The Amazing Staying Power of Super 8 Film

Stephen Hanning, circa 1978, as seen in an avacado green Super 8 viewer from the same era.

A still from my first film, circa 1978, starring my friend Stephen Hanning, as seen in Super 8 film viewer from the same era. © Carl Jameson 2015

The 1970’s were a turning point in the American movie theater. What used to be called movies became “films” under the direction of filmmakers fresh out of the new film schools and the first blockbuster “Jaws”,which took a huge bite out of the screen and into film history.

The art and business of filmmaking changed forever after that. Even as a kid trapped in the Roxy theater watching B movies and exploitation films every Friday night I could feel something was up.

I watched movies like “Vanishing Point” which surprisingly Spielberg has said was one of his favorite movies and Tarantino referenced it in the 2007 “Grindhouse” film. Mostly I felt gum and pop sticking to my shoes and a syrupy coca cola sugar high, but I wanted to be a part of it.

My high school was only a few years old when I arrived, but it already featured an abandoned “tv studio” a former teacher (a victim of budget cuts) had built for student productions. The studio space was used for storage. The control room featured as many empty holes as unconnected equipment. There were some lights, a faux ficus tree, a couple of microphones, and a video camera with a recorder.

I was in business. My friend Tom and I made a short history of my hometown Renton, Washington in the spirit of Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. An old photo of the town’s namesake, Captain William Renton, was animated with a jaw that dropped open and closed. Tom narrated the forty-three second recap of the town’s founding. Captain Renton was hilarious to us. I’m sure in real life he’d have been less amusing.

Somewhere between showing the Captain Renton video to my Washington State History class and making a short documentary on King County Medic One I decided that making videos was a good career choice for me. It’s fun, you get to meet all kinds of people and you get out of school to work on a project with time-consuming processes that your Social Studies teacher doesn’t quite understand.

These obvious selling points didn’t sway my parents to support my new endeavor. It took a lot of silence, swearing that I was absolutely going to major in Filmmaking, and their cross-examination of a friendly teacher in a parent-teacher conference. When they gave me a Super 8 movie camera for Christmas it was as much a sign of their resignation to, as of their support for, my career choice.

My super 8 camera was originally made with the home movie-maker in mind, but that didn’t stop me and thousands of other would-be creators from wanting to make films with it.

Out on personal recognizance, I looked for collaborators at church. The minister there, Stephen Hanning, along with his wife Violet, had the unenviable job of leading the youth group. He also ministered to the homeless in downtown Seattle. When I asked him to star in my first film with the antiquated title: “A Bum and A Businessman” he was game to play both roles. Violet, sensing I wouldn’t take no for an answer, played the role of  the businessman’s wife.

There was no written script. There was only a concept of comparing the lives of two seemly different archetypes. We shot at his house, on skid row and at an industrial park office.

The limitations of Super 8 filmmaking taught me to plan everything about the shoot. A super-eight camera uses a film cartridge that only lasts for two-minutes and thirty seconds. That meant timing out my shots so I didn’t run out of film before I ran out of story.

The cost of super 8 film was expensive for an auteur on a lawn mowing budget. So, I bought the raw film for the shoot on a just-in-time basis from Rexall Drugs. There was Kodachrome for the outside scenes and Ektachrome for the inside scenes.

There were few, if any, retakes. We shot the film over several afternoons as fast as possible. The most interesting locations were near the waterfront in downtown Seattle. Steve dressed the part of a homeless man. I set the camera up on busy sidewalks. Action! He walked, staggered and fell through scenes before any one got too bothered.

Cut! I hoped I’d guessed the correct exposure and grabbed focus in time because there was no video playback. The camera, with its cheap lens and jumpy film register, created happy accidents that is sometimes called “art”. I wouldn’t know how much art I’d created until two weeks later when the film got back from the lab. Which, luckily, was the amount of time I needed to earn the money to pay for it.

Every shot in the film needed to be hand glued together. If I made a mistake and messed up: frames were lost. The risk for scratching the film was everywhere in the editing room: fingernails, sprockets, rewinding projectors. It was a strictly white glove operation. The result was a fifteen minute epic that used up seven cartridges of film. One cartridge got lost in the mail, so whatever narrative there was got lost with it.

It wasn’t the quality of story that turned out to be important in the long run. It was the support I received from Steve at the right time and in the proper dosage. It helped me keep my promise to myself to become a filmmaker. I’ve told hundreds of stories using video since then, but there’s always your first…

The format is still attractive to filmmakers even today. Steven Spielberg pays homage to it in the J.J. Abrams directed film Super 8. Other films incorporate it into the narrative to evoke home movies or to create a different look for a dramatic effect. There are Super 8 only film festivals. There’s even a new camera in the works that combines super 8 film and digital technology.

It could be the best of both worlds, but I doubt it. Current Super 8 cameras and film stock are superb, but video cameras can also produce pristine images and the look of Super 8 can be mimicked in editing programs. There’s no logical reason to use the format. That being said; limitations in art can be a welcome challenge, forcing the artist to think outside their comfort zone, sometimes creating more provocative results.

What could be done within a film festival challenge in which you’re limited to a single super 8 cartridge when there’s no editing allowed, or for that matter no peeking, as you send the unprocessed film directly to the festival?

Is there a client out there that could benefit from a Super 8 aesthetic? Here’s a video shot on an iPhone about a vintage travel trailer, The Canned Ham Project, my friend and I recently bought and rebuilt that captures the nostalgia, authenticity and home-made feel of Super 8  film using modern technology.

A still from a recent video that mimics the look of Super 8 film using an iPhone and a digital editing program.

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