6.05.2012

Does anyone remember Super-8 movie film?


When I was working in the advertising business as the creative director of mid-sized agency in a mid-sized town we shot a fair number of television commercials and hired people to shoot industrial films.  The commercials were almost always done on 35mm movie film or Super-16 mm film.  We'd moved out of the dark ages by the time I started and once the footage was shot it would be color timed and converted to one inch or two inch videotape.  The really low budget stuff was shot on video.  But then something kind of wacky happened.

Film production went through its own Instagram Fad a couple of decades ago.  Suddenly everything got retro'd and degraded and grainy and choppy.  The culprit (or hero, depending on which side of the trend you embraced) was the re-embracing of what had been an amateur tool and re-inventing that tool as a professional style.  The vehicle of the new look was the Super8 camera buckled up with Super8 film.  Most of us liked it grainy and silvery so we chose Tri-X or maybe Plus-X black and white emulsions.  People who liked living on the edge used Kodachrome or Ektachrome color emulsions.

Since just about every company in the universe had stopped making Super-8 movie cameras years before the resurrection the race among auteurs and professionals in the moving picture market was to find and acquire the best of the best Super-8 cameras.  No other way to do it right.


This was my rig of choice.  A Nikon R10 Super with an f1.4 Cine Nikkor lens on the front.  It could shoot forward or reverse, you could sync high speed flash and you could synchronize sound with an outboard Nagra or Stellavox audio recorder.  You'll note that the camera had a stepped, motorized zoom control as well as manual zoom control with a grip stick for smoother zooms.

We got a ton of use out of this camera. And we did a lot of projects. I'd leave the house in the morning and my camera bag would be equally weighted between double "A" batteries and film cartridges. (Mostly Tri-X).  While I like shooting locked down on a fluid head tripod the style of the day was a jerky, hand held style that would have made the Jason Bourne DP happy.


There was one project I wrote and directed that really showed off the artistic capabilities of the R10 Super and contrasted it with the smooth color of Sony BetaCam video. It was an industrial film, custom made to be played at a MacWorld Expo back in the early 1990's.  In those days computer memory was expensive and computers without enough ram were dreadfully slow.  Our client, TechnologyWorks made memory and specialized in making the kind of memory that Apple MacIntosh computers liked to play with.  

Our premise was to start the film in color with footage of people looking bored and waiting for their computers to process important graphics jobs.  We'd cut to angry bosses looking at their watches and then to close ups of ticking clocks (slowed down) and back to beautiful designers looking frustrated and beautiful.  All of this waiting and frustration was film in grainy, handheld black and white on the R10 Super using black and white Tri-X.

Once the new memory was installed everything became more real. And that meant smooth, lush colors, camera moves on tracks or on fluid head tripods and really clean, happy lighting.

All of the Super8 film was developed, taped together and then run through a telecine machine that would convert the film, frame by frame, to 3/4 inch videotape so it could be included in the post production.  The film was a success. Our main model was egregiously cute.  The effects all worked and the grainy, jumpy black and white footage at the front two minutes of the piece attracted a huge crowd of Mac-Groovers wherever and whenever we showed it. And the film got used for several years.  Most importantly, I got paid. 

The R in R10 Super calls out a feature which allowed the user to rewind part of the film and shoot on it again for special effects. Nikon patented this.  The "10" in the name referred to the 10X Cine Zoom that the camera was built around.  The R10 Super 8 was the zenith of movie products for Nikon but sadly it was also the last of the breed for that company as video quickly started to take the place of film for family movies and low budget projects.


I came across my camera in a closet this morning.  It's been years since I fired it up and ran film through it but I was at least prescient enough to have taken the batteries out of the camera when I stored it.

I've worked on projects in 16mm and 35mm but Super 8 is my favorite because of its minimalist profile.  I'm rehabbing the camera this week and ordering some Super 8 just for fun.  I'd be curious to know how many of the VSL readers have had parallel interests in making movies and short films and how many have worked with Super8.  It's really a cool part of the evolution of multi-media.  And according to friends in the film business Super 8 is still going strong, with yearly film festivals and the use of Super8 for effect in TV commercials.  What a crazy career I've had so far...

Final fact:  In 1971 the airlines started showing in flight movies with Super8 film projectors.  Before 1971 all in flight movies were shown on 16mm film.  Amazing.

10 comments:

Bold Photography said...

My grandfather used Super8 to capture all of the grandkids when we were little... we have rolls of that archived away...

wjl (Wolfgang Lonien) said...

