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Friday, June 10, 2011

The Summer of Super 8

Roll of 8mm film with its original box.
Photograph by Karma Foley for Human Studies Film Archives.
This weekend, J.J. Abrams will be releasing his much anticipated summer monster flick, the carefully marketed Super 8. From what can be decoded from the elusive pieces of information divulged in the trailer, Super 8 is a coming of age story about a group of kids making a Romero-esque zombie movie in small-town Ohio. While shooting a scene late one night near some railroad tracks, the kids – and the camera – witness the derailing of a train car which is hinted to contain a destructive life-form from another world. Everything about their humdrum mid-Western existence changes, as people vanish and dogs flee for the next county. As chaos escalates, the National Guard is brought in to assess the situation, creating palpable anxiety over what could possibly be the cause of such mass destruction. It is here that we are reminded that the answer has inadvertently been captured on an ordinary reel of Super 8mm film.

But for most who plan on attending the midnight showing of “Super 8: The IMAX Experience,” the historical and technological importance of Super 8 as a revolutionary film innovation will mean next to nothing. Similarly, it is unlikely anyone will give a thought to how Super 8 is different from any other film stock, other than maybe considering it an archaic design no longer relevant or useful in the digital age. So, without further ado, I present to you a two-part analysis on the history and use of Super 8. The first part will discuss its technological origins, looking at the development of amateur film with the invention of 16mm film and the 1923 Cine-Kodak through the release of Super 8 in 1965. The second installment will focus on the use of Super 8 not only as a simple method for recording home movies, but also as an important scientific tool used by visual anthropologists as well as unique medium for the production of video art and commercial film.

16mm: the beginnings of amateur film
The invention and development of motion pictures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was rapidly followed by considerations of its potential as a consumer product in home entertainment. However, problems with size, price, and safety meant that in order for movies to be a marketable commodity, certain adjustments needed to be made. At the time, standard film was 35mm wide and nitrate-based, requiring large equipment and expensive processing costs. It was also highly flammable. Because of this, efforts were focused on reducing the size of both film and film equipment, as well as on developing a non-nitrate “safety” film which would eliminate the possible risk of fire in the home.

While several safe, affordable, and user-friendly cameras were made in both Europe and in the United States, Eastman Kodak’s 1923 invention of the Cine-Kodak trumped the competition. The Cine-Koda used new, 16mm acetate safety film, which underwent a process of direct film reversal. During this process exposed film is developed to a negative image, after which the image is bleached out, leaving unconverted silver grains. The film is then exposed and developed again, so that the unconverted silver grains reveal a positive image. This method shortens the developing process by one step, ultimately saving the user time and money. It was also discovered that through this process the grain size of a finished positive was finer than that produced from a “conventionally developed” negative, allowing for the overall size of an image to be clearly and accurately reduced. Eastman Kodak’s final product was a 16mm wide film strip perforated on both sides with a 10mm x 7.5mm image moving at 40 frames per foot. The film was thus not only less than half the width of conventional 35mm film, but also 1/6th the cost.

The Cine-Kodak itself was a die-cast aluminum box measuring 8 ½ x 8 x 4 5/8 inches and weighing about seven pounds. At the time of its original release, the camera was only available in a set which also included a Kodascope Projector, tripod, screen, and a splicer for $325. As Kodak points out on their website, this was at the time when a “new Ford automobile could be purchased for $550” (Kodak’s “Super 8mm Film History”). Although expensive, it was thought that the all-inclusive package would facilitate success for amateur filmmakers. By 1929, 13 different cameras were available which used 16mm film.

Geologist and amateur filmmaker William Wrather used 16mm film to record this footage of the Gallup Ceremonial in New Mexico circa 1926-1932.

Double 8 vs Single 8 vs Super 8: What’s the difference?
From left to right: 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, Super 8mm.
Photograph from Human Studies Film Archives.
For more information on amateur film gauges and
preservation and handling of motion picture film, see the
National Film Preservation Foundations Guide to Film Preservation.
Although safe, easy to use cameras became more available, they had not become more affordable. In 1932, Kodak’s most basic model, the M 475, cost $75 – an amount equal to two weeks wages for hourly laborers. Similarly, the cheapest projector cost $60 and a 100 foot roll of film, $6. To address the rising concerns with cost as the Great Depression loomed, Eastman Kodak introduced 8mm film in 1932. This film came on 25’ spools of 16mm, with two sides of 8mm film, or “double 8.” After being threaded through the camera and exposed on one half, the film was then turned over and re-threaded to expose the other. During processing, this double width would be split down the middle and spliced together to make a 50 foot reel of 8mm film perforated only on one side. Since the 8mm was a quarter of the size of 16mm, it reduced the amount of film necessary to achieve the same running time as 16mm and the cost of processing by a factor of four. The Cine-Kodak Eight Model 20 cost $29.50, the projector, $22.50, and a spool of film, $2.50.

Kodak’s prime competitor, Bell & Howell, released their own 8mm camera in 1935, the Filmo Straight Eight, which sold for $69. Unlike Kodak’s model, Bell & Howell used pre-split 8mm film to produce an even more compact, lightweight camera. In 1938, the Universal Camera Corporation put out an incredibly inexpensive single 8mm camera for only $9.95, with a companion projector for $14.95. The overall reduction of size and cost, and increased accessibility made 8mm the favorite format for hobby amateur filmmaking, a format that would remain essentially untouched for nearly 30 years.

