The Comeback Cam
By Julia Askenase
Devotees and First-Time Filmmakers from Syracuse to Strasbourg Keep Super 8 Alive in the Digital Age
Under a bright afternoon sky in mid-March, Brendan Rose stood on the walkway of his sister’s Syracuse, N.Y. home fiddling with a borrowed Super 8 camera. His sister, Vanessa, eased herself onto the front stoop holding her infant daughter Akira in her lap, and then gazed back at her brother. “You kind of have to self-focus based on distance,” he explained, inching forward and back on the concrete until he reached his desired location.
Gripping the handle of the camera, the 34-year-old Syracuse University architecture graduate student peered through the viewfinder with his left eye and squinted with his right. He drew a toothy smile, creating laugh lines on his skin. When he pulled the trigger to advance film through the camera, it let out a gentle, shuttering, “click, click, click.” The clear skies above allowed him to capture quality footage on the light-sensitive reversal film he was using.
“That’s it!” Rose says, after five seconds elapsed.
And for the moment, that’s all he needed. Rose had just finished one out of a series of film portraits—tightly cropped five-second shots of family, friends, colleagues and other people he comes across in his daily routine. The movie he was making would become his first solo submission to Syracuse’s fourth annual One Take Super 8 film event. Rose developed the portrait concept when he noticed something unsettling about his still photography: his subjects were almost always buildings, not the people around him. “It would be nice for [this film] to be an archival record of something important to me,” he says.
Rose is among 19 individuals and groups from Central New York who entered this year’s event. Entrants received a single cartridge of film, three minutes and 20 seconds of creative freedom and a month’s time to shoot. Upon completion, they handed their films over to husband-and-wife event organizers Jason and Briana Kohlbrenner. Since all current Super 8 film stocks are silent, entrants had the option of turning in a CD or MP3 soundtrack. Participants could not cut, splice or even view their finished films before the screening, held April 10 at Funk ‘N Waffles café.
“You use what you have—not much is staged. Most people just go have fun,” Jason says, describing the typical One Take repertoire. “Most of it is just wacky randomness, but beautifully composed simplicity.” Eastman Kodak introduced the Super 8 film format in 1965 as an easier, more affordable means of home-movie making. The film came in easy-to-load plastic cartridges that prevented accidental exposure, and most camera models were batter-powered. The format was so simple any amateur could pick up a camera and start shooting. Since the 1960s, however, came analog and later digital video cameras, which yielded faster, readily sharable results. It was enough to make Super 8 seem obsolete.
Through the late ‘80s and ‘90s, however, hobbyists continued to use the format and participated in grassroots festivals and events internationally. In the past ten years—the same decade that saw such digital proliferation in the form of MP3 players, pocket-sized HD camcorders and Internet-enabled cell phones—there’s been a curious regeneration of interest in analog Super 8. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the original One Take Super 8, which mushroomed from a single event in Regina, Saskatchewan to ten cities across North America. It’s part of a larger, international community of Super 8 festivals and contests—like the U.K.-based Straight 8, which annually premieres its best films at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Super 8 has made its way into commercials, music videos, wedding films and the work of prominent movie directors like Catherine Hardwicke and Gus Van Sant. And while some naysayers have been sounding the death knell of Super 8 for years, Kodak is still producing the film stocks—in fact, it just released a new Super 8 color stock this April, Ektachrome 100D. At the film portion of this year’s South by South West (SXSW) festival and conference series in Austin, Texas, a panel discussed “The Power of Super 8 Film.”
Adam Garner, one of the panelists, has a few theories about why Super 8 remains a compelling medium today. “When you look at Super 8 it’s like you imagine you were there,” he says. “It’s like watching a memory.” This results in part from the graininess of Super 8 film, which produces an effect of warmth and haziness. Super 8—that’s 8 millimeters wide—is considered a “small gauge” format in comparison to big brothers 16 and 35mm. When its tiny frames are blown up onto a projector screen, viewers can actually see the film’s crystals of silver halide as little dancing specks. That low-tech, rough-around-the-edges feel of Super 8—along with its origins in home movies—often makes it a mental cue for “history” or “family” when incorporated into modern filmmaking, Garner says.
