Supersmart: Rune Ericson and Super 16

An article by
Per Sundfeldt, editor, the Swedish Film Database
Rune Ericson

What does Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar winner The Hurt Locker have in common with Vilgot Sjöman’s Blushing Charlie from 1970?

Answer: They were both filmed with Super 16 mm cameras—invented by Swedish cinematographer Rune Ericson in the 1960s.

The “Nationalencyclopedin” dictionary states that Ericson made his invention for Sjöman’s above-mentioned title but there is more to it than this, although Blushing Charlie was indeed the first feature shot in Super 16 to open in cinemas. In the mid-1960s Ericson had begun working with Mai Zetterling, and was to be the director of photography on all her Swedish features from Night Games (1966) and onwards. It was when they were planning a feature meant to be their first collaboration, which ended up not being made, that he came up with the idea for Super 16. The film was to be shot in Iceland and 35 mm cameras would have been too heavy and bulky for the shots they intended. The alternative would have been to use 16 mm cameras but since they wanted the film’s image to be in widescreen this would have meant a loss of image quality if they first had to crop the 1.33:1 size area from the 16 mm negative down to 1.66:1 (European widescreen image ratio) before blowing the result up optically for 35 mm prints.

Ericson realized that he could make use of a larger part of the negative’s surface by filming with single sprocket 16 mm film stock, in a modified camera given a larger aperture which could take advantage also of the unperforated side of the film. In this way he would be able to make widescreen films with an image quality very close to that of films shot in 35 mm. An added benefit would be substantial savings on the cost of film stock as 16 mm film was much less expensive. It was a win-win situation.

A couple of years of experiments followed, during which Ericson received assistance and support from the Filmteknik laboratory and from Lars Svanberg at the Department of Technical Research at the Swedish Film Institute. Then Ericson was contacted by Vilgot Sjöman who had heard about “RuneScope,” as Ericson’s colleagues jokingly referred to his invention. The film Sjöman was planning at the time was to be shot inside the boat where the main protagonist lived, as well as inside the cab of the truck where he worked. Super 16, as envisioned, would be perfect for the task. Sjöman and Ericson managed to persuade the production company Sandrews to invest in the project, which turned into the film Blushing Charlie, and it was shot–gingerly–with a single prototype–the world’s first Super 16 camera. After this, things moved along rather rapidly and Super 16 took on a life of its own. The periodical American Cinematographer dedicated much of its June issue of 1970 to Super 16. The cinematographer and director Haskell Wexler visited Ericson in Stockholm and the documentarian Albert Maysles also got in touch, as did representatives of laboratories and camera-makers from various parts of the world. Everybody was suddenly interested in Super 16, but some time naturally had to pass before some initial glitches were worked out and before manufacturers of film stock, cameras and other technical equipment, as well as the laboratories were on track.

Rune Ericson subsequently became the Scandinavian sales agent for the French company Aaton’s Super 16 cameras, while continuing to work as cinematographer on feature films. He also continued to invent, among other things the 3-perf system that utilises 35 mm film stock much more efficiently, but that is another story. In 2002 he received an Award of Commendation from the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his invention of Super 16.

Over the years there has been quite a lot of features shot in Super 16, not least in Sweden of course, and foreign filmmakers apart from Bigelow who have embraced it, include Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan), Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas), Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom), Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and Gaspar Noé (Irreversible).

A selection of Swedish features made in Super 16

Read more about Rune Ericson