Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Shooting on Super 8mm
At a ballpark of $380 for camera, film, and post-processing on a short, Super 8mm could become the newest, oldest tool in your filmmaking arsenal. Alex Mallis, director of La Noche Buena and DP for Welcome to Pine Hill, breaks down the entire process in 7 easy (and fun) steps.
According to Alex, since 8mm film was originally designed to be incredibly user friendly, anybody can get the swing of it. To start, here is a brief overview of the numbers on making a Super 8mm short:
- Camera: $80
- 5 rolls of film: $110
- Develop: $90
- Telecine: $100
- Total: $380
That's arguably pennies for what Alex calls an "imperfect and relatively unpredictable format that consistently produces a unique and pleasing image," and is cheaper than the cost of buying (or even renting) a comparable digital setup. If you're intrigued, then eat your heart out with the following primer Alex created just for No Film School readers. "So you're thinking of shooting a movie on an outdated, low-fidelity, silent, sorta expensive, but also really magical format?" asks Alex. "Welcome aboard." Here's his breakdown:
Get a Camera
Super 8mm cameras are fairly easy to come by. You can find them at antique shops, flea markets, camera shops, and online (eBay, craigslist, etc.). Most cost under $100 but the nicer models can run closer to $800. The first thing you have to understand is that these cameras were never meant to be professional in the traditional sense. Most are auto-exposure and shoot at the standard 18 frames per second. If you want any semblance of control over your image, you'll want to seek out a camera that has manual iris and some different frame rate options (1, 18, 24, 36fps are most common). Beyond that, the only other major consideration is the lens. Depending on the year and manufacture, you're usually guaranteed to get some decent glass. If you're unfamiliar with the brand, you can generally equate a metal body and hefty lens with quality. But honestly I wouldn't worry too much about sharpness since the format is so low fidelity out of the gate, anyway. Also, with maybe one exception, these cameras are all fixed lenses, so you'll probably want to get one with zoom.
One of the best resources for super 8mm gear is Pro8mm in California. If you can afford it, they offer high quality refurbished and retrofit cameras and film stock. Super 8mm cameras stopped being manufactured in the 80s with the advent of video, but last year, one company released a new (and crazy expensive) super 8mm camera that I would likely kill a small animal to own. Please buy me this camera.
Also don't get confused by the audio jacks and limiters and such featured on some models - super 8mm film with sound strips is impossible to find and even more difficult (impossible?) to develop.
Thankfully, super 8mm film is still manufactured and readily available. Although the Kodak store in midtown Manhattan shut their doors, you can order stock from B&H here. If you're a student, you can call (on a telephone) Kodak and they can email (or was it fax?) a form to fill to get student discounts. When I called it sounded like the guy was mowing his lawn.
As far as different stocks, it's the same film as 16mm - they just cut it down. Higher ISO/ASA = better in low light but more visible grain.
You'll also note there are "negative" and "reversal" stocks. This is an important consideration if you plan on editing and/or projecting your film analogue. As far as I know, there is no way to print a positive from a negative unless you plan on blowing it up to 16mm. So if you shoot negative film, you can only project the negative image. If you want to keep things analogue - use reversal film. Personally, I scan (and invert) all my footage so negative is just fine. I really like the 200T and 500T. The 500T especially looks great in low light conditions.
Note that each 50ft roll of film will last approximately 3 minutes of shooting.
Perhaps the coolest part about super 8mm is that you don't have to manually load the film. You just pop the cartridge in and start shooting!
But first, a couple considerations:
- If you're shooting at 18fps, each roll is only about 3 minutes so plan ahead.
- Make sure you have batteries in both the camera, and the light meter. I've been burned on this one. I didn't realize the camera I was using had a separate compartment for a watch-sized battery to power the meter. Without power, the auto-exposure didn't activate, and my aperture was stuck fully open. Needless to say, nothing came out. Totally white. Damn. Some cameras do power the meter via the main source, so don't fret if you don't see a separate compartment.
- Sound. Sync sound is kinda difficult. Because of the way the film moves through the camera and probably something to do with sprockets, the speed "drifts". So if you try and record with a digital recorder, you may notice things going out of sync. I once made the aesthetic choice of recording audio on audio cassette (more sprockets) and despite matching to slate, the audio went out of sync every thirty seconds or so.
Once you start shooting, I recommend keeping a log of what you shot. And at the very least, mark spent cartridges with a # so that the processor can keep them in order.
Unless you want exposure changes mid-shot, I recommend manual metering. Although some hand-held meters will have a "cine" spectrum, manual metering can be a bit confusing unless you have a solid grasp of the relationship between frame rate and shutter speed. On some older cameras, it's not clear what the shutter angle is, and so is difficult to discern the actual shutter speed based on frame rate. But hey, it's film, so sometimes you can just flub it a bit.
Better yet, many cameras have some kind of exposure lock function. In auto-mode, point the camera at your subject and flip the switch to lock. Now, if the lighting changes, the aperture will stay the same. This is especially helpful for any type of out door handheld shooting. If, for example, the sky starts to fill more of the frame, the camera's internal meter will adjust and you subject might be lost in underexposure land.
First, a moment of silence for PacLab. Loved that place.
There are a number of labs across the country that still process super 8mm. I recommend Cinelab. The cost can vary. But usually you'll end up spending around $18/roll. Most places have student rates.
If you're up for cutting the film the old fashioned way, you're not alone. You'll need an editor/viewer, a splicer, and some tape. All can be found online relatively easily. But if you're never done it, you'll probably need at least some basic instruction. Perhaps the best place to learn the skills is by taking a class. If you're in NYC, I highly recommend Mono No Aware for their excellent film workshops.
If analogue editing isn't your thing, do like most of us and digitize your footage. You have a couple of options here and the price can vary widely depending on which option you choose. I'll list them below in order of cheapest to most expensive.
Get yourself a super 8mm projector and aim it at a white wall. Set up a digital camera pointing at said wall. Voila. Obviously the quality isn't gonna be the best but I've seen some good ones where you can barely tell.
Telecine is a blanket term that refers to the digitization of film. Like all things, you'll find a range of quality and price. The best place to start looking is probably Dijifi in Brooklyn. They use a Sniper that basically amounts to projecting the film directly on to the sensor of a pro-sumer video camera. You'll receive a 1080p .mov file with a pretty decent quality. I have found, though, that a certain amount of digital noise and/or pixelation is visible. Dijifi charges $.40/ft. (you'll need to provide a hard drive).
If you're feeling spendy, or pristine quality is a priority, you'll want a data scan. Each frame is scanned RAW 2k resolution. Depending on your request, they can also output an accompanying color corrected 1080p file. This is the best you can get, and it looks amazing. Anything beyond 2K is probably not necessary, as you'll be surpassing the resolution of the film itself. If you're making a film that you hope to eventually present in a theatre, you'll probably want to find the extra cash required for this type of scan. Check out Metropolis Post to start. You'll probably spend about double what you'd spend for a Sniper scan.
You did it! How does it look? Cool, right? Post it online or submit it to a festival!
Thank you, Alex!
As part of the final push for the BUREAU of Creative Works, Alex is offering a Kickstarter reward of an in-person coffee session (in NYC) or Skype conversation anywhere to help you with anything from planning your next Super 8mm shoot, feedback on your work-in-progress, or anything else you can think of, along with a subscription to the BUREAU (that includes his next film)!
You can also join Alex Mallis on Twitter for a live Chat this Wednesday, October 21st at 2pm EST/11am PST. If you'd like to ask questions or add your own answers and experiences, follow along with the hashtag #BureauQA!