Saturday, August 27, 2011

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

I recently saw the Sci-Fi flick, "Super 8". Set in 1979, it's about a group of kids who are making a Super-8mm movie, when a train wreck in their town results in the escape of a captured alien being transported by the Air Force.

The Sci-Fi aspects of the story were rather "Spielbergesque"; it was ok, made for an entertaining movie. But the Super-8 part of it was more interesting to me; it evoked a lot of nostalgia.

I was in high school in 1979. I used to make 8mm films. And like one of the boy characters in the movie, Charles, I used to read Super-8-Filmaker magazine, and wanted to make a film to enter into a film contest. Charles had his friends helping him with makeup, costumes, special effects, models, etc. I used to do all of those things, too. It really brought back a lot of memories.

In high school I attempted to make a Super-8 sound film, by borrowing a sound movie camera from the school library. I eagerly developed the film, but when I projected my first sound film... there was no sound. Something was wrong with the camera, and it had to be sent away to be serviced. I never saw it again. Thus, I never made my sound film to enter into a contest.

If that camera had worked, would it have launched my budding career as a filmmaker? Would I now be a Steven Spielberg or a J.J. Abrams, having started my career in Super 8 films like so many have done? ;-)

Backyard Auteurs
In 2003, James Cameron called a man named Lenny Lipton to thank him for writing the book that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Back in 1975, Lipton had published The Super 8 Book, a how-to guide for using super 8, the inexpensive film stock that allowed a generation of novice filmmakers to make their first motion pictures. Lipton was grateful for the call, if not surprised by it. "I hear that all the time," he told me. Joel Silver, the producer of The Matrix and Die Hard also got in touch recently to express his gratitude. A ring from J.J. Abrams, whose film Super 8 premieres Friday, can't be far off.

Introduced by Kodak in 1965, super 8 was the cheapest film around—each roll was about $5, and worked on cameras that started for under $30. Many families purchased super 8 cameras to document birthday parties and barbecues, but the handheld cameras were light enough for a child to use, and soon kids were out in the backyard, playing auteur.

According to Rhonda Vigeant, the director of marketing for Pro8mm, a processing, scanning, repair, and sales business in Burbank, Calif., a slew of today's most successful filmmakers got their start shooting on super 8 film. "We know that because we've transferred all their original movies," Vigeant says conspiratorially, referring to the process of digitizing old film. She's says she's seen super 8 work by Ron Howard, Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, J.J. Abrams.


For filmmakers growing up in the '70s and '80s, super 8 was a gateway drug into a lifetime of addiction. Steven Soderbergh's super 8 fixation began as a distraction from a dull animation course his father enrolled him in at age 13. "I quickly gravitated toward grabbing the Nizo [a German-made super 8 camera] and shooting live action," he recalled in Outsider Features: American Independent Films of the 1980s. Growing up in Houston, Wes Anderson used his two brothers as stars and paper boxes as sets in his super 8 films. Chris Nolan got the directing itch as soon as he picked up his father's super 8 camera at age 7. Tim Burton "made models, fooled around with them and burned them and filmed them," on super 8.

Did the medium leave its mark on the work of these directors? The low cost of super 8 encouraged experimentation. "You didn't have to worry about experimenting with it. There was this sense of being able to be playful and experimental and try things out," recalls Claude Kerven, co-chair of the filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy. At the same time, the short length of each roll forced amateurs to frame scenes with calculation and immediacy: They could only shoot for about two and a half minutes per roll. Kerven also noted that the lightweight nature of super 8 equipment allowed its users to incorporate motion into their work. "It kind of freed you a little bit from the idea that everything had to be so solid and locked down [on a tripod]," he says. "It really encouraged you to learn how to move the camera in creative ways."

In filmmaker John Russo's book Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production, Sam Raimi recommends all young filmmakers start making movies in super-8. "You have all the same basic elements that are used in professional filmmaking, so it's a chance to refine your skills and techniques," Raimi says, noting that he made his first super 8 movies in high school. "You've got to write a script, deal with camera placement, movement, angles and lenses. The actors have to be directed and orchestrated in the same manner as in 35-milimeter filmmaking."

