Shooting on Super 8mm seemed like an artistic and elegant choice. But it turned out to be quite the challenge!
When I had the idea to make my new short documentary, Betty Feeds the Animals; I knew I wanted to shoot some footage on Super 8. I’d made a short narrative film back in 2009 that was shot on Super 8, and I loved the aesthetic. But the idea of shooting a short unscripted documentary on Super 8 seemed daunting and impossible.
But I’m glad I took the risk and went for it anyway.
How I shot on Super 8
There were a few reasons it felt daunting to shoot on film, one of those reasons being the time constraint of the film cartridges. You get about three and a half minutes of footage before the 50ft roll runs out. This worried me because I felt that by the time my subject would be comfortable and I’d have some good moments, I’d run out of the film.
Second, my camera was not crystal synced, and I wanted some scenes of the subject addressing the camera.
But without the crystal sync, the audio wouldn’t match up, and I’d end up with weird floppy lips that looked like dubbed footage.
So my plan was to just shoot the whole documentary digitally and include some Super 8 b-roll in the edit.
I decided this was the best way to fulfill my desire to include Super 8 but also play it safe when it came to capturing the content. I explained this approach to my editor before going out to shoot, and he told me to “just commit” to the Super 8 and that “It will be harder but worth the pay off in the end”...
He was right.
Learning to do it all... by myself
So the first thing I had to figure out was how I was going to shoot this whole thing by myself. While I would have loved to have a sound person or any sort of help at all... I was afraid that my subjects' performance would suffer if strangers were around.
My subject, Betty, is actually my mother. I knew she would be 'normal' in front of me, but I was worried about her with others. I decided to use my digital camera (Canon C300) for audio and my Super 8mm camera (Canon 814xl-s) for the footage.
And just to make sure I wouldn’t be able to fall back on the C300 footage, I intentionally framed it, so it was a dutch angle with had an ugly LUT burned in.
When the day came to film, I quickly realized how far I was in over my head.
How to run a two-camera setup
Moving two cameras around, a boom mic on a stand, and monitoring the audio was a nightmare. It left me feeling like I wasn’t at my best while filming and that the split focus was harming the whole project.
To make matters more difficult, the stock I decided to use (Kodak 50D) requires a lot of light to get a proper exposure, and all the scenes inside the house had the light meter bottoming out at the lowest aperture setting on the camera.
So I just kept placing Betty in front of windows, hoping that my footage would show something other than blackness and a properly exposed window.
Working against the clock
To tackle the time constraint and sync issue, I decided to slate the camera at the beginning and end of each shot that had audio. I hoped that by having those two slate claps, I’d be able to sync in post. But most of the time, the film would run out before I got to that second clap.
I found myself not paying attention to what Betty was saying and instead just watching the footage meter slowly count down wondering if I should run in and interrupt her with a slate clap. By the end of the shoot day, I packed everything into the car and drove away, kicking myself for the tremendous waste of time and money I had lost.
In my mind, there was no way that Super 8mm footage was coming out exposed correctly, and I wasn’t sure if anything I captured was any good.
This feeling of regret haunted me so badly that I actually went back the next day with the C300 and filmed the entire movie all over again.
Luckily when I got my Super 8 footage back from the lab (Gamma Ray Digital), everything came out perfectly exposed. I was so excited; I had forgotten how forgiving film could be.
I forgot how rewarding it was to see your motion picture film come back and wow you
I’d become so reliant on looking at a digital cameras LCD and knowing what I was getting right away that I forgot how rewarding it was to see your motion picture film come back and wow you because it looks like a movie right out of the gate.
The grain and the colors have such a timeless feel; it was everything I had wanted. Next up was trying to see if my plan for syncing audio was going to work.
Seeing it all come together
I popped the Super 8 and the C300 footage into Adobe Premiere and matched up the slate claps. Within seconds the audio lost sync, and no amount of incremental frame moving helped. While I was using my C300 for audio recording primarily, the digital footage was a big help when it came to finding a way to sync. What I did was activate the time remapping setting in Premiere for the Super 8 footage layer and added markers every time something happened that I could visually match the C300 footage.
For example, when Betty would hit a bowl with a spoon or her mouth would finish a word leaving her lips in a particular position. From there, I would keyframe the Super 8 footage at that marker and then time remap it slightly, speeding the footage up until it matched the C300 footage.
The speedups were slight and would only last for about 10 seconds before it fell back out of sync, but this was the only way I could figure out to sync the audio.
While it may sound pretty straight forward, this took hours and was insanely frustrating. So frustrating that I have since paid to have my camera crystal synced to avoid this situation ever again.
Editing the final product
From there, I handed off the footage to my editor (Sam Goetz) and gave him a basic outline of how I would approach the edit but told him to do whatever he wanted. Which really worked out. As much as I would love to take credit for the Rainbow Bridge section in the middle of the film, that was all Sam.
I thought everyone knew what the Rainbow Bridge was, but he took a poll and assured me that I was dead wrong, and I loved the idea of another title card in the middle of a short film... it seemed weird, so I was down with that being included.
This was the first time I had ever handed off the edit of my film to someone else and found it to be gratifying.
Music costs and happy accidents
The music was another happy accident. I had sourced some inspiration tracks for the film, and one of those tracks I bought off Bandcamp from a band called Domotic that I loved. When you buy a song from Bandcamp, they ask you if you want to leave a message for the band.
This is something I would typically ignore, but for some reason, on this day, I left a message saying that I was buying the track as inspiration for a short film. Within minutes Domotic wrote me back asking about the film. I sent him some of my previous films, and he loved them. He offered to help with the soundtrack if I was interested.
I couldn’t believe it; he went on to write three songs for the film that were exactly what I was looking for.
How I got into festivals
Once the film was finished, I sent it off to a bunch of festivals with fingers crossed. The first festival I heard back from was Slamdance who accepted the film and giving us our world premiere. From there, the film went on to screen at a couple of other festivals.
At every Q&A I was at, someone brought up the Super 8 and asked about it. I just don’t think the movie would have had the same charm and feeling had it been shot digitally. Something about the film stock makes it feel different and unique; I would be lying if I said that I didn’t think it helped us get into festivals.
I think, at the very least, the look of the film stands out right from the first frame and grabs people's attention. Since the festival run, we've had our online premiere on NoBudge and were a Vimeo Staff Pick the same day.
Summing it all up
I personally love using Super 8 to tell stories. I think there is an unfair stigma that Super 8 is only used as old home movie footage, like the opening to The Wonder Years. But it can be used for so much more than that, and it doesn’t have to be handheld footage with people waving at the camera.
There are plenty of filmmakers out there doing more interesting stuff with Super 8, like Mathew Wade’s feature-length film How The Sky Will Melt.
For an independent filmmaker who wants to try to shoot something on film, Super 8 is a great way to test it out.
It’s definitely not the cheapest option (especially if you already own a digital camera) but if you can find a way to get the money it might just add that little touch of something special to your project that makes it stand out amongst the onslaught of digital films out there today.
I’m not saying I’ll never shoot digital again, but if I can find a way to shoot on film... I’m going to.