I think we can all admit that there’s something magical about the 8mm film format. Before there was VHS, and way before there were digital video cameras, there was Super-8, pretty much the only game in town if you were trying to get your memories turned moving pictures without spending thousands of dollars. This could explain why today when we see Super-8 footage today, it almost automatically invokes a sense of nostalgia, as if we are peering into the timeless memories of the pre-80’s.
But really, like many people who grew up in the age of the VHS tape, my first exposure to the Super-8 format was probably this:
Yep, the opening sequence to The Wonder Years. The reason for this sequence being done in Super-8 now seems quite obvious: It invokes the slightly faded memories of the 1960’s through the nostalgic, grainy filter of small-format film.
So what’s the story behind this format?8mm film is of course 8 millimeters wide, but its evolution is not that simple. There are two main manifestations of this format, the first being standard 8mm film, and then the Super-8 format that followed.
The original 8mm format came out on the market in 1932 and was actually 16mm film that was only exposed on half of its width. Once the roll had run out, you were then allowed to flip the spool and expose on the opposite half of the 16 mm film. This is why this format was also sometimes called Double 8 early on. When the film was processed, it was cut down the middle, allowing it to be played on players that were outfitted for 8mm film. This format was intended to be a home movie format that was cheaper than 16mm and that could store more frames with a smaller amount of film. This allowed recording times of between 3 and 4.5 minutes – quite short by today’s standards, but sufficient for the needs of home/amateur movie makers.
In 1965 Eastman-Kodak released the Super-8 format that featured a cartridge-based film loading mechanism and it was quickly adopted by many consumers. Even some in-flight movies on airplanes were shown on Super-8 (using special long-playing cartridges) until video tape became widely available. Super-8 cameras were designed to be used as a consumer format that would be relatively inexpensive and easy enough to be used by a large number of people. One major benefit of the Super-8 format was the ease with which its cartridges could be loaded, because there was no need to touch the film or thread it to the camera. As 8mm made the steps towards becoming a consumer format, the quality of certain parts of the cameras was compromised to some degree when compared to the original 8mm cameras, as certain parts such as the pressure plate were built into the cartridge, while earlier models had more permanent camera-based solutions. Like the regular 8mm format before it, the film was only perforated on one side, but the size of the perforation was made smaller so that more area could be devoted to film exposure. (Cartridge image via.)
Variations on Super-8
The original Super-8 didn’t have sound, but in 1973, a sound version was released that recorded the sound onto film magnetically. This addition was met with mixed reactions, and today the sound for most Super-8 movies is still primarily recorded externally. Fujifilm released an alternative format called Single-8 which employed a different cartridge where the supply and takeup reel are in the same package side by side (think audio cassette, but for film). This is in contrast to the Super-8, where the supply reel and takeup reel are on top of each other (see the cartridge picture above).
Who still uses this stuff?
With the advent of more modern video formats, the 8mm format has been dealt some hefty blows recently. The film stock is hard to come by, as Kodak is the only company producing actual 8mm film stock, although for the real 8mm connoisseur there are other companies out there that slit various formulations of 35mm film stock from other film manufacturers and repackage them in Super-8 cartridges. Despite its drawbacks, this format is flourishing among certain circles, particularly among independent filmmakers. The “USA Up All Night” hit A Polish Vampire in Burbank (oh, how I loved this movie as a youngster) was filmed entirely in Super-8, and is said to have inspired many other Super-8 filmmakers. There are even film festivals devoted to showcasing movies made in the 8mm format such as the Bentley Film Festival and straight 8. Also, like it or not, Super-8 has enjoyed a renaissance in the wedding videography industry for its vintage, timeless look (I wonder if they market it as “The Wonder Years Effect”).
Perhaps most noticeably, Super-8 is still widely used in making music videos.
Here’s some great use of Super-8 in Julie Doiron’s video for “Me and My Friend.”
Lovely, no? It’s hard to imagine this film really working like it does in any other format.
Ready for more music? Here’s some great footage to illustrate the 8mm effect on Japan’s Flower Travellin’ Band.
With the popularity of the format came a wonderful variety of cameras to play these films, with companies as common as Sears manufacturing projectors and vying for their share of the market. There’s a wonderful collection of photos of 8mm projectors that can be found at Phil’s Vintage Movie Films and Collectibles. Here are a few:
Gakken’s Answer to the 8mm Projector
The Maker Shed is proud to feature Gakken’s 8mm Projector. Who better than Gakken to bring back tried-and-true vintage technologies to the curious tinkerers of the world? The projector features high-luminosity white LED to project sharp, clear images on any surface with a white background. By turning the handle yourself, you can see your resurrected 8mm footage take life before your eyes.
This mini Super 8 kit will project Super 8, Single-8 and Regular 8mm film and runs on three AA batteries, it’s hand cranked with a white LED light source and comes with an empty take-up reel and bonus splicing tape. Measures 8.5 inches high and weighs a only 1/2 lb. Fun, retro kit, begging to be hacked! Made of high impact plastic. Instructions are in Japanese but features highly detailed assembly pictures, sorry no English translation at this time. Easy to build.
The projector in action.
The lovely box.
The contents of the box.
All you have to do is put on the handle, and the projector is assembled.
You can switch between Single-8 and Super-8/Double-8 by just changing one part.
You can even edit using the film editing tool. Remove unnecessary frames, and join the ends together.
If you have an 8mm camera, or even just access to some developed 8mm film, this projector is a great way to bring that footage to life. Maker SHED: Gakken Super-8 Mini Projector