|Preston (played by Zach Mills) presenting the filmed "evidence"|
to Deputy Lamb (Kyle Chandler) in Super 8.
Photo credit: Francois Duhamel/Paramount Pictures
Perhaps the most important aspect of Super 8 is its emphasis on careful documentation. (For those who have not seen the film, what I am about to write may be a bit of a spoiler, so read ahead at your own risk.) In Super 8, film documentation plays a key role in providing the evidence and understanding of the creature wreaking havoc on the town. Not only do the kids inadvertently capture its image during their midnight movie shoot, they also stumble across an extensive B&W 8mm film record of its history, left by the ex-government scientist turned high school biology teacher. It is in that record that the identity and motive of the creature is finally revealed – not in full cinematic widescreen, but rather in a small square of light projected onto a wall, accompanied by a separately recorded audiocassette tape.
Like the biologist in the movie, scientists have often applied film to their research, using it as a crucial tool for collecting visual data. This is especially true for anthropologists, who recognized the potential of film technology for their pursuits in documenting evidence to facilitate the understanding of different cultures. Any footage obtained could then be applied to a variety of scientific uses, including the creation of documentaries, as a teaching tool for building observational skills, or as a filmic record preserved for later research and study.
This footage from Gertrude Kurath’s 1960 study of the music and dance of Rio Grande Pueblos provides a good example. Kurath’s project was part of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, whose founding mission statement was the promotion and funding of “research, educational, technical and scientific work.” Although filmed for her studies in ethnomusicology, Kurath’s clear and well-documented raw footage has become a valuable source for study by scientists representing a wide range of interests.
|Roll of Super 8 Kodak Kodachrome film from the 1969 Morden-Smithsonian Dominica Expedition.|
Note the careful description on the back of the box. This Smithsonian-sponsored expedition was intended for the collection of botanicals, but as can be seen, the gathering of film samples seems to have been a priority as well.
Photograph by Patricia Henkel for Human Studies Film Archives.
“Amateur motion picture films provide a record of life that is unique. Unlike commercially produced movies, they are usually shot by people intimately connected to the experience who choose moments and subjects important to them.” (Toni Treadway and Bob Brodsky, “Little Film.”)
The simplicity of Super 8 film also provided a way for cultures to engage with themselves. In the late 1960s, anthropologists John Adair and Sol Worth headed a cross-cultural communication study where Navajo Indians were trained to use cameras to film their own community. As the Zalisks suggest, a more complicated or complex system would not lend itself as well to this sort of “experimental” and ultimately fruitful filmmaking.
The Future of Super 8
But there were problems with Super 8 as well. Professional filmmakers were discouraged by the relatively few choices of available film stocks. And while the light weight and small size of Super 8 camera made them ideal scientific tools for documenting data, many felt that these features also encouraged casual or sloppy filming. As a result, many universities tended to discourage the use of Super 8, opting to use the 16mm format instead, and therefore did not have the equipment necessary for showing Super 8 film. Finally, a serious lack of proper editing facilities made it extremely difficult for individual researchers to create their own documentaries. The creation of video cameras in the 1980s, with nearly unlimited footage and sync-sound, led to a 400,000 unit drop in sales from 1977 to 1981.
Yet all is not lost for Super 8 mavens. Specialized 8mm enthusiasts Toni Treadway and Bob Brodsky founded their center for 8mm film in the 1980s, and continue to work with and promote small-gauge film. Their website, “Little Film,” remains one of the best places to find information on the history, preservation, and use of Super 8 film. On the future of Super 8, Treadway offers the following words:
“The affordability, portability, convenience, beauty and image permanence of real movies continues to attract discerning artists to small gauge film, despite the ease of digital video camcorders. The roster of working filmmakers today whose careers include movies in 8mm or Super 8 is stunning: not just the generation of Stephen Spielberg, Spike Lee, Gus Van Sant, Rick Linklater, but the emerging directors like Jem Cohen, Matthew Harrison, Kelly Reichardt, and a host of experimental film artists not yet widely known. So here we are…still shooting 8mm film. How much longer? As long as film makers buy it. Film is a compelling medium that sings a beautiful song on any screen.” (As quoted in Alan Kattelle, Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979, p.214)
It seems likely that Abrams’ film is further helping the cause. In conjunction with the release of the film, several marketing strategies made virtual Super 8 filming available to the masses. In May 2011, Apple released a Super 8 iPhone application allowing subscribers to use their ordinary cell phone camera to take film in the “style” of the medium Abrams’ also uses actual Super 8 footage in his film, having his young stars further mirror his childhood experience by writing, directing, and filming the zombie movie “The Case,” (which appears in full during the credits) with their own Super 8 camera.
So what is the future of Super 8? One can hope that small gauge film, though an “older” technology, continues to be an important medium for the documentation, preservation, and the creation of a collective world culture.
Adrianna Link, Intern, Human Studies Film Archives