In 2003, James Cameron called a man named Lenny Lipton to thank him for writing the book that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Back in 1975, Lipton had published The Super 8 Book, a how-to guide for using super 8, the inexpensive film stock that allowed a generation of novice filmmakers to make their first motion pictures. Lipton was grateful for the call, if not surprised by it. "I hear that all the time," he told me. Joel Silver, the producer of The Matrixand Die Hard also got in touch recently to express his gratitude. A ring from J.J. Abrams, whose film Super 8 premieres Friday, can't be far off.
Introduced by Kodak in 1965, super 8 was the cheapest film around—each roll was about $5, and worked on cameras that started for under $30. Many families purchased super 8 cameras to document birthday parties and barbecues, but the handheld cameras were light enough for a child to use, and soon kids were out in the backyard, playing auteur.
According to Rhonda Vigeant, the director of marketing for Pro8mm, a processing, scanning, repair, and sales business in Burbank, Calif., a slew of today's most successful filmmakers got their start shooting on super 8 film. "We know that because we've transferred all their original movies," Vigeant says conspiratorially, referring to the process of digitizing old film. She's says she's seen super 8 work by Ron Howard, Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, J.J. Abrams.
On Friday, Abrams will pay homage to the antiquated film stock with his movie Super 8. A coming-of-age story about kids shooting homemade horror films in the late '70s, the movie takes a cue from Abrams' own youth: He received his first super 8 camera at around age 12 and began rolling film on his family soon after. "Most of my first movies were excuses to test things out," Abrams told Time recently. "Later I started telling stories with a narrative, though viewers of those films might question that statement."
Before super 8, novices used regular 8mm film to make home movies. But 8mm, which Kodak had introduced in 1932, was much harder to use: Unlike super 8, which came in a cartridge, 8mm had to be threaded into the camera. Super 8 had smaller perforations on the edges, which led to better quality and larger image size. You could load the cartridge in direct sunlight without damaging the film (loading 8mm in daylight could damage about 20 percent of the roll). Cameras designed for use with super 8 film had faster lenses, greater zoom capacity, wider shutter openings, and could shoot in lower light. Unlike regular 8mm, the exposure system in a super 8 camera was automatic, which meant you didn't have to adjust the setting yourself.
The invention of super 8 "was a little bit like the cassette replacing the 8-track," explains Keith Anderson, one of the owners of Yale Film & Video in Burbank, Calif., another super 8 processing company. The low-cost and improved performance of super 8 fueled the rise of amateur filmmaking. An article from a 1968 issue of Popular Science urged its readers to take up filmmaking and advised them to do it on a super 8 camera. "Now, almost everybody from the hairy underground to the kids in the third grade makes movies," the magazine noted. "Isn't it time you got your feet wet?" It continued: "if your reluctance to take up movies is based on the old 8mm systems, forget everything you know. Today's Super 8 is something else." In 1969, Boys Life magazine suggested various super 8 cameras as ideal Christmas presents.
Kodak aggressively marketed the new film and cameras as the choice of the masses. An ad in the June 1967 issue of Life magazine promoted the new palm-size Kodak Instamatic M12 movie camera, retailing for less than $30. "This new Kodak super 8 movie camera is so easy to use, you'll take terrific movies right from the start," the ad promised. "Now that Kodak has invented super 8—shouldn't you be in movies?"
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