You’ve heard of film that’s 8mm, 16mm, 28mm, or 35mm, perhaps even 72mm—but have you ever heard of 9.5mm film?
If you’re in the United States, it’s unlikely that you have. But in the 1920s, some of the most influential and well-known classic silent films made in Europe were shot on 9.5mm, such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The film gauge was never intended to reach a professional audience—like 8mm and Super-8 film, Pathé initially manufactured the 9.5mm camera, the “Pathé Baby” system, with amateur filmmakers in mind, and marketed it exclusively to hobbyist cinematographers. In a strange echo of later VHS culture several decades later, the gauge itself was also primarily conceived of as an inexpensive format that would provide copies of commercially made films to home users.
So, what ended up being so appealing to professional filmmakers instead, particularly European filmmakers? (Although some of the best-known 9.5mm motion pictures shot in film were part of the German expressionist movement, over the course of several decades, the Pathé Baby filmmaking system would sell best in England and France.) And why does 9.5mm remain so obscure that most film buffs and media preservation professionals have not even heard of this film gauge size before, even though, after being manufactured for several decades of the twentieth century, it was hardly a flash in the pan?
Part of the professional enthusiasm for 9.5mm film had to do with the unique design of its film sprockets: because the sprocket holes were placed in the center of each film strip, this resulted in allowing more space on the film for the actual image. In fact, each individual frame on 9.5mm film has almost the exact same area as frames on the substantially larger 16mm film. This image resolution, combined with the film’s inexpensiveness, wound up making it just as appealing for professional filmmakers as for home moviemakers and collectors. 9.5mm film was also quite cost-effective to duplicate: the odd size of 9.5mm had been chosen in the first place because you could cut a 28mm piece of film into three strips to make three copies of it.
The most appealing and innovative aspect of 9.5mm’s design was also what made it crucially flawed: the placement of its central sprockets, which could not be supported by the gate of most cameras and projectors without significant damage. A significant problem: unless one had access to the entire Pathé suite of equipment, one was unable to use or play 9.5mm film at all.
This has not stopped 9.5mm film from leaving a robust legacy, even if an obscure one. To this day, one can still find festivals and fan magazines dedicated specifically to this film gauge. Learn more about them in the resources linked below: