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 "So you're thinking of shooting a movie on an outdated, low-fidelity, silent, sorta expensive, but also really magical format?"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.
Here's a music video I shot on the tri-x reversal stock:
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!
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The video is hurting my eyes.
October 21, 2015 at 8:17AM, Edited October 21, 8:17AM
some super 8 I shot almost 6 years ago...haven't been able to afford it since, but this makes me want to pull out my camera again...
October 21, 2015 at 9:23AM
I love super 8. We made a film a few years back that did well in festivals. It's 100% Super8. We even used the camera shown in this article.
October 21, 2015 at 9:48AM, Edited October 21, 10:28AM
5 rolls of film to make a short? Thats about 15 minutes of raw footage. You're gonna need more.
Plus before putting the film-cassette in the camera, shake it well.
Over time the film can get a bit stuck and your material can look very jumpy.
For more sharpness and less jitter get this small pressure plate
Its worth it!
October 21, 2015 at 11:03AM, Edited October 21, 11:03AM
depends what kind of short you're making! but yeah, 5 rolls is not a lot to work with
October 21, 2015 at 12:14PM
I started out with that Canon 1014. A great camera for in camera effects. Fades, dissolves, etc.
Stick with digital. 2 minutes and 30 seconds per roll at 24 fps gets really expensive.
I shot a 10 minute short in 1974 that cost me over $600 when all was said and done.
I would go with LUT's if you are really looking for a film look.
October 21, 2015 at 11:38AM
Thanks for the kind words about Cinelab!
We now offer both 1080p and 2K-4K Data scans of Super8mm and Standard-8mm film.
October 21, 2015 at 1:24PM
Everything I wanted to learn about Super8 I forgot in the 80s and never looked back=) Can't say there is any purpose in bothering, by today's standards. Unless its a hipster thing, which I don't get. Might as well, go whip out an old tube TV and sit in awe at the amazing clarity and color, hehe. Whatever floats your boat. There are much easier/cheaper ways to make your footage look old and crappy=)
October 21, 2015 at 1:27PM
I agree there are plenty ways to make something look old and crappy and no one would ever know. There are plenty of hipsters think they'd know, but they wouldn't. It's a style thing I get it. Beauty in the eye of the beholder but why not make great looking stylistic video. Why does it need to emulate film. Film is film and video is video. Deal with it and move on. Scanning celluloid to video will degrade at any rate and once translated from analogue to digital it ceases to be film and becomes a degraded digital copy of that film. The scan might be very good but it still is a copy.
October 22, 2015 at 4:44AM
It's hard for me to see why some people are hanging on so hard to film. But there's other things that are not my taste too. So live and let live. I do wish them well. I hope it makes good business for them. I'm only wondering if those hanging on so much to film see that most people don't care one way or the other if their work is done in film or digital. The 'filmic' argument doesn't exist outside internet comments. Have anyone ever heard people arguing over filmic and digital outside of the internet? I never have. Anyone?
October 22, 2015 at 7:13AM
Actually there are. Go watch Project Greenlight=) The director this year is convinced film will make his lowbrow comedy a better movie. Too bad the audience doesn't care what its shot on. He bashed Alexa footage right to the face of a professional Colorist, who rolled his eyes, thinking, "Who is this elitist clown..." who never had a paying job in his life.
October 22, 2015 at 4:47PM, Edited October 22, 4:47PM
Gene, I've heard that argument from students up to top ASC DPs.
October 22, 2015 at 5:41PM, Edited October 22, 5:41PM
I've never been in those classrooms, or with those DP's.
They are not outside here, out here where regular folk watch movies. Out here you'll never hear it. We have much more important things filling our time, things that mean something.
Ouch for my honesty, sorry.
October 22, 2015 at 9:05PM, Edited October 22, 9:08PM
Most people "hanging on so much to film" know that most people don't care about it. That's because most people aren't making movies. They also don't care if the filmmaker used tungsten or fluorescent or led, or a Sony, Panasonic, Canon, or a Nikon for their low-budget short. These are debates for specialists in a discipline. Of course people outside don't care.
You know why doing a short film in Super 8 would appeal to someone today when digital is clearly a better, cheaper, and more flexible medium? Because it is a creative challenge and filmmakers are artists and some of us have always had the benefit of digital and didn't have to "suffer" through low-fi, sync sound filmmaking that forced you to change storage every two minutes and cost a bunch of money. Maybe trying something like that is enough? Like, while some of us work in production companies, we still like the joy that comes with creating something new with a new, limited tool?
If we got rid of everything that didn't matter to "regular" people, we wouldn't have anything left.
November 20, 2015 at 5:08PM, Edited November 20, 5:08PM
I really liked the music video very much. It wouldn't have worked at all if it was shot on digital.
October 21, 2015 at 2:01PM
October 21, 2015 at 4:02PM
I love Super8, especially Tri-X B&W Reversal! It really suits my aesthetic. I shoot with a tiny Canon 310XL and I'd shoot with it all the time if I could afford it. Here's a film I made with just one roll.
October 21, 2015 at 2:13PM
Shooting with super 8 is great for practicing how you shoot a film. The limited amount you can record can help keep your shot ratios down in other productions because your now forced to plan and think about each shot diffently in your film. :)
October 21, 2015 at 2:32PM
Is there any way I can process super 8mm by myself ? There are no labs that develop these in my country. :( I have some chemistry skills, if that counts.Nice video Alex...
October 22, 2015 at 1:32AM, Edited October 22, 1:51AM
I've heard of people developing rolls in their bathtub because it gives the film a different kind of look. Like bleach bypass or other kind of processing. You just have to make sure it's darkroom dark.
Look on the web, I'm sure there's some resources out there.
October 22, 2015 at 9:56AM
I will. Thanks George...
October 25, 2015 at 3:21PM
Great article - I bought a super 8 camera to play around with the other day so this was really useful. If anyone is UK based and has any suggestions on where's best to get film stock / digitise film it would be great to hear.
October 22, 2015 at 3:33AM, Edited October 22, 3:39AM
October 22, 2015 at 7:07AM
Alex, would you say that 8mm is a cheap(er) way of learning to expose for bigger formats, like 16mm? I've had a couple of projects that I really thought 16mm would have been a great look for, but I didn't go for it because of my lack of experience with the format. Seemed like an irresponsible use of client's budget.
October 22, 2015 at 9:00AM
totally. Super 8mm ideally suited for experimenting. Find a camera that has a fully manually iris (like the canon 1014 xl s) and try exposing based on a light meter.
October 22, 2015 at 10:59AM
Thank you Alex for bringing awareness to the craft of super8 filmmaking. I've been working with super8 professionally for many years and highly recommend the crew of Spectra Film and Video in LA, http://spectrafilmandvideo.com they're a true one stop shop for all super8 (and 16mm) needs, Doug will happily walk you through all aspects of super8 from the best camera's to buy for your needs to film stock and transfer. If you're looking for just high end transfer, telecine work, Eric and Jeff at Lightpress in Seattle http://lightpress.tv are highly respected industry colorists and a joy to work with.
October 22, 2015 at 3:56PM
super 8 is historic, when the money only backed the right wing, history disappeared, the only way to capture the moment was super 8, i shot a feature on the lower east side of new york about what was really happening 3 years in 1972 after it happened , shot in super 8 and finally . it was the only way. finally self distributed on my cable show in 1999. it was called " the stop is here" see it on "earth bird presents"10/29/15 mnn.org channel 2 the lifestyle channel at 8pm(est)
October 23, 2015 at 1:46PM
I shoot Super 8. :)
August 11, 2016 at 8:12AM
where can i find the batteries for the auto exposure system
February 12, 2017 at 9:10PM