The Origins of 16-mm
In 1923, Eastman Kodak introduced the first consumer movie camera in America, the Cine-Kodak, as a vehicle for its revolutionary new 16-mm film stock. This invention, later referred to as “safety film,” was designed to be cheaper, easier to use and less flammable than the 35-mm nitrate of the day. Ironically, this commercially motivated invention would democratize filmmaking, becoming not just a tool for shooting home movies but the preferred medium of activists, documentarians and experimental filmmakers alike.
16-mm at the NFB: The Original “Social” Medium
The onset of WWII and the creation of the National Film Board coincided in 1939. The Second World War became the NFB’s “raison d’être,” both in the production of its educational films and in their distribution. NFB-hired projectionists travelled Canada’s vast rural areas by car, bringing 16-mm films and projectors along with them to screenings in libraries, church halls, schools and community buildings. This ensured that all Canadians, even those without commercial cinemas in their towns, had access to NFB films on subjects ranging from the war to rural health to scientific agriculture—free of charge. In 1973, retired NFB projectionist C.W. Gray wrote, “In Canada, the distribution of 16-mm films has involved more than thirty thousand Canadians, in government, industry, voluntary organizations, film councils and in private life. Films have served as a tool in massive public information programs and have changed the social face of this country.… [They] are now considered a basic tool that may bring about social change.”
Direct Cinema – 16-mm Filmmaking at Its Peak
Long after the end of WWII and the retirement of its travelling projectionists, NFB filmmakers continued to innovate and educate using the versatile medium of 16 mm. With cameras on their shoulders, auteurs such as Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault would epitomize “Direct Cinema” documentary style, while forging Quebec’s national cinema with seminal works like La Lutte and Pour la suite du monde. Indigenous voices such as Alanis Obomsawin’s and Willie Dunn’s would reach classrooms across the nation through 16-mm projectors. Generations of Canadians would be delighted by NFB animations screened in libraries and community centres, a tradition that continues to this day with digital technology. We owe a debt of gratitude to 16 mm for blazing the trail; celebrate its centennial with us by discovering some outtakes from Gilles Groulx’s beautifully shot Direct Cinema classic, Golden Gloves!