Features and Columns · Movies

Blood, Sweat and Latex: An Ode to Super 8mm Film

By  · Published on May 9th, 2011

by Shannon Shea

For those of you new to the column: I’m retracing my personal history, recalling formative events in my life that made me what I am today: A Special Effects Make Up Artist looking for relevance in the 21st Century. I have learned about liquid latex and at this point, I needed a camera. These are between my 15th and 16th years…

Growing up in the late ’60s and early ’70s was a challenging time for burgeoning filmmakers. There were no consumer video cameras, no computers with editing software, and certainly no digital cameras. I recently heard someone describe this as the “Photo-Chemical Age” in an attempt to make it sound horrible and archaic. After all, now we can shoot, edit, and post our films more easily than sitting through 80% of what Hollywood has to offer these days.

Well, it was the opposite back then. Motion Pictures were fantastic, and the theater experience was a tremendous joy, but making your own movies required a level of commitment that certainly would discourage anyone with a mild interest. Equipment wasn’t cheap and it had its limitations as well. Call it what you will, but the Photo-Chemical Age was glorious as well as frustrating.

My introduction to small format film started way back at a birthday that I can barely remember. My father brought an old Regular 8 projector out from the storage cupboard under the stairs and threaded up a reel to entertain a group of my friends. It was a black and white editing of 3-minute condensations of features and shorts that were commercially available. The line up was as follows: Mighty Mouse, Rodan, The Little Rascals, and more Rodan. There was no sound except the puttering of the projector, but we kids didn’t care. On the living room wall, a giant, prehistoric, flying reptile had just descended into Tokyo crushing buildings beneath its claws.

This treat was typically limited to once a year, max, on my birthday and then only on years when it rained and we kids couldn’t be outside. My father also shot Regular 8 home movies of us like most families. My strongest recollection was that bar of extra-bright movie lights that were mounted to the top of his camera and plugged into the wall. This resulted in two things: 1) all movement of the camera indoors was limited to the length of the extension cord and 2) in all of our home movies, we kids are squinting uncomfortably. I can still hear my Dad’s voice screaming, “Open your eyes, God dammit! Open your eyes!”

When I got old enough, I snuck into that storage cupboard under the stairs and retrieved the projector and the birthday film and learned how to thread and project the film myself. As Obi Wan Kenobi would say, it was my first step into a larger world.

It was the mid-1970s when I asked for my first Super 8mm* camera. I had looked through that Christmas’ Sears Wishbook and had found, what I thought, was the slickest movie camera that my father would creak open his wallet and purchase for me. Instantly, I had delusions of shooting King Kong in my garage. Really? How hard could it be?

Christmas arrived and I recall holding my first Super 8mm in my hand. This was it. I was now a filmmaker without ever shooting a frame of film. However, I was determined.

I began by building my first miniature set for my dinosaur epic. Taking brown paper garbage bags, cutting them up, turning them inside out, I fashioned a cliff-side wall for my backdrop rather than painting a cyclorama. I found appropriate plants and sticks to fashion miniature trees and flora. I even made vines out of painted cotton string.

Grabbing my camera, I looked through the eyepiece and found myself staring into a fantastic primordial world! Pulling the trigger back, I heard the motor kick in, the film begin moving in the cartridge and just like that, I was then, REALLY a filmmaker!

I grabbed one of my Prehistoric Scenes dinosaurs, pulled its head off and puppeteered it in front of the camera. Genius! I grabbed my Space: 1999 Eagle model kit off of my bedroom shelf, tied black threads to the framework and lowered it into the jungle. Oh, man! This was going to be SWEET! Dinosaurs! Space ships! I had made my first epic.

Finally, I heard the film stop in the cartridge and shooting was officially wrapped on my first effort. What I had done would be the envy of everyone I knew.

Then, came a series of hard lessons in Super 8 filmmaking.

When we were young and shooting Super 8 film with joyous abandon, the first thing most of us learned was this: After you shoot, you had to bring your exposed film to a Drug Store to have it developed and, at least in New Orleans, this processing could take up to 3 weeks!

Next, you had to be able to watch it on something. Projectors were good, but what you really needed was a little device called an editor. An editor was a manually operated machine with a tiny viewing screen. On each side of the screen was an arm that held film reels, one feed, one take up. These normally came with a small plastic tape splicer for cutting out or joining separate pieces of film. When your film came back from the lab, you would load the reel on one arm, load it over a projector bulb head, and then attach the leader on the take up reel. They, by turning the handle on the take up reel, you could check out your movie on the 2” x 3” screen.

You did need to own a projector and a good one had a switch to go from Super 8 to Regular 8, but if something went wrong, be prepared to watch your projector eat your film and tear your sprockets. All of these hard lessons were academic, but the hardest lessons came AFTER you got your film back from the lab.