Wow. A Nagra recorder, those were the absolute Rolls-Royce legendary tape recorders! Pro-quality stuff, used "in the field", with SMPT(E) synchronization so you could later cut your things (literally!) nicely together.

No, I haven't worked with Super-8 that much. But I've worked in a professional synchronization and sound studio where we put all these commercials to their final stages, hiring speakers with great voices, people who just made background sounds, this kind of stuff. Before that job, I was working in another professional (sound only) recording studio. Couldn't just earn my bread with being a musician only.

I guess that was the time when I started in/with photography. 35mm film. Thanks for bringing back some memories...

Noons said...

I got into the tail-end of the S8 history. My parents did hours and hours of Standard 8 with a lovely old 1960's Kodak camera. When I got the little Elmo 1012s-xl, prices were dropping due to the vhs-C and Sony's 8mm video fad. Still got a lot of use out of it, an absolutely lovely camera. But in 1991 I was converted to S-VHS and the superb JVC GRS707 - which I still own. Had absolutely no idea S8 b&w was still around, thanks for the heads-up!

Craig Yuill said...

My father bought a silent Super 8 Canon in the early 1970s. It was a good thing it was silent since the drive motor was very noisy. It sat idle for several years, until I started using it in the early 1980s, when I had dreams of becoming a professional filmmaker or special-effects technician. I used Kodachrome film, which was a favorite of mine for 35mm still photography. It was nice stuff that, alas, is no longer available. I no longer have that camera, but I still have the film reels and an editing viewer to watch the film. I think I might just have a look at those reels. I should probably try to have the footage transferred to digital at some point. Happy shooting.

Unknown said...

I shot S8 in school, never used an R8/10, but I did use a Beaulieu 4008 ZM. I've also used 16mm and 35mm motion picture cameras.

Cinelicious, in Hollywood http://cinelicious.tv/we-love-film/small-formats uses a Spirit Datacine w/Super 8mm gate, to transfer S8 to either HD or 2K. Check-out the Fashion film (color) and the Wedding film (color and B&W), both are cropped to 16:9.

I've thought about doing some S8 work, but a S16 Aaton A-Minema is almost as small and makes better quality images.

c.d.embrey

efix said...

A couple years ago, I assisted a friend in making a movie in which he used -- besides digital HD -- Super 8 and Super 16. The result was quite interesting to look at, as the visual style changed with every chapter of the movie. Sadly, back than I really wasn't into either photography or film at all. I guess it would've been a lot more interesting had I been more interesting in the technical details.

Btw., for the Super 8 and Super 16 scenes, we recorded the sound with the same HD camcorder we used for the HD video scenes. I remember it was quite a hassle getting the sound in synch with the pictures later!

cidereye said...

Brings back some dusty memories reading this. Sitting down watching the Kodachrome cine films of our holidays as kids, then getting out the old Leica Pradovit projector for the Kodachrome stills. Those were the days, they really were.

theaterculture said...

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! We used to pick up low end Kodak, Zenith, and other inexpensive super-8 cameras at the Goodwill and Sally-Anne when I was in highschool - for 10-20 bucks you could take a chance on the possibility that it might not work at all, pop some film and batteries in it, and do crazy things like tie it to the bumper of a car or launch it tied to a fist-full of helium balloons and see what you got. A guy I went to university with would use them for crazy intense hand-held action sequences, because the cartridge allowed you to basically destroy the camera without losing the exposed film.

An awful lot of the footage we shot back then didn't come out, and probably none of it would stand up today, but there was a value to learning with compact, essentially disposable tools. In a way it shaped my adult photography ethos - buy all your gear well used or on close-out so you're never afraid to take it with you anywhere and do whatever will get you the image...

Kenneth said...

I love Super 8. I have a couple of Canons 1014/814 and a Nikon R10 camera. I shoot weddings on black and white and color film and brides love them - OldTimeyFilms.com. But also I shoot film when I travel. I was at the Telluride Film Fest a few years ago and documented it. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Myd7bKaAh4Y and the Boulder Film Fest http://vimeo.com/9897608 - Both films you'll see some famous movie stars and directors.

Still so much fun to shoot. And a great conversation starter when you show up with one of these camera. I just found this Agfa for $10 at a Denver camera swap meet. http://www.tradebit.com/filedetail.php/9146145-agfa-movexoom-3000-super-8-movie-camera - it looks like a raygun. Very cool.

There's nothing like turning off the lights and firing up the projector!

Tony's Vision said...

So, any chance we could see that film you made back in the 1990's?