One of super 8's most important lessons came after the film was shot: The budding filmmaker would then have to mail it to Kodak for processing, which could take anywhere from four days to several weeks. Waiting to see the finished product required patience, a trait that isn't exactly encouraged by today's users of instantaneous-view digital technology. "The generation now is so different," explains Anderson. "Fewer people are shooting film because everyone wants it [developed] yesterday."

The sharp, digital images of today have rendered super 8 the picture of the past. Watching film shot in super 8—even if it was shot just last week—evokes nostalgia for the era when the film first appeared. The film is grainy and just a little bit out of focus. The colors look warm and faded—there's a spectrum of mellow tones. But Vigeant is quick to dispel the idea that super 8 is a medium of the past. She describes a robust contemporary market for the film: Pro8mm still works on more than 1,000 super 8 film projects a year for TV, music videos, and commercials. Celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Aaron Eckhart wanted their weddings filmed in super 8 because, Vigeant says, it gives the footage a retro look. Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used super 8 during their campaigns to establish warm, down-to-earth personas. Filmmakers attempting to fake a scene from the past often shoot in super 8. And young cinematographers, seeking to emulate the greats, may trade the sterility of digital for the messier, more hands-on format that their idols learned on.

"Super 8, in some ways, is having a comeback now," says Amos Poe, who teaches at New York University's film school. "I know my students at NYU love it. [...]

The article started off mentioning Lenny Lipton. He was a regular contributor to Super 8 Filmaker magazine, and I read his book, too. Very inspiring.

Interestingly enough, Lipton is now a leading authority on 3D movie technology. That's interesting, because I remember, back in the seventies, when he did an article about 3D film making for Super 8 Filmmaker Magazine:

There is a Super-8 blog that has a nice post about Lenny Lipton, past and present:

Catching up with Lenny Lipton - a Super 8 living legend.

But, back to us "Backyard Auteurs". I expect there were many of us film director "wannabes" in the '70's. But we certainly weren't all destined for Hollywood. I actually moved to California with the aim of going to film school, but didn't stick with it, for various reasons. But even I could see that:

A.) Hollywood is and INDUSTRY. It's not all about Art, or even talent; you have to be a good businessman too. Films there cost millions of dollars to make, and you have to have the confidence to sell yourself in that milieu, to convince others to INVEST in you and your ideas.

B.) Hollywood films are huge productions, and you are just one cog in the machine. Part of a team. You have to be good at schmoozing with people, and compromise a lot.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. But it's very competitive, and not a milieu that everyone can succeed in. I soon realized that I liked SMALL, INDEPENDENT filmmaking. On that scale, you can keep creative control, experiment, and do what you want. That's more where my interest and passion was. And sometimes I wish I had persevered with it, with super 8 or 16mm or video. But life pulled me in a lot of different directions, and filmmaking was not one of them.

Fast forward 30 years or so. Technology wise, a lot has changed. Super 8 as I knew it has gone, but it's still around, being used in different ways. And new technology has allowed a bridge between Super 8 and video, film and video. Independent filmmaking is now cheaper and easier than ever!

I would like to get into that again, on some level. Even if it's just making films I enjoy, and putting them on YouTube. I'd like to start by transferring my old 8mm films, and the ones my parents made, onto my computer's hard drive and editing them there. It would be fun and a good learning experience, and after that, who knows?

The first step for doing that would be finding a place to have my films transferred to miniDV tape, so I can copy it to my HD and edit it with my computer. As I explore affordable options for that, in a effort to find the best one, I may post about it on this blog.


1 comment:

Verena Gr├╝ndhammer said...

To whom it may concern,

Vida de perro, dog's life, is a short film festival that will take place in 2015 in Barcelona's old town. From June 8th 2014 onwards we will host Short Film events. We are focusing on shorts filmed on Super 8, as well as advanced technology. I thought this might be of interest on your news page. Please find the information to the website attached below.,
kind regards,
Verena Gr├╝ndhammer