Sunday, September 04, 2011

Good Lessons from the "Photo-Chemical Age"

I recently did a post about Super 8 film making in the 1970's when I was a kid. I've seen many stories on the internet about other people who did so too.

The following story I found amusing, and close to my own experience. The author goes into detail about how different film making was back then, in the "Photo-Chemical Age", and the valuable lessons it taught us budding film makers:

Blood, Sweat and Latex: An Ode to Super 8mm Film
[...] Growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a challenging time for burgeoning filmmakers. There were no consumer video cameras, no computers with editing software, and certainly no digital cameras. I recently heard someone describe this as the “Photo-Chemical Age” in an attempt to make it sound horrible and archaic. After all, now we can shoot, edit, and post our films more easily than sitting through 80% of what Hollywood has to offer these days.

Well, it was the opposite back then. Motion Pictures were fantastic, and the theater experience was a tremendous joy, but making your own movies required a level of commitment that certainly would discourage anyone with a mild interest. Equipment wasn’t cheap and it had its limitations as well. Call it what you will, but the Photo-Chemical Age was glorious as well as frustrating.


It was the mid-1970s when I asked for my first Super 8mm* camera. I had looked through that Christmas’ Sears Wishbook and had found, what I thought, was the slickest movie camera that my father would creak open his wallet and purchase for me. Instantly, I had delusions of shooting King Kong in my garage. Really? How hard could it be?

Christmas arrived and I recall holding my first Super 8mm in my hand. This was it. I was now a filmmaker without ever shooting a frame of film. However, I was determined.

I began by building my first miniature set for my dinosaur epic. Taking brown paper garbage bags, cutting them up, turning them inside out, I fashioned a cliff-side wall for my backdrop rather than painting a cyclorama. I found appropriate plants and sticks to fashion miniature trees and flora. I even made vines out of painted cotton string.

Grabbing my camera, I looked through the eyepiece and found myself staring into a fantastic primordial world! Pulling the trigger back, I heard the motor kick in, the film begin moving in the cartridge and just like that, I was then, REALLY a filmmaker!

I grabbed one of my Prehistoric Scenes dinosaurs, pulled its head off and puppeteered it in front of the camera. Genius! I grabbed my Space: 1999 Eagle model kit off of my bedroom shelf, tied black threads to the framework and lowered it into the jungle. Oh, man! This was going to be SWEET! Dinosaurs! Space ships! I had made my first epic.

Finally, I heard the film stop in the cartridge and shooting was officially wrapped on my first effort. What I had done would be the envy of everyone I knew.

Then, came a series of hard lessons in Super 8 filmmaking.

When we were young and shooting Super 8 film with joyous abandon, the first thing most of us learned was this: After you shoot, you had to bring your exposed film to a Drug Store to have it developed and, at least in New Orleans, this processing could take up to 3 weeks!


When I got my first film reel back from the drug store, I remember opening the little plastic case it was in and spooling the leader on the ground, I held it up to the sun to see if anything turned out. HOLY COW! I could see green! It must be the jungle! I loaded the film into my projector and the real “film school” began.

1. It was out of focus. I didn’t realize that my camera had a “fixed focus” lens, which meant that if you shot anything from infinity to 3 feet from the film gate, it would probably be in focus.

2. It wasn’t lined up correctly. I didn’t realize that film cameras came in two models: Reflex and Parallax. Reflex cameras essentially were “view through the lens” where Parallax had view-finders (or “range finders”) that were independent of the main camera lens. I had a Parallax camera.

3. The exposure wasn’t correct. Most of these basic Super 8 cameras were automatic exposure meaning that it would be taking constant light readings through a little sensor and adjust the aperture constantly causing dark and light extremes throughout the shot.

So much for my big Sci-Fi effort. Not having much to go on, I went to the library and checked out as many books on Home Film Production that I could.


Now, for a bit of honesty: I rarely saw a Super 8 film that looked any good. Because the film was so small, it tended to be grainy. There were a couple of people that managed to get some good results, but I wouldn’t meet them until college. But what was so good about the format is that it forced you to think and plan.

You couldn’t just turn your camera on (or pick an app on your iPhone) and start shooting. You had to take your time, check your exposure, check your focus, make sure your eyepiece was closed (or your eye was against it), and then rehearse. Film cartridges were only 3 minutes and could run up to $7. Wasting film was not an option. In short, it TAUGHT you how to make movies through hard knocks. [...]

He mentioned the Space: 1999 model spaceship. I had one of those, and filmed it too. I also made backdrops and sets and experimented with stop-motion animation... and made all the same mistakes, but also learned the same lessons.

In the full article he mentions Super-8-filmaker magazine (with an embedded link), and the "Craven Backwinder", which was used to back-wind the film for double exposures, allowing you to do amazing special effects. I know because I had one, and used it to full advantage. I had great fun experimenting with it. I was also an avid reader of Super-8-Filmaker magazine.

Read the whole thing. It's a great remembrance of the joys and the agonies of the those pre-digital, Photo-Chemical days. When movie-making was challenging, and film was film!

Also see:

Super 8 filmmakers of the '70's. I was one!

Super 8 Film and High Definition Video

"Super 8" is Great


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