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100 Years of 9.5mm Film

Collections / Screen and Sound - Posted 08-06-2022

The small gauge film format 9.5mm is not as well known today as other popular formats such as 16mm, standard 8mm and super 8mm. However, this may change now that it has reached its centenary and become the subject of a number of events which have been created to celebrate its history and impact on film culture.

 

 

Pathé 9.5mm film projectors in the apparatus collection of NLW Screen and Sound Archive

 

It was December 1922 when the French Pathé company launched its new 9.5mm format. It was a radical miniaturisation of both film exhibiting and film making technology which enabled significant reductions in costs. This in turn had the effect of making home cinema and home cinematography accessible to a much wider global public. The initial offering was of a movie projector – The Pathé Baby – which the company supported with a supply of films from its extensive back catalogue. Diverse short subjects and even edited down feature films all originally made on 35mm standard gauge were available for purchase or hire, printed down to 9.5mm. In many ways it was the VHS or Netflix of its day, the means for a re-dimensioned experience of cinema in the home. One year later Pathé added a camera to its new system which by then had a new competitor in the shape of 16mm film, backed by the American companies Kodak and Bell and Howell.

 

 

A camera magazine or ‘charger’ of 9.5mm film, showing its distinctive central perforation

 

The existence of these relatively affordable complete tools for small gauge filmmaking had the effect of making widespread amateur film culture possible. Although various now obscure formats had existed for well-heeled amateurs from the beginnings of cinematography in the late Victorian era, their use had never become a mass market phenomenon. Within a few years Pathé had sold 100,000 of its Baby projectors. The home movie making genie was finally out of the bottle!

 

 

An undated sales leaflet for the Pathé Baby projector

 

It is no coincidence that the moving image snapshots of everyday life which institutions like the National Library of Wales Screen and Sound Archive hold in their collections begin in the 1920s and are well represented from the 1930s onwards. Movie making became a popular pastime and was further democratised by the establishment of cine clubs in which members would share the costs and collaborate on story films and documentaries.

From 2013 to 2017 many such films in the UK’s national and regional film archives were digitised and contextualised as a part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. NLW’s Screen and Sound Archive was a partner of the BFI run project and 57 of its 9.5mm home movies were scanned and made freely and indefinitely available on the BFI player. Representative examples include:

Early film making at Welsh camp (1929)

This film skilfully applies techniques of narrative film making to the activities of a camping holiday, making a very lively and watchable film.

Wrexham Local Events

A newsreel style account of local life, including the demolition of a chimney.

 

 

A frame from the film Wrexham Local Events showing the shadowy presence of the anonymous pipe-smoking filmmaker, complete with camera and tripod

 

Holidays, Jolly Days and Happy Ways

Not just a record of a summer holiday but a gently satirical look at the British at leisure. One of a number of 9.5mm films by the talented amateur Harold Cox.

Motorcycles at Cradoc and Two White Rabbits

These are clips from films made by Jack Clark of Brecon. The Clark family were multi-generational residents of Brecon and still operate a family business to this day. Jack Clark owned and ran a Photographic supplies shop and studio which may have helped with supplies of film stock and developing chemicals. Some of his films can also currently be seen in the Brecknock Museum exhibition. For the centenary of 9.5mm we are making available a further clip from the Clark collection which shows areas of the town close to the river – Llanfaes Bridge and around the Cathedral – flooded in the 1930s.

In this case, we present an overscan of the material so that the characteristic features of 9.5mm can be seen. These include the central perforation and the notch cut into the side of the film at the point of an intertitle which triggers a still frame mechanism in the projector. The often associated melted frame is also visible, as is damage to the image from the action of the projector claw. Aside from the historical value of images of the flooding, something made newly relevant by our current concerns about climate change, this clip is an interesting example of the ‘remixing’ potential of 9.5mm in which Clark as a home movie maker has edited commercial footage together with material which he has shot himself. We cannot be sure how intentional this action was but it is suggestive that the scenes of flooding have been connected to the cartoon images of taking ‘an unexpected bath’.

 

 

Scanning 9.5mm film on the MWA Flashscan at NLW Screen and Sound Archive

 

In 1932, a new even more economical format, 8mm, joined the now buoyant market for home movie making. Despite this increased competition, 9.5mm continued to thrive as both a medium for making and showing films. Pathé’s catalogue of film titles continued to expand and new hardware catered for the development of 9.5mm sound film which meant contemporary releases could be heard as well as seen.

The gauge had a devoted following who appreciated it being less costly than 16mm but having a comparable picture quality, certainly far superior to 8mm. When, in 1960, Pathéscope UK went into receivership, it might have been the end of the format but these devotees banded together to form a new cine club which successfully recreated support structures for the gauge. Members of Group 9.5 continued to collect and show the prints produced by Pathé and some of them – and similar groups in other countries – also kept production of 9.5mm home movies going, in some rare cases even experimenting with new cinematographic techniques such as the use of anamorphic lenses for a widescreen image.

 

 

On the left, a section of the 9.5mm film strip of a film by Group 9.5 member, Hugh Hale. On the right, the expanded widescreen image as seen when projected using a 1.5x anamorphic lens

 

Now operating in the age of super 8, which was introduced in 1965, these latter day nine fivers were ploughing an idiosyncratic furrow and with more limited exposure the gauge gradually slipped out of the public consciousness, becoming, in the phrase reported by Lenny Lipton, ‘a living corpse’. It is perhaps kinder to say that, as a practical filmmaking medium and as a means of dissemination of theatrical film content, it is now something of an archaeological curiosity, but one which can nevertheless give valuable insights into the vastly different practices of media consumption experienced by earlier generations. What’s more, as the carrier of a hundred years’ worth of global memory, it is our hope that, through the preservations carried out by the library and other archives, this storied centenarian will live forever.

 

Dr. Guy Edmonds

Technical Assistant (Film)

 

9.5mm Centenary Events

The University of Southampton conference dedicated to 9.5mm, The Little Apparatus

The symposium, 9.5mm: And Cinema is Everywhere , at Lichtspiel, Bern, Switzerland

The conference, Pathé-Baby to 9.5mm: The Invention of Home Cinema, Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé

 

References and further reading

H. Abbott, The Complete 9.5-mm. Cinematographer. Amateur photographer & cinematographer, Iliffe & Sons, Limited, 1937.

B. Coe, The History of Movie Photography. London: Ash & Grant, 1981.

L. Lipton, Independent Filmmaking. London, Studio Vista, 1974.

G. McKee, The Home Cinema: Classic Home Movie Projectors 1922-1940, Gerrards Cross, 1989

G. Newnham, 9.5mm web pages

 

This blog is also available in Welsh.

 

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A blog about the work and collections of the National Library of Wales.

Due to the more personal nature of blogs it is the Library's policy to publish postings in the original language only. An equal number of blog posts are published in both Welsh and English, but they are not the same postings. For a translation of the blog readers may wish to try facilities such as Google Translate.

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