In the Beginning There Was... Super 8mm

nikonr101

My first exposure to film was an old Bell & Howell Super 8mm camera my parents bought. I quickly took over as chief home movie cinematographer. I bored more people to death with reels upon 50 foot reels of Kodachrome movies of the day-to-day banality of home life. Of course, when visitors came over, we would pull out the projector and torment the hapless audience in a manner far more effective than anything devised in the Inquisition. Then came along the Nikon R10.

This beauty became a game changer for me. I eventually acquired three of these exquisite cameras. They were quite simply the best motion picture devices I could afford. Automatic and manual exposure. Multiple film speeds (18, 24 and 54fps - wow!). The optics were superb - featuring a 7 - 70mm zoom lens at f/1.4. The lens was also easily converted to macro with just a simple slide of a ring on the lens. When in macro mode you could literally focus on the dust on the front element of the lens (not that I let any dust remain there!). The lens was huge! It required - if I remember correctly - filters with a 72mm thread. ASA (before ISO came along) was variable from 10 - 640 ASA. It had a built in daylight / tungsten compensation filter that was flipped into place with a filter key. That was one downside to the camera... I never understood why they used a key. The key was so easy to lose.

There were other cool features. I burned through more rolls of film than I could afford making gorgeous lap dissolves and fades. The camera would jam back the film in the cartridge up to 50 frames or so. This allowed you to re-expose those frames in a lap dissolve lasting up to about 2 seconds.

The Nikon R10's are silent cameras so recording sound required expensive outboard recording and synchronization equipment. After film was developed, I would send the film off to have a stereo magnetic recording strip added to the footage. It wasn't easy mixing and syncing voice, foley, and music!

My foray into Super 8mm was guided by the books of Lenny Lipton. There were three tomes that I would read and re-read:

  • Independent Filmmaking
  • The Super 8 Book
  • Foundations of Stereoscopic Cinema

Check out this interview with Lenny Lipton on MacVideo: Lenny Lipton - Filmmaker and Author - Interview with expert of affordable filmmaking. [UPDATE: Sadly this link is no longer active.]

I no longer shoot Super 8mm and haven't done so in years. I hung on to my collection of R10's until a few years ago when I finally sold the entire collection. To this day I regret having sold them.

Occasionally I stumble across uploaded videos on YouTube and Vimeo that were originally shot on Super 8mm. A quick web search shows that this small film format is experiencing somewhat of a resurgence. According to OnSuper8.org's web site,

"Super 8mm has experienced a renaissance in recent years with both professional and amateur filmmakers embracing this highly portable and unique film format producing incredible shorts, advertisements and even features."

I remember painfully the cost of film. Today, Super 8mm film is still manufactured in limited quantities by Kodak (Ektachrome 64T and Plus X and Tri X Black & White, and even Kodak Vision2 color negative stock). But it's expensive. And processing facilities are limited and costly, too.

Film does have a place in my heart because it was the technology available at the time. And certainly there was a characteristic "look" about the film.