This Was Super 8!

[originally published in HQ Magazine, July, 1999]

When Kodak released its first commercially available Super 8 silent film stock in 1965, nobody seriously thought that the new film format would ever find favour among professional filmmakers. Primarily conceived as a ‘toy’ for the domestic market, Super 8 was synonymous with home movies, kids blowing out birthday candles and families hamming it up in front of the camera on special occasions. By the mid-1970s when the company introduced its first Super 8 sound film, guerilla filmmakers, artists, and would-be Cecil B. DeMilles discovered that it was far more powerful than any company executive had ever imagined.

Today we recognise its grainy saturated look immediately. No longer a sign of amateur home movies, the Super 8 aesthetic lends a grungy immediacy and arty feel to the most commercial of productions. It’s the cinema’s retro-stylish equivalent of domestic video. Blown up to ‘professional’ formats (35mm, 16mm, broadcast-quality video), these consumer formats provide a soft-focus, clumsy, supposedly unmediated guarantee of truth. We’re meant to think this ‘really happened’ because it looks like it was spontaneously shot by an amateur “” or that it’s the authentic expression of an uncompromising independent artist. Take your pick.

For most of us, Super 8 is a non-professional medium. That’s what makes it so cool. Cheap, lightweight cameras, simplified technology, inexpensive filmstock and affordable processing made the format irresistible to anyone who wanted to make films without a budget or technical expertise. As French filmmaker Jean Pierre Gorin is often quoted as saying, “If you’ve only got a hundred dollars, you make a hundred dollar movie.”

Now the format is all but obsolete it has an added op-shop mystique about it. Though it’s harder to find film stock and labs to process Super 8 these days, both are still readily available “” if you’re willing to hunt around a little. In the digital era, many Super 8 filmmakers finish their work on computer editing programs. Once you’ve bought the hardware, special FX, colour correction, graphics, titles and so on are easily achieved without the need for expensive film labs. It’s not surprising Super 8 is going through a kind of renaissance at the moment.

In the 70s and 80s Super 8 became the medium of choice for anyone working outside the mainstream film industry. Countless manifestos were written declaring the revolutionary possibilities of the miniature format. Super 8 film groups sprang up in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, New York, London, Tokyo and Berlin. Festivals drew hundreds of people to see Super 8 movies over three or four nights. Activists, experimental artists, self-styled amateurs and self-confessed postmodernists all jostled to define what made Super 8 so hip. Whatever it was, Super 8 is still synonymous with cool, alternative, underground, intelligent and creative energy.

Commercial filmmakers like Oliver Stone know this, which explains why he shot so much stuff himself on Super 8 for “Natural Born Killers”. In “JFK” Stone also used what is perhaps the most celebrated footage ever shot on an 8 mm camera: the few seconds of footage which shows the Kennedy assasination, ‘accidently’ filmed by Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder. Ever since, mainstream media have incorporated 8 mm film to add ‘texture’ or ‘feel’ to otherwise super-slick commercial productions. These days the small format is to be seen in countless music videos, Nike commericals and feature length films such as “Flatliners” and “Black Rain”.

During the ‘Super 80s’ the situation was the reverse. Mainstream cinema was often incorporated into Super 8 movies as a form of parody, criticism or act of homage. Super 8 allowed anyone to become a filmmaker, to shoot a film with friends and to screen it publicly. Super 8 festivals may have gone underground again, but they continue to show an astonishing array of often bizarre and challenging works.

Super 8 Films

“Carumba” (3 min, 1985, Sydney) by wild and crazy film-editor Nick Meyers.

“Manless” (18 min, 1982, Melbourne). Early art-film from the creator of the MCA’s Blue Boy, Maria Kozic.

“Yes It Is” (4 min, 1985, Sydney). A mesmerising mercurial movie by Virginia Hilyard.

“35 Summers” (15 min, 1988, Sydney). A working example of ‘metaphysical TV’ by Mark Titmarsh.

“Flesh and Fantasy” (Melbourne). Film-critic Adrian Martin and and film-maker Jane Stevenson in front of and behind the camera “” at the same time!

“Suspect Filmmaker” (10 min, 1984, Sydney). An early one by Rowan ‘The Boys’ Woods.

“”¦ Of Everything” (1987, 8 min, Sydney) by Brisbane Super 8 guru Gary Warner.

“A Question of Faith” (8 min, 1988, Melbourne). From the prolific canon of Bill Mousoulis.

“Westworld Story” (5 min, 1985, Sydney). The sharp, elliptical work of Catherine Lowing.

“Cine-Romance” (4 min, 1981, Melbourne) by film-critic Rolando Caputo and ‘controversial’ painter Juan Davila.