a negative from a workprint like movies did.

Today 16mm film stock is hard to even find, and there are only a few labs left in the world that can develop it. However, in anime, its cost-cutting legacy lives on: these days, to cut budgets at the cost of image clarity, an anime will be produced at a lower resolution, and then scaled up to 1080p in post-production. Only high budget movies, OVAs and an occasional TV series (or parts of it) get produced in full 1080p. It's just like how 16mm and 35mm used to be.

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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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