Below is an example of amateur film made using 8mm. This footage from "Adena Burial Mound Excavation" shows an archaeological excavation in eastern Kentucky circa 1939. Note the lack of sound – sound could not be recorded on 8mm stock, although it could be recorded separately and added during the editing process.

Declining sales in the late 1950s meant it was time for Eastman Kodak’s research team to go back to work. Maintaining the successful gauge of 8mm, the next improvement would be in finding a way to increase the size of the film image itself. One of the most important considerations for researchers was how a new format could be kept compatible with reduction printing from 16mm originals, which were thought to be the best stock for premium quality color and sound. In 1962, it became obvious to Kodak researchers C.J. Staud and W.T. Hanson, Jr. that the best way to increase image size would be by reducing the size of the side perforations. This would yield a 50% increase in image size while still allowing for the making of 16mm reduction prints.

In 1965, Eastman Kodak released its new line of Super 8 film and Kodak Instamatic Movie Cameras. The cameras featured 50-feet of drop-load Kodachrome II Super 8 Film housed in a black plastic cartridge known as a “Kodapack.” This cartridge was extremely easy to load, as the film no longer had to be threaded in the camera or flipped. Each Super 8 camera also had a built in filter allowing “Type-A” (tungsten) film to be used in different kinds of light, eliminating the need for both “Daylight” and “Type-A” film forms. Notches on the front edge of the film cartridge would automatically indicate whether the filter was needed. These notches also indicated the speed of the film. The cameras themselves had a die-cast metal body and were operated by a battery-powered motor, which replaced the need for a hand-crank. Kodak’s different models, the M2, M4, and M6 had different lenses, with the top of the line model including a 12 to 36mm zoom lens and reflex through-the-lens viewing. The models were priced at $46.50, $69.50, and $174.50, respectively. While Bell & Howell offered competing Super 8 models, Kodaks were unquestionably the most popular.

Click here for more detailed descriptions about the different cameras and gauges, courtesy of Alan Kattelle and Northeast Historic Film.

The use of Super 8: Not just for amateurs
Although initially cited for education, commercial, and industrial use, Kodak’s first marketing campaign clearly indicated its intention for Super 8 use in making amateur films. As Alan Kattelle writes:
The targeted market for the new product seem unquestionably to have been the amateur filmer, beginning with the Instamatic name itself, thus tying the product in the public’s mind with the hugely successful Instamatic still cameras, which sold over ten million units in the first two years on the market. And with Walt Disney as salesman for the vast TV audience, Kodak chose a handsome little blond four-year old called ‘Speedy Loadum’ to demonstrate the product to retailers… The message was: Super 8 cameras are ‘FUN’ and ‘EASY TO USE!’ (Alan Kattelle, Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979, p.207)
The ease, accessibility, and affordability of Super 8 made it an ideal technology for home movie makers. But Super 8 would also become indispensable for scientists and anthropologists. The addition of magnetic sound stripping to Super 8 film stock in 1973 would help solidify its role as an easily transportable and complete tool for use in capturing a “permanent” film record of the world’s many different cultures.

This particular clip has had sound added during production, but it gives an idea of the great advantage for filmmakers in being able to capture sound. This clip is from Bering Sea Eskimos, filmed by VISTA Volunteer Joli Morgan in the Yup'ik village of Kasigluk, Alaska in 1968.

Tune in next week, when I will continue my discussion on the various ways Super 8 has been used and its potential as a film gauge for the future.

[All analysis based on information presented in Chapter 3, “Amateur Equipment Prior to 1923,” of Alan Katelle’s book Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 (Nashua: Transition Publishing, 2000), 52-69, and Kattelle’s article, “The Evolution of Amateur Motion Picture Equipment, 1895-1965,” Journal of Film and Video 38, no. 3/4 (Summer-Fall 1986): 47-57.]

Adrianna Link, Intern, Human Studies Film Archives


  1. Is there one type of film that lasts longer than others? For example, I heard 16mm film is more stable than DVDs, BETACAM, or D-2.

    Mus(eum)ings: Musings from a Museum Intern

  2. Wow, this was fascinating! Looking forward to learning more about this. I was wondering, can you recommend somewhere that sells archival enclosures for small home movie film reels in 8mm/Super8? The smallest ones I can find at the usual places (e.g., Hollinger Metal Edge, etc.) is 7", and the ones I have are about 4". I just can't believe that nobody sells pre-made boxes for the home movie size film reels. I appreciate any suggestion!

  3. Samantha,

    When stored in the right conditions (cool and dry), film has a much longer life than any video format or optical disc (DVD). This is due to deterioration of the videotape itself (film is more robust) as well as the speed with which video formats become obsolete (Betamax, anyone?). If a video format becomes obsolete and one cannot find equipment on which to play the cassette, then the content is lost.

    If you'd like to learn more about film and video preservation, visit the Preservation page of HSFA's web exhibit on the Jorge PrelorĂ¡n Collection:
    The page gives an overview of moving image preservation issues and a list of additional online resources.

    Karma Foley, Human Studies Film Archives

  4. Lisa,

    The best container for film is an archival plastic can. Tuscan Corporation sells a canister and reel set for 8mm film that comes in three sizes. They also sell a plastic enclosure for 1/4" audio that will fit 8mm and S8mm film; this comes in two sizes. It looks like the smaller size of either product would fit your 4" film reels.

    Thanks for your comments!

    Karma Foley, Human Studies Film Archives