Close-Up on Super 8 Film

Published on website: August 25, 2009
Categories: Michael Smalter , Super 8mm , The StoryBoard Blog

In this so-called 'digital age', there is still something magical about the 8mm film format Kodak developed in 1932, as a solution for home movies.

IMG_7556.jpgIt was called 'Standard 8mm' back then and was actually 16mm film with twice as many perforations (as regular 16mm) along each side. The film was loaded into a camera, exposed along half its width, flipped and exposed along the other half. In processing, the film was slit down the middle; the result was two lengths of 8mm film, each with a single row of perforations along one side - and four times as many frames as 16mm film.

In 1965, Kodak had a series of better ideas. Keep the 8mm film width, but make the perforations smaller. Make the image area larger. Package the film in a 50-foot cartridge that didn't require flipping or later slitting. And call the result 'Super 8'.

By the 1970's, Super 8 was enormously popular. A 50-foot cartridge had enough film for 3 minutes and 20 seconds of continuous shooting at 18 frames per second. For a while, a 200-foot cartridge was available and so was Super 8 film with a magnetic stripe for analog sound. Today, Super 8 is silent and available in black and white reversal stocks -- and in color reversal and color negative film.

Like all Kodak film, Super 8 starts out as a 'wide roll', 54-inches wide by 2000 feet long. That's made in Rochester. But then comes the 'finishing': the roll is slit into 16mm widths, perforated, split down the middle, cut into 50-foot lengths, and loaded into cartridges. The cartridges are labeled, inspected, sealed into foil pouches, and put into boxes. One wide roll produces almost 20,000 finished cartridges.

Originally that finishing took place in Rochester, then was moved Kodak's plant in Chalon France, then to Windsor Colorado. Now, as Kodak consolidates its film operations, Super 8 finishing is on its way back to Rochester, where the film is made.

"The company wouldn't have made the investment to relocate our Super 8 finishing operation back in Rochester," said Lincoln G. Miller, Kodak manager for motion picture finishing, "unless we thought this would be good business for the future."

And who uses Super 8? Students, of course. "The new operation in Rochester won't be up and running until late September, or early October," said Miller. "So we had to produce enough inventory before we shut down the equipment for the move because film schools start up in September."

But, beyond the work of students, Super 8 finds its way into productions of a more diverse group of filmmakers than you might imagine.

With Super 8 gates available for high end scanners and the availability of non-linear editing systems, filmmakers can shoot Super 8, but edit digitally. Although most of the film ends up on DVD, some filmmakers have opted to blow it up and cut it into 16mm and even 35mm film prints for the cinema screen.

Oliver Stone and his cinematographer Robert Richardson, ASC used it in parts of 'The Doors', 'Natural Born Killers', 'Nixon', and 'JFK', but it's also been cut into more than 30 other recent films from 'Armageddon' to 'Zoolander', from 'Pearl Harbor' to 'The Devil Wears Prada'.

It's used also for special looks and purposes on television programs, including 'Cold Case', 'Frasier', 'Sex and the City', and 'American Idol', and other series; National Geographic and other specials; and, on a regular basis, it's used on the History Channel, the Playboy Channel, and MTv.

And, it appears in a whole variety of commercials and music videos.

"Right now, John Mellencamp is doing a US tour and he's already gone through 17,000 feet of KODAK VISION3 Super 8 film, with more concert dates left to shoot" said Jonathan Barlow, worldwide product manager for Entertainment Imaging. "Super 8 is popular in the music market, probably because video producers like the 'handheld camera look', the 'home movie look' they get out of it."

After almost 45 years in the marketplace, "Super 8 sales are actually very steady," said Barlow. "I think it's being rediscovered in some places. The KODAK EKTACHROME film still leads the pack, but having KODAK VISION stocks available in Super 8 has really caught on with the professionals. It's given them a 500 speed product with little or no grain in an 8mm image. That's been unheard of before now."

But Barlow sees Super 8 playing another, more fundamental role in filmmakers' lives and careers. "If they learn on film, they can pretty much shoot on anything after that, but if they start out on film, they have a tendency to want to stay with film," he said. "I think all aspiring cinematographers want to shoot on film because of film's unique qualities -- and Super 8 gives them an inexpensive way to do that."