J.J. Abrams' Super 8: How Kodak's low-cost super 8 film influenced a generation of filmmakers.

J.J. Abrams' Super 8: How Kodak's low-cost super 8 film influenced a generation of filmmakers.

J.J. Abrams' Super 8: How Kodak's low-cost super 8 film influenced a generation of filmmakers.

Arts, entertainment, and more.
June 9 2011 4:43 PM

Backyard Auteurs

How Kodak's super 8 film changed moviemaking forever.

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For filmmakers growing up in the '70s and '80s, super 8 was a gateway drug into a lifetime of addiction. Steven Soderbergh's super 8 fixation began as a distraction from a dull animation course his father enrolled him in at age 13. "I quickly gravitated toward grabbing the Nizo [a German-made super 8 camera] and shooting live action," he recalled in Outsider Features: American Independent Films of the 1980s. Growing up in Houston, Wes Anderson used his two brothers as stars and paper boxes as sets in his super 8 films. Chris Nolan got the directing itch as soon as he picked up his father's super 8 camera at age 7. Tim Burton "made models, fooled around with them and burned them and filmed them," on super 8.

Did the medium leave its mark on the work of these directors? The low cost of super 8 encouraged experimentation. "You didn't have to worry about experimenting with it. There was this sense of being able to be playful and experimental and try things out," recalls Claude Kerven, co-chair of the filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy. At the same time, the short length of each roll forced amateurs to frame scenes with calculation and immediacy: They could only shoot for about two and a half minutes per roll. Kerven also noted that the lightweight nature of super 8 equipment allowed its users to incorporate motion into their work. "It kind of freed you a little bit from the idea that everything had to be so solid and locked down [on a tripod]," he says. "It really encouraged you to learn how to move the camera in creative ways."

In filmmaker John Russo's book Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production,Sam Raimi recommends all young filmmakers start making movies in super-8. "You have all the same basic elements that are used in professional filmmaking, so it's a chance to refine your skills and techniques," Raimi says, noting that he made his first super 8 movies in high school. "You've got to write a script, deal with camera placement, movement, angles and lenses. The actors have to be directed and orchestrated in the same manner as in 35-milimeter filmmaking."


One of super 8's most important lessons came after the film was shot: The budding filmmaker would then have to mail it to Kodak for processing, which could take anywhere from four days to several weeks. Waiting to see the finished product required patience, a trait that isn't exactly encouraged by today's users of instantaneous-view digital technology. "The generation now is so different," explains Anderson. "Fewer people are shooting film because everyone wants it [developed] yesterday."

The sharp, digital images of today have rendered super 8 the picture of the past. Watching film shot in super 8—even if it was shot just last week—evokes nostalgia  for the era when the film first appeared. The film is grainy and just a little bit out of focus. The colors look warm and faded—there's a spectrum of mellow tones. But Vigeant is quick to dispel the idea that super 8 is a medium of the past. She describes a robust contemporary market for the film: Pro8mm still works on more than 1,000 super 8 film projects a year for TV, music videos, and commercials. Celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Aaron Eckhart wanted their weddings filmed in super 8 because, Vigeant says, it gives the footage a retro look. Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used super 8 during their campaigns to establish warm, down-to-earth personas. Filmmakers attempting to fake a scene from the past often shoot in super 8. And young cinematographers, seeking to emulate the greats, may trade the sterility of digital for the messier, more hands-on format that their idols learned on.

"Super 8, in some ways, is having a comeback now," says Amos Poe, who teaches at New York University's film school. "I know my students at NYU love it. I think they realize it's something that [could] go away, and they want to get a taste of it before that."

Elizabeth Weingarten is the associate editor at New America and the associate director of its Global Gender Parity Initiative.