16mm film

So long, farewell to 16mm film

The visual artist Tacita Dean wrote an interesting piece in the Guardian last week about Deluxe buying the London-based Soho Film Laboratory, and how as a result they will no longer be processing 16mm film. It’s worth a read. Dean focuses on the effect this will have on artists such as herself, but I’d argue that there’s another group that also thrives on 16mm: film students.

The appeal of digital for film schools is understandable: it’s cheaper for the course runners, and is easier to use for the students. Speaking as a former film student myself, the first 16mm films that one makes inevitably end up looking like bawdy British sex comedies from the 1970s. It’s depressing.

However, the value in 16mm is not in the picture quality (although it can look gorgeous, actually) but what’s gained from the process of using it. There’s a horrible sinking feeling that accompanies the knowledge that you have more footage left to film than stock left to film it with, and it’s one of the most valuable things a film student can learn. Not only does it force you to be economical, but it teaches you to be creative and decisive. What is the most efficient way of telling this story? How do you want to shoot it? These are things you can’t learn when it’s possible to leave the camera running all day.

If British Cinema in the 2020s is bloated and unwieldy then this decision by Deluxe can be pinpointed as its genesis. Dean has started a small campaign of letter-writing and has created an online petition; if you’re interested in signing, its online here.