When I got my first film reel back from the drug store, I remember opening the little plastic case it was in and spooling the leader on the ground, I held it up to the sun to see if anything turned out. HOLY COW! I could see green! It must be the jungle! I loaded the film into my projector and the real “film school” began.

  1. It was out of focus. I didn’t realize that my camera had a “fixed focus” lens, which meant that if you shot anything from infinity to 3 feet from the film gate, it would probably be in focus.
  2. It wasn’t lined up correctly. I didn’t realize that film cameras came in two models: Reflex and Parallax. Reflex cameras essentially were “view through the lens” where Parallax had view-finders (or “range finders”) that were independent of the main camera lens. I had a Parallax camera.
  3. The exposure wasn’t correct. Most of these basic Super 8 cameras were automatic exposure meaning that it would be taking constant light readings through a little sensor and adjust the aperture constantly causing dark and light extremes throughout the shot.

So much for my big Sci-Fi effort. Not having much to go on, I went to the library and checked out as many books on Home Film Production that I could. Of course, most of them were written in the late ’50s and early ’60s so the equipment that was demonstrated was out of date, even though the basic concepts were sound. I was dissatisfied.

My rescue happened when I was with my brother in the French Quarter at an old used book and record store called The Olive Branch. While my brother was snooping around I came across some old back issues of “Super 8 Filmmaker Magazine.” I started paging through them and realized that in the pages of this magazine were most of the answers I was looking for – and not just technical camera questions! There were columns on Special Effects and Animation. One article not only described how to build a Stop Motion Animation armature with wire, it gave the name of a consumer Foam Latex distributor: R&D Foam Latex in Commerce, California.

“Super 8 Filmmaker Magazine” was an incredible resource, to illustrate, I’ve included this link where you can peruse an old issue online.

Also, within the pages of “Super 8 Filmmaker” was an advertisement for one of the coolest little post-consumer Super 8mm items ever: The Craven Backwinder.

Unless you had a top-of-the-line camera, you couldn’t do any optical effects with a Super 8 cartridge (due to its construction). With the Backwinder, you could do superimpositions, multiple exposures, or simple cross-dissolves, all for a mere $45!

Now, for a bit of honesty: I rarely saw a Super 8 film that looked any good. Because the film was so small, it tended to be grainy. There were a couple of people that managed to get some good results, but I wouldn’t meet them until college. But what was so good about the format is that it forced you to think and plan.

You couldn’t just turn your camera on (or pick an app on your iPhone) and start shooting. You had to take your time, check your exposure, check your focus, make sure your eyepiece was closed (or your eye was against it), and then rehearse. Film cartridges were only 3 minutes and could run up to $7. Wasting film was not an option. In short, it TAUGHT you how to make movies through hard knocks.

Now before I conclude this little ode to Super 8, there is one more thing I need to say: I’ve seen trailers for the upcoming film entitled Super 8. I don’t like to judge, but I can safely say this: I never had a friend running around with a boom mike and headphones. Never had a big crew. I was lucky if I had two or three people helping me. And even if one of my buddy’s parents had sophisticated equipment, it would never be trusted in the hands of a kid. It completely undercuts the true magic of shooting a Super 8 film and pushes it into contemporary popular fantasy. Sigh.

The digital age was still decades away, and I had my eye on a NEW Super 8 camera and was prepared to continue my journey.

But, as you can see from the picture above, I still have the Super 8 Camera I used in my youth.

NEXT WEEK: The Age of Enlightenment

…And Last Time On Blood, Sweat and Latex: The Latex Genie in The Bottle

Shannon Shea, a native New Orleanian educated at The California Institute of the Arts, has enjoyed a 27-year tenure designing, constructing, and performing animatronic creatures and characters for Motion Pictures and Television. He has had the pleasure of contributing to such diverse films as Predator, Dances With Wolves, Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Spy Kids, The Chronicles of Narnia, Drag Me To Hell and 2012’s Men In Black 3.

Not limited to the confines of Motion Pictures, he paints (having been shown in New York, North Carolina, and Los Angeles), sculpts, writes and authors a new blog about his motion picture experiences called Monster History 101. Recently, he was tapped by the Stan Winston School of Character Design to be one of their instructors for a lecture series entitled Garage Monsters. When not participating on Hollywood projects, he enjoys producing, writing, and directing his own short films including Hotel Superman, Blind Passion, and his current Internet project Phantom Harbor. Shannon lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Tracy, an Operatic Soprano and their daughter, Molly, who attends the prestigious School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

*Regular 8 millimeter and Super 8 millimeter refer to the width of the film stock and the size of the sprocket holes punched into it. Super 8 was an improvement, because smaller sprocket holes meant more picture area could be exposed and a fairly better image was obtained.

Related Topics:

This designation is reserved for our special friends and neighbors who pop in to contribute to the wondrous world of FSR.