Article for "Splice Magazine", Issue 25
The Long and The Tall of It: Super-8 Filmmaking

In 1976 I shot my first film. It was on 8mm film (as opposed to video). It was not a home movie but rather a sort of bargain basement drama. At the time, the choice of genre was never a question. Like other young amateurs of my generation, I needed to exert my individuality and was compelled to use this tool (more or less as a toy) to emulate what I saw on tv rather than what I saw adults using it for. I now find that the reasons for my original dismissal of the home movie are curious and raise new questions. Certainly the nostalgic qualities inherent in these flickering shadows of the past are lost on an 11 year old boy. However, the choices I made then continue to influence how and why I make films today. To understand this, I have begun to ask what were the essential and unique qualities of the 8mm medium? Did I make a mistake by not embracing those qualities? Is it possible to get return to this genre and if so, what might be learned?
Between the 1930s and 1970s, the advertising produced to sell movie cameras demonstrates the primary demographic for the home movie market. In one, a clean cut man in a suit and hat points a camera at a picnic table where his wife is setting out a pie before his smiling children. Middle class iconography permeate every image with the father clearly situated at the head of the family and the master of the advancing modern age. The expense and sensitivity of this technology made it certain that these men would not entrust the cameras to their pre-microwave, pre-VCR-era families. As the recipient of the five minute loading and exposure demonstration offered by the camera store sales representative, the father is unquestionably the only rightful operator of this device.
 The style of film that these fathers made was influenced by a number of factors: the technical strengths and weaknesses of the cameras and film itself, the instruction on the filmmaking practice these individuals received or rather didn’t receive, and the expectations of the family and social peers..
 Regular 8mm cameras were limited to fixed focus lenses, parallax viewfinders, and a nearly square aspect ratio. Some expensive super-8 film cameras had many dynamic features but most had only a zoom lens and built in exposure metres as upgrades from their older cousins. Understanding the tools helps me to try to understand the numerous films I have had the pleasure to look at recently.
One single roll I saw contained images of children jumping on a bed, performers and animals at a circus, and the family having an outside barbeque. Time passes between scenes without consideration or consequence. There is no attempt at continuity or explanation. Editing is virtually unheard of. To understand the context, one must be present when the (primarily silent) films are shown with the filmmaker/father present. Talking over the films, he would tell you what you are watching, what is amusing about what you are watching, and why it is important. The actual film image is little more that a set of visual cue cards to remind the father what is the story and to keep him on track. This results in the stories all being short and confined to a limited and repeatable range. All that is not filmed is forgotten. Images replace actual memory.
Another roll begins with a birthday card with a huge “1" on the front of it. This shot is followed by a girl in a high chair as the mom places a cake adorned with one candle in front of her. The stage is set for the subsequent images of presents being opened and various children and adults to posed with the birthday girl. After half of a roll of this interesting yet non-active activity, the camera begins to follow two older boys, aged around six to eight, as they play with toy guns. One must wonder if the toddler has lost her allure and slipped back into the realm of the everyday. No images of “everyday activities” ever seem to emerge in these films. With the father always on the “wrong” side of the camera, the mother appears to be the only caregiver in the family.
A travel film I encountered was taken by a middle aged man and his wife as they cruised the Mediterranean and travelled to the Alps by train.. The majority of the twelve minutes of footage was consumed by images of shorelines from a boat and mountains from the window of a train. Some curious footage featured the wife, obviously ill at ease, wandering away from the camera and looking into shop windows in an unconvincing performance as a person-on-the-street. At one moment she turns towards the distant camera, her body language screaming out “Are You Done Yet?”. In another rare moment, the person filmed is a middle aged man posing with overly tamed birds which are landing on his arms and shoulders. The man, obviously aware of the camera pointing at him from not far off, stands encumbered not only by the flock but also by his camera cases. I have no doubt that he is the husband and camera operator of the rest of the film. It is the only part of the film that depicts a moment that needed to be seen to be believed. The remainder of the footage would be better remembered by a store bought post card or simply to be committed to memory.
One wedding film featured wide angle shots of the head table, composed so that all of the people could be seen at once. From this image we can discern that the camera operator is not the father of either newlyweds, otherwise he would have been at the table himself. Furthermore he was not a close enough relation to approach the table for a close up. The film clip suffers from the aspect ratio, with the image nearly as tall as it is wide; most of the frame is filled with the tablecloth and wall behind the wedding party. What few particles of emulsion that are committed to the peoples faces are insufficient to communicate anything beyond a symbolic gesture at documentation. The same wedding roll features the obligatory cake cutting in close-up. Unfortunately, the camera in question was incapable of such intimate work and the image is not only muddy and unlit, but is severely out of focus. This wedding film demonstrates the home movie as social obligation. Film is taken of special events belonging to friends or relatives as a way of demonstrating a commitment to that relationship if not to the event. The camera is deployed at those moments when other cameras are also in use, the classic “photo-ops”. These films are shown once and then shelved.
The home movie content is an artifice suggesting that the family is constantly celebrating or travelling. However, our intuitive recognition of the disruptions in time lead us to dismiss that interpretation. Nevertheless, the films do begin to form a portrait, if not of the families on screen, then of the fathers behind the cameras, and perhaps of fathers in general. The films reflect the desire of the father to control events but at the same time the process distances him from the events taking place in front of him. Filming as a way of remembering precious moments is often subservient to its use to document to prove to others that an activity took place. When I first used a home movie camera at age 11, the desire to grow up compelled me to embrace the most mature model available, which I certainly did not interpret the home movie to be. As a father, I now look to this complex and challenging model to find clues for if and how to document my own family.

 


box # 1
The history of 8mm motion pictures dates back to 1932 with the introduction of "Cine Kodak Eight". This was certainly a marketing decision for Kodak as they attempted to popularize movie making in the same way that they did with photography a number of years earlier with their “Brownie” still photo cameras. Less expensive than the 16mm format that had been used by the rich and famous for home movies prior to that point, 8mm quickly became popular. Other camera makers quickly followed suit, with Kodak maintaining a near monopoly on film manufacturing.


box # 2
8mm (or “standard 8") was made out of double perforated 16mm film with double the normal number of sprocket holes. The 25 foot roll of this film would be shot exposing the right side and then turned around and reloaded so that the left side could be exposed. The film is sliced down the middle after processing to make 8mm out of 16mm. The filmmaking activity therefore needed a certain degree of technical competence, or at least confidence. In 1965, Kodak made a major development towards expanding 8mm accessibility through the introduction of “super-8" This system involved the 50 foot roll of 8mm wide film to be supplied in a cartridge which could be easy to load. This system eliminated the need for threading and, due to the smaller sprocket holes, gave more space for the film image.


Principles of 8mm home movie making:
1. The film is unedited with events presented in chorological order.
2. There are gaps in time when the camera is not being used.
3. There is no traditional coverage of an event, ie: no close- ups or alternative viewpoints.
4. The content is event based featuring celebrations and holidays. There is an absence of normal day to day life.
6. Subjects are primarily family.
7. Subjects will either mug to the camera or be uncomfortable and evasive in front of it.
8. Takes are often too long or there are multiple shots of the same image.

Gerald Saul 2005