“Making it” in Super 8

Once upon a time, long before commercial moviemaking
became the passion of every Tom, Dick and Mary in America, Super
8 filmmaking was the domain of suburbanites whose Polaroid cameras,
when it came to recording such events as junior’s first crawl across
the linoleum floor, didn’t quite fit the bill.

The thousands of miles of grainy, jerky
footage they left behind created a perception of the format as being
amateurish, even primitive, akin to black and white photography
with an instamatic camera. Then, as home video technology was developed
and VCRs and camcorders mass-produced, Super 8 film equipment was
rendered all but obsolete.

But not for long. We are now in the
beginning stages of a Super 8 revival fueled in large part by further
advances in the very technology that made it the Rodney Dangerfield
of motion picture photography in the first place. No-budget independents,
who continue to rely on Super 8 as an alternative to the wildly
expensive 16 and 35 min formats, are suddenly being joined by professionals
in Hollywood who are drawn not just to the rustic home movie look
and hand-held mobility, but to a new development, Super 8 color
negative film.

"It used to be that we always
got the kind of professional jobs that called for that older home
movie look," comments Phil Vigeant, president of Burbank-based
Super 8 Sync Sound System and developer of the new color negative
stock. "You see it in commercials and even major motion pictures
like Flatliners, which has a whole segment shot in 8 where
it’s a POV of a video camera meant to imitate old newsreel footage.
But now you can shoot the same color negative film in 8 mm that
had only been available in 16 and 35 and get the same high quality
image you see on television. For people working in Super 8, this
is sheer ecstasy."

"When
they saw the footage (the marketing people) were just amazed…they
didn’t know whether it was just 16 or 35, or what about it
looked different, but they loved it."

—Bruce Finn

Bruce Finn, a Los Angeles-based DP
involved primarily in commercial work, agrees. "I think this
stuff is great. It’s got a different, really interesting look to
it. It takes the medium that some people thought was dying and completely
revitalizes it. It’s definitely a tool professional cinematographers
should keep in mind.

Last month he got a call from an advertising
agency asking if he could shoot a 30-second spot on an $8,000 budget
with only four days turnaround to help raise money for one of its
pro bono accounts. Having initially tested the color negative stock
some weeks earlier, Finn sidestepped the agency’s expectation that
he shoot it on videotape, and set out with his Super 8 camera and
bare bones crew to do the job. Two days and 50 rolls of exposed
film later, he went back to the agency.

"When they saw the footage they
were just amazed," says Finn. They said that they didn’t know
whether it was 16 or 35, or what about it looked different, but
they loved it." Besides image quality, he was able to present
sequences that a full crew could never have put together on such
a budget. "I shot in places that would have been completely
off limits to a 16 or 35 mm crew. You have so much more accessibility
with the smaller, lighter, more mobile unit. People think you’re
a kid running around taking pictures."

The stealth factor is something the
more do-it-yourself oriented independents have been using to their
advantage for years, and not just in securing good locations. Super
8 filmmaker Mark Pirro had a big hit in the mid-80’s with his horror/spoof
movie A Polish Vampire In Burbank, which a distributor snapped
up thinking it was shot in a higher format. Pirro let them think
what they wanted and signed a deal that led to his being offered
to direct his first 35 mm film, Death Row Gameshow. Only
after reading an interview some time later did the distributor discover
the film he purchased had been shot in Super 8, and even though
it made him think he paid too much, the deal stood firm. Interestingly,
after Pirro’s experience directing the big budget Hollywood film,
he chose to return to Super 8 and the creative independence he was
forced to compromise on the more lavish production.

Mark Pirro’s experience aside, success
via Super 8 filmmaking does not normally lead to a lucrative distribution
deal right out of the gates. More common is a tireless self-distribution
approach whereby the completed film is packaged, advertised and
sold in video cassette form, usually by mail order. But don’t think
for a second that it happens overnight.

"Readers like to read that becoming
successful in film is like a Cinderella story, where magically the
distributor appears after your first effort," says Vigeant.
"That’s how a lot of people look at it, because I guess there
are a few stories where that’s happened. But look at someone like
Rick Linklater. I sold him his first Super 8 camera 12 years ago.
His films Slacker and Dazed and Confused reached
a wide audience, but that was after years of making and self-distributing
low-budget Super 8 features down in Texas. He’s no new filmmaker."

One of the primary vehicles propelling
low budget Super 8 filmmakers is the Beverly Hills based Film Threat
Video Guide, sister publication to Christian Gore’s cutting edge
movie magazine, Film Threat. The Video Guide, developed in 1990
for the independent filmmaker market left behind when Film Threat
went more mainstream, covers movies shot in 8 or 16 mm that go direct
to video and that you would not see at the local cineplex.

Dave Williams, editor of the Video
Guide, is the cult film kingpin who screens, reviews and distributes
the new titles he believes will be successful. "The rare filmmaker
who can actually get a film finished usually has no idea how to
go about advertising or distributing it when it is finished. Our
readership, meanwhile, wants to know how to get their hands on these
films so we simply bridge the gap."

