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The Aesthetic of Analog: Super 8 Film in a Digital Age

As a beginning film student my first year in college, I would stay up late in a dimly-lit, chemically-scented room, manually cutting and splicing tiny pieces of film together in an attempt to create an experimental masterpiece. The end results were admittedly pretty awful, but even with my meager skills, one thing was clear––this 8mm film stuff looked sweet. Grainy, ethereal, nostalgic––even the most mundane of shots looked purposeful. I remember thinking: Who would ever want to go digital?

“The Power of Super 8 Film,” a panel moderated by Phil Vigeant (Pro 8mm) and featuring Austin’s Adam Gardner of Trigger Studios, documentary filmmaker Ashley Maynor, and wedding shooter Brandon Lawer, discussed the history of the medium and the advantages of using film in an increasingly technology-fueled world.

Super 8 was developed in 1965, when Kodak modified standard 8mm film into a cartridge format. The cartridges, which hold a 50 foot reel, or a little over 3 minutes of film at 18 frames per second, reduced loading time to mere seconds, and Super 8 cameras became the weapon of choice for amateur filmmakers and home movie enthusiasts. Super 8 has since become a professional production medium, and is still used throughout the film community as an inexpensive alternative to high-definition video.

Vigeant, whose career has spanned over 30 years, first began merging the aesthetic quality of 8mm film with high-end production and editing in the early 80s. Super 8 film, he explained, is the original high-definition medium, and it has a warm, organic feel that can’t be replicated by even the most advanced digital cameras. Plus, at about $30 a roll for the film and processing, it’s an affordable medium. Gardner went a bit further, explaining that although up-front costs are a bit high (a nice 8mm camera will cost you about 1K on eBay), Super 8 film isn’t subjected to the hardcore tech-refresh that feeds filmmakers’ constant need to upgrade to the latest and greatest in digital technology. If it looked great in the 70s, and looks great today, Gardner poses, it will probably look just as great 30 years from now. Super 8 film is archival, classic, and lasts forever.

Lawer, who is the 8mm guru for a wedding photographer in Alabama who shoots solely on film, noted the human element to Super 8––qualities of immediacy that make the person behind the camera feel connected with the actions in front of it. Maynor takes a more DIY approach to filmmaking, and makes use of archival footage and old home movie reels in her work. Both approaches show the benefits of the analog medium, and with a handful of shops in the US that scan 8mm film to video via telecine, 8mm is as relevant today as it was in the 60s.

Later in the day, there was a screening of Michel Gondry’s new documentary A Thorn in the Heart. The film is a lovely, intimate portrait of Gondry’s aunt, her history of teaching in various schoolhouses in rural France, and, more poignantly, her relationship with her son, Jean-Yves. Central to the story is Gondry’s use of Super 8 clips from old family films, as a way to retrace his family roots. The 8mm clips connect the past and the present, memory and reality. As a kid, Gondry would use this same camera, his father’s Super 8, to shoot animated short films––a precursor to the offbeat animations for which he’s so well known today.

While there may not be a lot of cutting and splicing these days, Super 8 film still has a place in the film community. Kodak is still making the cartridges, old cameras are still in great working order, and there are numerous resources for filmmakers to get 8mm film into their digital projects. Check out some examples below and see why Super 8 is here to stay.

Clip from A Thorn in the Heart by Michel Gondry

See also: Super 8 Channel on Vimeo, a collection of Super 8, Standard 8mm, and 16mm films.

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