November 6, 2018

This Contest Will Make You Want to Shoot on Film

Straight 8 is a Super 8 film competition that makes shooting on celluloid cheap and easy.

I'll admit it, I've always wanted to shoot on film, but I've got too many good excuses not to. Oh, it's too much money. Oh, I didn't go to film school and never had the chance to even play around with the medium. Oh, the post-production process makes the whole thing not worth it.

Sound familiar?

Ed Sayers, founder of the Straight 8 film competition, is sick of hearing about it.

His festival aims to make every one of those excuses inconsequential. And he does it through simplicity. The rules are few but important:

  • Make a short film on one cartridge of Super 8mm cine film with no editing, no re-takes, no grade, no post-production.
  • The visuals for your film are completed in-camera, shooting in story order, editing only with each pull of the camera's trigger. Every shot you take becomes your film.
  • The film does not record sound so you then submit a separate, original soundtrack, still without having seen your film.
  • Then get your film processed at the lab and we line up your soundtrack to the first frame of picture.

As for money, all you need is one roll of film (which goes for about $40), a vintage Super 8 camera (which can be rented out for about $50 a day), and a few friends to make the picture. You submit the film with an audio track to the competition, they line it up, and if your film is good enough, the first time you see it assembled will be if it's chosen to be screened at the competition's main event in Cannes.

We talked to Ed about the origins of his competition, some best practices for those submitting, and how shooting on Super 8 is the ultimate filmmaking experience. 


No Film School: How did you first come up with the idea for the contest? 

Ed Sayers: It only came about because I finally put this idea into action that I'd had knocking around in my mind for at least two years. I was at a friend's house for dinner, and after dinner, kind of bizarrely, he got his Super 8 projector out and started showing home movies.

What was great was that there was this defining moment every three minutes, 20 seconds, where the reel would finish, the lights would go on, and another reel would go on. You never quite knew what was gonna come up next. None of them were narrative films or anything, but actually, there was a lovely rhythm to everything.

I just suddenly thought the idea of watching short films that you know are all gonna be short, where every single one coming up could be completely different, struck me as an interesting idea.

"If you can shoot at a 1:1 shooting ratio and not have to edit it, one, it saves money and, two, it saves a hell of a lot of time and decision-making."

I used to shoot a bit of Super 8. It's one thing to shoot a decent film, and it's another thing trying to make a story. There's the fact that shooting on film has never been a cheap alternative unless your benchmark is 35mm or 16mm. If you can shoot at a 1:1 shooting ratio and not have to edit it, one, it saves money and, two, it saves a hell of a lot of time and decision-making, later, where you could infinitely change your clip and never lock your film, even if it's just this little hand film you're gonna watch yourself.

I suddenly put it to a bunch of friends of mine, if they'd all like to have a go. I bought a box of 20 cartridges of nice Kodak reversal stock. We all took one each. There were people there that were editors, directors, DPs, actors, creatives, and we all had a go. 

NFS: What do you think are some of the biggest educational takeaways of shooting on 8mm film for filmmakers?

Sayers: One is just that feeling that every time you pull the trigger, you're burning celluloid, no matter what budget you've got. Even if you had an unlimited budget, it's still gonna happen, as you've gotta change the roll when it runs out.

Actually, funnily enough in a way, digital is getting to that point again, just because the data is getting so big. Even on pretty amateur level cameras, or cameras that anybody can get their hands on, you're going to be recording 4K, and you're just going to be filling up cards and then you've got more filming to do.

"In camera editing any story order forces you to do two things, both of which are essential for filmmaking."

Obviously, it's the money factor that's the big one. One, there's that discipline, but also it's more than that. It's just very visceral hearing the film going through the camera next to your ear.

Then I think, actually in camera editing any story order forces you to do two things, both of which are essential for filmmaking. One is to plan the hell out of everything. Two is to totally be prepared to roll with it and rip it up on the fly and change it as you go along. That, in a nutshell, is the biggest lesson that I think it teaches you, to plan to be prepared to re-plan on the spot.

NFS: Can you tell me a little bit about what the Straight 8 Challenge actually is? What is the process that prospective contestants will have to go through?

Sayers: Yeah, absolutely. Some things haven't really changed much with Straight 8, as we've always challenged anyone from anywhere to enter. Everybody does the same thing, make their film on one roll of Super 8 film, which lasts 3 minutes, 20 seconds, shooting at 18 frames per second. The first time they see it, if it's good enough, is at its premiere. They make their soundtrack blind. The soundtrack deadline's always a few days after the film delivery deadline. You've got your film to the point where it's exposed on the edge of the strip of film that shows in the cartridge. That means you've run out of film, that means you've shot your whole film.

You send that off and then we deal with everything else. That's how we know that no one can do any titling, any grading, any swapping of shot orders, any snipping anything out, any visual effects. Any of those things you want to try and do, if you want it to have a cold sky, you stick a filter in front of the lens and you shoot it. Any of that stuff, all done on camera, in-camera, on the shoot.

Then you've got a few more days to do your soundtrack. There are two things about the soundtrack. It has to be original and you have not seen your film when you make it. All we do is line up the first frame of picture of your scan of the film with the start of your WAV or your AIFF of your soundtrack master that you've sent to us. Then, literally the first time you'll see your film is at the screening.

NFS: I think I know the answer to this question, but is there a more important component between the sound and the picture?

Sayers: Whoever said it, I don't know if it was George Lucas, I think it is, but, "Sound is half the picture." It couldn't be truer. Sound can definitely elevate a good film. I'd rather see a shot that's a bit out of focus, 'cause it can actually still look nice and more impressionistic, then not being able to hear the sound that I need to hear. 

I just think sound and picture are equally important, and to get everything right is fantastic. Definitely one can help the other, but probably sound can help picture more than the other way around. There are things you can work on as much as you like, certainly on straight 8 and polish. We get some films that are very sound-driven.

"The camera is not the difficult bit. The difficult bit is the idea." 

NFS: What's the bare minimum equipment that contestants will need, and how can they find it?

Sayers: A lot of people say to me, "Oh, I don't know if I'd enter. I don't know where I'd find a camera." And I always say to them, "The camera is not the difficult bit. The difficult bit is the idea." Once you get a get a good idea, everything will come around it, because you will find a camera, and you will find someone that knows how to use it because your idea is so good, they're going to want to work on your film. Then, the same thing will happen with the location, and the actors, and everything else.

What do you need? You just need a Super 8 camera, which is so easy to come by it's untrue. A good inexpensive one would be something like a Canon 314, or a Canon 514. We picked up a Canon 314 recently for about 15 pounds, and it was in amazing condition with its original box on eBay.

You want to allow time to test it, so if you're going to enter Straight 8, and if you're going to use a camera you've never used before, definitely shoot a test roll way in advance. Really, I mean really, that is all you need.

Then people do all sorts of things, like they record the sound of the camera shutter going, so that they can have a record of how long each shot was, and when they're doing their sound, they can try and refer back to something apart from just stopwatch timing. You fastidiously start shooting and timing every shot and writing everything down.

Yeah, a camera, a roll of film, and some straight 8 itself, and then with the sound, it's up to you really, whether you're going to find a band or record your own moody, atmospheric sounds from the location.

Editors Note: To watch all 28 of this year's winning short films, click here, and use the code "nofilmshootfilm" for 50% off the price of rental.     

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