Super 8 Filmmaking Returns: Should We Make ‘Em Like We Used To?

According to a January 5 article in The Wall Street Journal, Super 8 filmmaking will become available once again this fall, as a niche pursuit, with the release of a new movie camera from Eastman Kodak designed to accept those charming (and now, what look to be charmingly expensive) film cartridges some of us can remember dropping off at the Fotomat booth for processing.

Just as we’ve seen a resurgence of interest in vinyl LP records by some audio/music enthusiasts long displeased with the sharper, colder “feel” of the digital realm, so too might we see some financially viable number of amateur and/or professional filmmakers who will be eager to return to this once-beloved, small-scale analog film format (so the thinking goes)—perhaps not only dying to revisit the tactile pleasures of celluloid but also the nerve-shredding wait that must be endured once they have dispatched their film (three-plus minutes at a time at 24 frames per second) away for processing so that they can see the fruits of their labors.

Who’s going to bite? I have an abiding love for the Super 8 format, but it’s all about the happy memories of having grown up with it as a very, very young moviemaker—and I’m not so sure that what’s on tap here is going to be appealing enough to justify the expense and the inconvenience for those of us now used to operating in a digital world, despite the seductive appeal to nostalgia.

GDA-Super-8-Filmmaking

After first being exposed to the magic of moviemaking as a fifth-grader by gaining access to my middle-school’s 3/4” U-Matic video equipment, I got my real start as a Junior League Orson Welles thanks to the Super 8 equipment my parents gave me for Christmas the next year. From dressing up the family pet as “Superdog” to a trilogy of horror films called The Dark Factor (I, II, and III) that included such highlights as chainsaw-lopped limbs, a wizened old woman with eggshells for eyeballs gushing blood from the top of her head, a boy getting hacked up with a meat cleaver for putting his elbows on the dinner table, and a final tale involving the mysterious TV broadcast of a man-on-man rape (!)—my love affair with using images and sounds to produce laughter and screams from audiences flourished.

I can absolutely remember the thrill of receiving those tiny spools of film back from processing, the seriousness with which I assembled a makeshift editing bin full of clips affixed to a cork board with push pins, and the pride I shared with my filmmaking “family” every time we set up a screening and collected $2 apiece from folks eager to enjoy our latest weirdo masterpiece.

At the same time, I can also remember the dejection of getting back film that was unusable because it was too dark, the frustration that came with editing to any real exactitude with Super 8 because an image and its corresponding soundtrack were always and forever 18-24 frames apart, and the overwhelming sense of dread that raised my blood pressure and set my teeth a-clenching when it came time to mix our music into the soundtrack—since, if you were laying it underneath the dialogue or any other ambient sound on the soundtrack, you only had one shot to get it right—or you’d have to then wipe out the entire soundtrack in order to try again, including the sound you originally captured on location.

Artist's rendering of new Super 8 camera (Eastman Kodak)
Artist’s rendering of new Super 8 camera (Eastman Kodak)

Kodak’s planned return of Super 8 to the cinema-making marketplace is getting some things right: In addition to processing the film to a reel, the development costs will also pay for a digital rendering of the material, giving filmmakers an easy first step to having the kind of serious control over the image and sound we could only dream about back in the good ol’ days. It looks like that will come with a hefty price tag, though, with processing reported to cost “$50 to $75 a cartridge.” A blog article I found online from another author from the Super 8 generation said he recalled processing of a three-minute roll of film costing upwards of $30, and I just knew that was wrong—or at least, not true of my time. I would have never been able to save enough of my lawn-cutting money to pay for my films at that price.

Lucky for me, I’m a real pack rat when it comes to my Super 8 past, and it was (way too) easy for me to lay hands on a budget I prepared on a (gasp!) electric typewriter for my 1985 epic The Dark Factor, Episode II. Thanks to this overly nerdy record-keeping, we can see that the total cost of a single roll of film and its processing wasn’t anywhere close to what it promises to be in the near future:

SUPER-8-FILMMAKING-DARK-FACTOR-II-BUDGET

While rummaging through this material, I was also pleased to see that despite my having to make the purchase of some “extra guts” (Item 13, below), the production still came in under budget!

SUPER-8-FILMMAKING-DARK-FACTOR-II-EXPENSES-MONGO-STORYBOARD

Makes me wish we had somehow splurged to realize a monster victim’s decapitation that I drew up in the storyboards (see crudely drawn frame at lower right, above) for the sequence that wound up being reduced to an arm being chewed out of its socket by the beastly, Minotaur-like “Mongo.”

Steering away from this cheery trip down memory lane, I want to close by offering some qualified props to Kodak for taking this step to revive an old-school moviemaking format. I can’t say I’m thrilled that the camera is going to have a flipout-digital rather than an eyepiece viewfinder, and I’m really not ecstatic over what looks to be an exorbitant processing cost (even taking inflation into account), despite the desirable feature of having your footage returned to you fully ready to be tinkered with on your laptop.

I’m not sure I’d take this development so seriously from an indie filmmaking standpoint; this would almost certainly not be the format I would use today if I were setting up a first feature, for all kinds of reasons…but I’ll admit it does give me a little tingle at the thought of reuniting with some folks I haven’t seen in years and dusting off that never-made script for The Dark Factor Part IV.

Hat tip to Movie City News, where I first caught wind of the WSJ article.

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