Garner even started his own boutique production company, Trigger Films, in Austin where he uses Super 8 to capture what he calls “life moments,” like anniversaries and weddings. “If you were to shoot a wedding on VHS tape, it’s kind of disgusting,” he says. “The magnetism’s all fucked up. It’s disappointing.” So Garner eschews the sterility and cheesiness of the average wedding video for the timelessness he can create on Super 8. To his advantage, today’s Super 8 film stocks have vastly improved since the 1960s; Kodak is now up to Vision 3 technology, which offers wider exposure latitude with finer grains.
Garner’s process exemplifies the high-end side of modern Super 8 filmmaking. He shoots on vintage cameras in the $1000 range rather than bargain models from garage sales, and he pays to have his films scanned into HD files at places like Cinelicious or Pro8mm in Los Angeles. His wedding packages cost upwards of $4,000. Last year, he shot the nuptials of tennis superstar Andy Roddick whose wedding singer was Sir Elton John.
Beyond the niche commercial market of well-heeled weddings, however, Super 8 exists as a low-budget artistic format for amateurs and experienced filmmakers alike. When Alex Rogalski founded One Take Super 8 in Saskatchewan, Canada in 2000, he’d grown tired of watching his film friends from university become frustrated by the competitive professional festival circuit. So he created his own forum.
“[One Take] was an idea I had to get filmmakers and non-filmmakers both to make something that was guaranteed an audience,” he says. He designed the event without a jury or prizes, and chose Super 8 because of its many draws . It’s portable and affordable—a roll of film costs around $15—and also has some key limitations. Super 8 lacks the instant gratification and post-production editing capabilities of digital, forcing filmmakers to plan carefully their single take. And because entrants turn their films in blind, the typical screening ends up with a grab bag of quality. “When you do see a film that's in focus and properly lit and tells a story, it's like a miracle. Because clearly, a lot could go wrong,” Rogalski says. “I think we want to pull back the curtain a bit on the filmmaking process. You get to see that not everything hits the mark.”
One Take spread organically, as filmmakers from the original event moved to new cities and started local incarnations. But since the late ’90s, the Internet had already been connecting Super 8 enthusiasts all over the map. Super 8 tip sites cropped up, while major websites like Craigslist and eBay facilitated the sales of Super 8 cameras, which are no longer in production. “There’s no doubt that it’s a little ironic that new technology has made Super 8 more relevant,” he says.
At the Syracuse branch, started by Rogalski’s colleague Brett Kashmere, many participants find liberation in the event’s constraints. “They might come in with this enormous script and are like, ‘Oh, we’re going to do this whole thing!’ But once they screw up, they realize they can’t rewind and shoot again,” says Jason Kohlbrenner. “I think this weight gets lifted off their shoulders.”
A week and a half after Brendan Rose finished his film portraits, his friend Mark Povinelli was hobbling around his home with a cane, preparing to film. He’d thrown out his back lifting firewood the weekend before, so Kohlbrenner granted him an extension to make his two films. On this Saturday morning, light was pouring in through the tall windows of Povinelli’s living room, along which he’d lined up a series of Ball Mason canning jars filled to the brim with junk, knick-knacks, keepsakes, memories.
“I don’t really have a plan,” he admits, hunched over and surveying the room in pale blue jeans and a faded black T-shirt. Povinelli, 49, is an electrical engineer who spends most of his free time on his artwork. Before injuring himself, he opened an art show at Craft Chemistry, the Syracuse craft store/gallery/studio owned by Briana Kohlbrenner. For roughly an hour, he dumped out the contents of the different pickling jars onto a coffee table, filmed them closely, moved on to another household object, then back to the jars. He poured out childhood toys, red clay dirt from where he grew up in Louisiana, and an assortment of sand dollars, guitar picks, fossils and other objects. He kept shooting until he ran out of film.