To be sure, the majority of films he
elects to promote are of the extreme stomach-turning variety, outrageously
raunchy and disgusting, sometimes pornographic. But this genre has
long attracted a certain established audience that will buy upwards
of 8,000 copies and lay the groundwork for a bigger budget on the
next go-around. Strong sales attract investors, which in turn can
lead to the elusive "lucrative deal."

Williams and Gore see similarities
between the development of video and filmmaking in the ’90s and
that of rock & roll in the late ’70s, when the punk movement
exploded onto the scene. According to Williams, the stagnation in
the music industry that led to punk resulted from suits, not talent,
deciding what got made, how it got recorded and who was getting
a contract. The film business today, he observes, suffers from that
same kind of crippling insularity.

"What it led to then and what
it’s leading to now," he insists, "is a rebellious kind
of can-do attitude where people will do whatever it takes to finish
a work that’s true to their vision. I foresee movie fans getting
tired of the stuff the Hollywood machine cranks out every year and
seeking out the less formulaic work that’s beginning to emerge.
Add to that the long promised 500 cable channel format and you can
see a definite opening for an infusion of independent film productions.

Here are a few case studies of Super
8 moviemakers who have seen the future and are well along the path
to success.

Karl Krogstad

Veteran Northwest filmmaker Karl Krogstad
recently finished a nationally distributed documentary film for
PBS called Surrealism, which he shot on every format known
to man including 35 mm, 16 mm, high 8, 3/4" and 1/2" videotape,
and, of course, Super 8 film, all finished on 1" tape. With
20 years of film experience and an impressive body of completed
works in the can, Krogstad knows his craft well and believes deeply
in the potential of Super 8.

"Super 8 is the ultimate no-budget
tool," he says. "But you need to reach an audience and
Super 8 on its own cannot do that. There are only two or three festivals
left that cater to it, so you must convert it to tape. Now obviously
when you do so there’s some grain structure, but there’s really
very little difference between Super 8, 16 and 35 mm after they’re
bumped to tape. So you can be a genius on Super 8, as you might
be on 35, but at a fraction of the cost, and can reach a mass audience
thanks to videotape.

"Of course, the quality of the
work has less to do with the technicality of it than the story.
The bottom line is, can you deliver a dramatic story and make anyone
love it? You can do it on 35 and spend $30 million, or do it on
Super 8 and spend a couple thousand. It really and truly depends
on the people involved. In Super 8 you can deliver the same acting
quality, so it all depends on the will of the filmmaker and his
ability to talk talented people into working with him for little
or no money. This is the future of Super 8 as an art form."

Krogstad, who believes the only true
market for the format is television and home videocassette, feels
that the coming explosion in cable channels will lead to an infinite
number of possibilities for truly independent filmmakers. And if
cable prices come down as promised, he sees the market – and therefore
the audience – growing tremendously. But he advises a cautious approach
when it comes time to signing the deal.

"The contract I signed for Surrealism was one I examined long and hard," he explained. "I’ve
been through this a lot and have learned that you do not take the
first deal offered. Ever. Play them off of one another and negotiate
a better deal wherever possible. But stick with Super 8. If you
really have no money you can mix it with High 8 tape to reduce costs
further. It’s a very viable form."

Chris Fieri

Chris Fieri also from New York, whose
third full-length Super 8 feature The Stranger is finding
an ever-widening audience, has turned self – distribution into an
art form. Due to embark this month on a seven-country European tour
to show the film in coffee shops, art houses and on university campuses,
he is confident that this time a distributor or two will buy a few
thousand copies and send them around to the video stores.

"I’m not a businessman, but I’ve
got a good feeling about it," he remarks. Unlike his previous
films, Teenage Mummies and The Arbitrons, which he
describes as straight-ahead cheapo-funny-campy-horror films, he
actually likes this one and feels it has helped him raise his skill
level several notches. "I’ve finally gotten beyond a linear
structure into something more complex, more elliptical. The dream
sequences really work. I’m pretty happy with it.

He started shooting Super 8 in 1983
with a wind-up camera, graduating soon after to a $200 Elmo, and
finally to a Beaulieu in 1988. "For me Super 8 is cheap,"
he states plainly. "It’s a bit grainy, though, and if you want
to shoot black and white you’re very limited. You can’t do dissolves,
can’t rewind, and since you’re limited to 2-1/2 minutes per roll,
you have to start playing tricks if you want to get longer shots.
But it’s cheap, and disposable. If a roll gets wasted it’s not like
it’s hundreds of dollars out of your pocket.

"The other bad thing is that when
you use Super 8 you’re really under the thumb of one company. There’s
very few people that’ll even touch it. Only one place in New York
processes Super 8 black and white film. (Similarly, only one company
here in Seattle provides Super 8 equipment, supplies and accessories:
Section 8 Films. They also have on-site the full complement of post-production
facilities including video transfer equipment.

