Saturday, June 18, 2011

Recollections of a Super-8 Filmmaker

I want to share some stories about my own experiences making Super-8 movies years ago.

First a disclaimer: I have not yet seen the new J.J. Abrams film "Super-8". At first, I wasn't sure I wanted to;  I felt certain, based on the reviews I read, that it would completely miss the wistful charm of creating movies on this format, with a few friends, limited budget, and lots of heart and imagination.

But then I heard an NPR interview with J.J. Abrams, whose story retained some of the hilarity of what kids would do to get a scene right, and the pride of fooling your friends and family with home-made special effects.  Abrams even recounted an anecdote about how Dick Smith, the makeup artist, mailed him the black tongue worn by Linda Blair in a demonic sequence in "The Exorcist" and my feelings of fellowship were complete...because my High School Masterpiece was a satire based on "The Exorcist."

If I made a movie called "Super-8", there are certain elements that would have to be included.  First, I would devote a humorous and loving tribute to the format and the equipment we used.

For those who are not familiar with what super-8 refers to, it is the width of the film in millimeters.  Most independent film and advanced amateur movies were shot on 16-mm film, and of course theatrical films were usually made on 35mm. 

8-millimeter film was the first format for home-movies, created during the Depression, as a cheaper alternative to 16-mm.  After a few years, the technology evolved to allow for the "sprocket holes" (what the projector "teeth" used to pull the film through the projector) to be smaller, and the actual image area slightly bigger.  Film stock with this enhanced image due to smaller sprocket holes was thereafter known as "Super-8", created in 1965.

Super-8 film came in cartridges that ran about 3-1/2 minutes.  So a lot of cartridges would have to be purchased, exposed, and developed, to make a film of substantial length (if not depth). It took at least 3 days to develop a cartridge into a spool of film ready for editing, and projection.

Kids like us (and I would guess in the world of the movie "Super-8") would need a good allowance, or an understanding parent, to purchase a constant supply of film cartridges, not to mention a camera, and if you were sort of serious, an editing bench.

These were hand-cranked. You spooled the film through the viewfinder and you could watch the movie frame by frame.  There was a marker which punched a hole into the frame where the film was to be cut.

Then, the two ends of the film would have to be joined together.  There was a special "splicer",  which used either a special editing tape (with sprocket holes) or cement.  With cement, the emulsion (printed portion) of the film had to be scraped off, then the cement applied, and the ends joined together, overlapped slightly.  The cement actually melted the film for a stronger joint.

The splicer often cut one extra frame from each end of the film before scraping, so an editor had to mark each end of the film with an extra frame remaining.  It was a tedious and scary process, especially if you were editing your only print (copies were EXPENSIVE).  A wrong cut forced me to re-think the whole sequence!

And I loved it!! There is nothing like editing a film by hand, the satisfaction of getting the cut exactly on action, seeing a rhythm develop.  Editing my blog provides similar satisfactions (and it's a lot easier), but sitting at my bench with a mountain of "spaghetti" around me waiting to be shaped by my was one of the happiest activities of my life. 

Super-8 film was shot silent...we could not afford any sync-sound recording equipment, so we invested instead on a sound projector.  A finished film would be returned to the lab so that a magnetic recording strip could be added to the edge.  The projector doubled as a "tape recorder" with a microphone and a stereo input.  Music and sound effects were laid in first, and then voices were dubbed while we watched the film on the screen.

This is what my projector looked like:

Kids like us had heroes who were movie directors, editors, etc.  My heroes were Bob Fosse and David Bretherton, L.B Abbott, Stanley Kubrick...and I wanted to imitate them. 

If I made a movie like "Super-8", the kid behind the camera would obsess about his favorite movies and would attempt in a loving way to recreate the look and the effects.  ("Super-8" was set in 1979 and had a huge Spielberg influence and homage; I wonder if the kids in the film made a deliberate attempt to emulate actual movies?  In my film, they would).

We had to be creative.  We did our best to be "realistic", but sometimes we understood the charm of a certain amount of artifice.  As I got more comfortable with cutting my exposed film, I shot much as our budget would allow.  We started to do more takes, more angles.  It sucked when the cartridge ran out in the middle of a perfect take. 

Interior shots were tough, because low-light film was grainy and poorly balanced for color. Plus, we had not experimented a lot with lighting, and had one flood light, which cast awful shadows.  We preferred the natural light of outdoors, and developed our material accordingly.  Also, our parents would have killed us if we re-arranged a room or created a set like Abrams did in his youthful movies.

And it was a process sometimes shrouded in secrecy because we didn't want to spoil the surprises of what we were doing.  Sometimes, though, we were ostentatious, because we felt so important as budding young filmmakers, and we wanted to be noticed.  We thought it might be our ticket to the big-time, to 35millimeter!

In my movie entitled "Super-8", I would remember.....

...Mounting the camera on a tripod and creating my first animation...credits forming out of Lego blocks.  What a thrill to see it actually work on the finished film

...Attempting to turn the basement over a la "The Poseidon Adventure", as I "animated" my sister in a chair sliding along the floor as I shot frame by frame and turned the angle of the camera slightly each time...Of course, we only managed to have her slide off the frame, as we were not allowed to drop furniture, etc, from the ceiling...

...Our first narrative sister coming home from a vacation and everything going wrong, with Chaplin-like slapstick...

...Painstakingly cutting hours of footage of intramural football games, and using the "Clockwork Orange" soundtrack for a score, the synthesized Beethoven's 9th Symphony making a perfect background to rapidly paced runs and tackles, cutaways to a tense sideline audience, and a crescendo of quick cuts with the symphonic finale at the end....

...Editing many of my films, even vacation movies, with shock cuts and arresting angles, like Fosse did in "Cabaret"....

...Directing 15 school chums in a riotous chase film in the style of "the Sting".... costumes and everything, and taking over downtown to the amusement of passers-by.

...A "mood" film, which is what aspiring filmmakers did when their friends weren't available to appear as on-screen talent... I was just awakening to films from Sweden, turning on to Ingmar Bergman as taught by Roger Ebert on a show on our local PBS station before he got famous on "Sneak Previews.....Lots of light filtering through trees, slow panning shots, tracking shots achieved with the cameraman (me) sitting in a Radio Flyer wagon while a colleage pushed me....

Some day I will convert these vaulted films to digital format, and post them here....

And best of all, our summer re-doing "The Exorcist"...which was a huge hit in school, and even won an award.....

More about that in an upcoming post!

1 comment:

  1. I really enjoyed read about your movie making experiences. It would be outstanding to see them in their regular format. There is just something magical of that sound of film looping its way through the machine as it begins.