It became clear that Povinelli is a collector of sorts. “I was throwing out a lot of stuff, but there was some I wanted to keep,” he says, explaining his jars. “We all have this urge to hang on to the past, but that’s not always a good thing. The past can be a tricky thing, I think.”
He named his film “That Which Remains.”
After participants turned in their films, preparation for the event was far from over. Kolbrenner still had to send the films out to Pac Lab Inc. in New York City, one of a limited number of Super 8 processors in the country. When he got the processed films back, he had to splice them together and place them onto reels to project at the screening. For the first time, Rogalski wasn’t coming down to Syracuse for post-production, so Kohlbrenner had to learn it all as he went along.
On the Wednesday night before the screening, Kohlbrenner was sitting at his kitchen table wielding a small metal poker. He had metal film reels, a few adhesives and an empty tortilla bag filled with film leader spread out in from of him. His wife Briana, who had finished designing the show’s flyers and program, chimed in periodically from the next room to answer questions. Jason was threading individual films through a film viewer and taping them together on a Quik Splice, a small metal plate with raised points that latch onto sprocket holes. He was using Scotch tape instead of cement or Quik Splice tape to give the films a solid bond, but also one he could take apart easily after the screening when he’d digitize the films. The only catch about the Scotch tape: no sprocket holes. So he kept sitting there, poking the film perforations by hand. “I just need to reassure myself that, yes, I am doing this the right way,” he says.
Kohlbrenner manages the edit suites at SU’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications where he guides students in digital editing programs like Final Cut Pro. Super 8 helps him get back to the roots of film, he says. “It just has this process to it,” he says. “Your piece becomes a part of you.”
Although Super 8 has been enjoying a small renaissance in recent years, there’s always the fear that Kodak could one day discontinue the format altogether. “We don’t know how much longer they’ll be producing it because it’s a limited market,” says Rogalski. Faced with the consumer shift from film-based still photography to digital, Kodak has had to shut down plants and labs internationally and lay off thousands of employees in the past decade. Super 8 enthusiasts like Rogalski worry these economic trials might affect Kodak’s motion film sector as well, where Super 8 is low in the pecking order.
Sales of Super 8 film have declined since its home-movie heyday, and the format composes a much smaller volume in Kodak’s motion film catalog than 16 or 35mm. Still, Kodak has noticed stabilization in Super 8 sales in recent years, says Chris Johnson, product manager of Eastman Kodak’s Entertainment Imaging Division. Kodak is trying to stay sensitive to both the market and small-gauge devotees. “We do want to support these users,” Johnson says. “As long as the market continues and it’s a viable business, we will continue to support Super 8.”
At 7:15 on the night of the screening, Kohlbrenner’s face was flushed as he weaved through the packed audience in Funk ‘n Waffles carrying a bundle of blue wires. The espresso machine screamed. Kohlbrenner disappeared behind the projector screen, then returned moments later to rummage through bags in the back of the room. At 7:30, he appeared at the microphone in front of the screen with a piece of scotch tape stuck to his shirt, announcing that the show would begin a little late.
When the lights finally dimmed, the movies flowed in quick rotation separated by brief, time-lapsed interludes of film credits arranged in magnetic letters on the Kohlbrenners’ refrigerator. Film subjects ranged from Godzilla-invades-Syracuse to misunderstood robot-human love, and laughter often filled the room. A few films showed up in almost complete darkness on screen, likely due to poor lighting during shooting. Povinelli’s first film, “That Which Remains,” appeared out of focus, but produced a sort of kaleidoscope effect during close-up shots of colorful objects.
Rose’s film, titled “Portr8,” played to a soundtrack of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights,”—the synthetic drumbeat often synching up with the shift from portrait to portrait. The movie unraveled in intimate smiles and straight-on stares from the people Rose surrounds himself with, their images flickering grainy and warm on the screen. Rose’s architecture thesis focuses on community installations, and earlier that day, he’d referred to people around him as the “material” of his work and life. Several of his portrait subjects were seated in that very room. And with Super 8’s timeless look and rumored shelf life of some 100 years, it seemed Rose would get that lasting personal archive after all, one tiny frame at a time.