"I sold a pint and
washed some dishes to make a payment on our lighting debt
. . . we sold our blood to make a vampire movie. "

—Leif Jonker

Leif Jonke

Leif Jonker, late of Wichita, KA, whose
recently completed horror film Darkness was just released
to high acclaim, started writing scripts and pursuing filmmaking
at a young age after seeing Alien and Friday the 13th with his dad at the local moviehouse. "I saw people screaming
and jumping and hiding their eyes and that impressed me," he
says. "It was before the video boom so I chose to work in Super
8 because of the cost, and financed my first film by selling acting
parts to my friends. It turned out crude and rough, but had a little
bit of style here and there, and a good flow. The thing I saw, though,
were moments that looked as good as any movie. The image looked
perfectly smooth and warm, with lots of depth. I realized much later
that if I could put enough care into all my shots I’d be able to
produce a whole movie of those moments, and no one would have to
know I was using what was widely considered a home movie format.

Jonker is keenly aware of the stigma
associated with Super 8, but remains unfazed. He says that just
because people made sloppy home movies in the past does not mean
it’s not a valid format to shoot in. "True, you have more latitude
and can salvage more in 16," he points out, "but that
doesn’t mean you can’t make the Super 8 look just as good as the
best of 16."

Another benefit of working in 8, according
to Jonker, is the speed with which you can shoot your sequences.
That, combined with the low cost and high picture quality, (when
one takes the time to get it,) makes Super 8 his format of choice.

"A lot of people start working
with the smaller format and start treating it like a lower format,"
he says. They don’t put as much care into the setups and lighting,
and as a result don’t get the color, sharpness and vibrancy the
format can give you. On the other end are the people who spend big
money shooting 16 mm shorts, which don’t prove to an investor that
you can spearhead and complete a feature. Spending the same amount
on a full-length Super 8 film, even though it’s still a limited
budget, shows them that you have the know-how and the drive to do
an entire flick. I have people calling me from New York wanting
me to fax out a synopsis of my next project because I have a real
movie coming out on cassette."

Jonker shot Darkness, an extremely
graphic but technically masterful vampire horror, over a four year
period at a cost of $13,500. He signed a deal with Film Threat upon
completion for a fair split of the gross profits, as opposed to
the more common arrangement which would give him some money up front
and then a dollar or so per cassette sold.

As for his commitment to completing
the film, consider this: he and his partner, special effects whiz
Gary Miller, raised much of the money to pay for post-production
by selling their own blood. "Gary and I were selling our plasma
on a weekly basis to pay rent on our little studio near the end.
I sold a pint and washed some dishes to make my final payment on
our lighting debt. Morbid, but true. We sold our blood to make a
vampire movie."

"The (short)
films I made in the ’80s bring me $5-8000 a year…the market
for this stuff never dries up if it’s weird enough."

—Richard Kern

Richard Kern

New Yorker Richard Kern uses Super
8 as a scriptless medium, usually working from a general idea, sometimes
with the help of storyboards. Having made 40 or 50 features which
he himself characterizes as unnecessarily violent, sexist and disgusting,
and having profited handsomely from them (at least by Super 8 standards),
he is focusing these days on still photography, much of it erotic.

Best known for his 1986 cult hit Fingered, which
cost him $10,000 and featured punk diva Lydia Lunch, Kern foresaw
the home video market and kept an eye out early for good people
who would go on to do other things successfully. "I was lucky
because I was working with Lydia Lunch for a while and she’s pretty
notorious and pretty famous all over the world. That connection
helped a lot.

He has also worked with bands that
have gone on to find success, such as Sonic Youth, Mite Zombie and
Butthole Surfers. "I used a lot of rock ‘n roll people in my
stuff, made them kind of extreme, and self-distributed them by screening
them publicly and advertising them in fanzines, underground mags
and other rock-related things. I’d also travel around with these
bands and be the opening act or something."

Once he got fed up with the rigors
of self-distribution, he started talking to distributors, but not
until Film Threat approached him did he find one he trusted.

Fingered, which was packaged
along with seven other of his darker film efforts in one collection
titled Hardcore, recouped him his costs within a year and
is still selling through Film Threat. "It’s grossed a fair
amount, but I’d rather not say how much," he says. "I
don’t keep good records and would rather not have people get mad
at me about how much money I made. But I will say this: the films
I made six and seven years ago bring me in between five and $8,000
a year, and that’s just what Film Threat is selling. The market
for this stuff never dries up if it’s weird and notorious enough.
But they’ve gotta be good.

"I have a ‘do it fast, do it now’
attitude toward Super 8," he remarks. "You just gotta
light it like you light a real movie. If you get a good image and
a good transfer, nobody can really tell if it’s 8, 16 or 35, especially
if you transfer on a Rank system. Best thing about it, though, is
the mobility factor." MM

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