Shooting Super 8 Today, Part I

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Why shoot Super 8 film today? 

With the ever-growing variety of ways to capture moving images today, why choose Super 8?  Because it’s fun and exciting! There are plenty of logical reasons – for instance, it’s the least expensive way to shoot analog motion picture film; and like Minox film, the diminutive size of Super 8 film infuses your images with a unique texture – but justifications can be made for any format.  If you’re inspired by a creative medium, what other excuse do you need?  If you’re excited about filming in Super 8, read on.

Technical information is less important than what you put in front of the camera. 

The goal of these articles is to provide a complete introduction to shooting Super 8 for anyone who wants to but otherwise has no idea how to do it.  It’s going to get very technical – this is so you can know what is happening when you’re filming, why it’s happening, and how to adapt it, change it, or repeat it. If you have some knowledge of photography already, it will help quite a bit.

All of what follows is meant to help you get better results out of every film cartridge, but keep in mind that technical knowledge is the bottom of the iceberg.  Your audience can’t see the knowledge in your head – they can only see what you put in front of the camera!

How movie cameras work

To state the obvious, a motion picture is just a series of still pictures taken in rapid succession.  When a series is displayed in the same rapid succession, we perceive the illusion of motion.

Film cameras achieve this by moving a strip of film through the camera in a repeated intermittent motion.  The film is advanced by what’s called a pull-down claw, which grabs onto a sprocket hole in the film, moves the film into position, then retracts.  The film then needs to be stopped in place in a consistent manner, which is called registration.  Most Super 8 cameras have the pull-down claw stay still for a brief moment before it retracts, which registers the film well enough.  Once the film is steady, a spinning half circle – the shutter – moves out of the way to expose the film to light, taking a single picture.  As the shutter spins back in front of the film, the whole process repeats – many times per second.

Movie camera shutter animation

There’s more on the Wikipedia page for movie cameras.

Because the spinning motion of the shutter is synchronized with the rest of the mechanism, the amount of time that the shutter is open depends on how fast the film moves.  A typical movie camera has the shutter open for half of each cycle, so if the camera is advancing film at 18 frames per second (the “silent film” speed), the shutter speed would be 1/36th of a second.  The 24 f.p.s. “sound movie” frame rate equals a 1/48th-second shutter speed.

There are two things to take away from this.  First, the time you get from each cartridge is determined by the frame rate.  18 fps will give you 3 minutes and 20 seconds, while 24 fps works out to 2 and a half minutes.  Second, shutter speed is not a practical means of controlling exposure, because it’s generally locked to the frame rate.  Once you’re filming, there are only two ways to adjust your exposure – by changing the aperture, or by changing how much light is in front of the lens.

2K fresnel light with barn doors

Sometimes you need a few of these.

Super 8 makes things simple

If the information above seemed dry, that’s because it was.  Obviating the complexities of movie cameras to amateur filmmakers was Kodak’s goal when they created the Super 8 format in 1965.  Kodak achieved that goal with an ingenious film cartridge which sets an automatic exposure system when the film is inserted into a camera.

The business end of a Super 8 cartridge.

A Super 8 cartridge is entirely self contained, with the unexposed film (in the feed side) pre-threaded to wind back into the cartridge (into the take-up side) after it is exposed.  The notch near the top of the cartridge indicates the film speed, and the one on the bottom tells the camera about the film’s color balance.  Since the camera will know this information as soon as the cartridge is pushed in, you only need to flip a switch to tell the camera if you’re outside in sunlight or inside under household lights, and then you can start filming immediately.

It’s that simple?  Can I go shoot a movie now?

Not so fast.  It’s true that shooting Super 8 is simple and easy, but certain parts can get really complicated; that’s why there are three more articles in this series!  Part II will discuss how to choose and use Super 8 cameras; Part III will discuss the film stocks available from Kodak and address color balance and camera compatibility; finally, Part IV will wrap up and address common movie-making questions – including any you might leave in the comments below.

A Super 8 film by the author.

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