Why did BBC Video use ghetto 16mm film for outdoor shots for so long?

I remember seeing Blackadder and while the indoor shots look like on Video, the outdoor seem to be in low quality. I heard they were shot in 16mm, which as far as I know is pretty ghetto, almost as bad as the 8mm that Grandpappy used.

So, umm, why did the government funded flagship station of a country with a large population and wealth give its TV arm ghetto level 16mm? Why not 35mm? Why so cheap?

16 mm is far from ghetto. It was the standard for non-soundstage recording for 30+ years, and had far superior quality to videotape until sometime in the 1980s. Don Hewitt kept 60 Minutes on film far longer than any other American TV show because he and the videographers both liked it better.

16 mm cameras are much smaller, lighter and easier to handle than 35mm, and if I were shooting outdoors, would certainly prefer to handle the smaller format.

Another frequently forgotten fact is the aspect ratio of 16mm film is 1.33:1.00 or 4:3, the same ratio as a standard TV screen. The aspect of 35 mm film is wider, which means you’d have to mask off the sides of a 35 mm print for TV.


Quality aside, if you think that shooting film is cheaper than shooting video, you’re mistaken. Video tape is dirt cheap; developing film can be very expensive.

There is more to the cost of shooting than that, though. There was a time when location shooting on video was all but impossible – video cameras were huge (and effectively immobile except on a smooth studio floor), and required a large lorry full of heavy and expensive equipment a convenient cable’s-length away to function. They were also much more restricted in the levels of light that they could work in, so that meant another truck full of lights, with riggers, operators, gaffers etc. And, of course, a handy supply of electricity to power all of this – which probably meant a generator truck, and the operators thereof.

16mm cameras, on the other hand, were light, easily man-portable jobbies, that could shoot in natural light if necessary, and run off batteries – you could fit a director, cameraman, soundman and all their equipment in the back of a Landrover.

Video technology didn’t really catch up to film in terms of quality and convenience until the late 1970s or early 1980s, but by then the BBC had been using 16mm for location shooting for 30 years or so and had a large investment in terms of equipment, infrastructure and trained staff.

And despite what the OP may think, the Beeb has never been what you might call flush with cash – even when the technology was available, it took some time for it to filter through the entire organisation.

Black Adder was made ~25 years ago, and up to the mid-eighties it certainly was cheaper to shoot exterior location scenes on film. Up to about the late seventies, it was the only option. The BBC has often operated on a limited budget, and persisted with 16mm film perhaps longer than others, even helping develop enhanced versions of it.

(The BBC is not exactly “government funded”, as suggested in the OP. It would be more accurate to say that the BBC collects a fee directly from TV owners, under powers given to it by parliament and at a level periodically set by the government. Political pressures keep this fee from being too high,which means that the Beeb often has less money than its commercial rivals. So highly desirable properties such as live Premier League soccer are generally shown on commercial channels - the BBC simply can’t afford the rights.)

35mm film is the same ratio, widescreen films are either cropped at the top and bottom, or an anamorphic lens is used. (There are exceptions, such as the 2-perf process used filming Fistful Of Dollars and it’s sequels, but they were rarely used in Hollywood films).

Previous discussion

I’ve read that this persisted longer in the UK (using film for outside shooting) because of Britain’s damp weather (video equipment being more sensitive to moisture than film).

I don’t know if this quite fits but when I was in California in 1983 I took a tour of “Tonight Show” studio. Even then the Tonight show was a huge source of profits to NBC. The tour guide spent a lot of time talking about how much money people got if they were on or off screen “If the Pips are backing up Gladys Knight in a booth, they each get $350. If they appear on screen they each get $550. If a stage hand gives David Bowie a mike and his arm is seen he get $175, if his face is seen it’s $400”. Really gave me the impression that they watched their pennies on that show, so I imagine that happened a lot elsewhere.

Of course for cheap productions, check out DVDs of the 1960s horror soap opera “Dark Shadows”. El cheapo sets, mikes and shadows appear on camera, shot of live-to-tape so they had to use what the actors said and some of them such as Jonathan Frid and Joan Bennett forgot a lot of words. What few scenes that are done outdoors (mainly in the early episodes)
would make a father with a super 8 camera look like Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”. Although on one of the interviews, someone says that was not commented on at the time. It was only later as it became one of the few soap operas to be rerun on other networks and have VHS/DVD releases that people picked up on the glitches.

The OP has been pretty well answered. (And I gave a similar answer in TriPolar’s link.)

But I have to chime in to say that 16 mm is not ‘ghetto’. My best fiend’s first feature was shot on 16 mm. The images, shot with Fuji 250T film, are gorgeous! FWIW, it was shot on an Eclair NPR using an Angenieux zoom lens.

Incidentally, El Mariachi was shot on 16 mm. (Arriflex 16.S with a non-synchronous motor.)

Does he know you don’t like him?

Ha! We’ve been calling each other ‘fiend’ since high school. As in ‘Johnny, old bean’ became ‘Johnny, old fiend’.

OT: My Best Fiend is a film by Werner Herzog, about his relationship with Klaus Kinski.

3. (adj.) poor; of or relating to the poor life
4. (adj.) jury-rigged, improvised, or home-made (usually with extremely cheap or sub-standard components)