Anywhere But the Home: The Promiscuous Afterlife of Super 8

Peter Thomas


Consumer or home use (previously ‘amateur’) moving image formats are distinguished from professional (still known as ‘professional’) ones by relative affordability, ubiquity and simplicity of use. Since Pathé Frères released its Pathé Baby camera, projector and 9.5mm film gauge in 1922, a distinct line of viewing and making equipment has been successfully marketed at nonprofessional use, especially in the home. ‘Amateur film’ is a simple term for a complex, variegated and longstanding set of activities. Conceptually it is bounded only by the negative definition of nonprofessional (usually intended as sub-professional), and the positive definition of being for the love of the activity and motivated by personal passion alone. This defines a field broad enough that two major historians of US amateur film, Patricia R. Zimmermann and Alan D. Kattelle, write about different subjects. Zimmermann focuses chiefly on domestic use and ‘how-to’ literature, while Kattelle unearths the collective practices and institutional structure of the Amateur Ciné Clubs and the Amateur Ciné League (Zimmerman, Reel Families, Professional; Kattelle, Home Movies, Amateur Ciné). Marion Norris Gleason, a test subject in Eastman Kodak’s development of 16mm and advocate of amateur film, defined it as having three parts, the home movie, “the photoplay produced by organised groups”, and the experimental film (Swanson 132). This view was current at least until the 1960s, when domestic documentation, Amateur Ciné clubs and experimental filmmakers shared the same film gauges and space in the same amateur film magazines, but paths have diverged somewhat since then. Domestic documentation remains committed to the moving image technology du jour, the Amateur Ciné movement is much reduced, and experimental film has developed a separate identity, its own institutional structure, and won some legitimacy in the art world. The trajectory of Super 8, a late-coming gauge to amateur film, has been defined precisely by this disintegration.

Obsolescence was manufactured far more slowly during the long reign of amateur film gauges, allowing 9.5mm (1922-66), 16mm (1923-), 8mm (1932-), and Super 8 (1965-) to engage in protracted format wars significantly longer than the life spans of their analogue and digital video successors. The range of options available to nonprofessional makers – the quality but relative expense of 16mm, the near 16mm frame size of 9.5mm, the superior stability of 8mm compared to 9.5mm and Super 8, the size of Super 8’s picture relative to 8mm’s – are not surprising in the context of general competition for a diverse popular market on the usual basis of price, quality, and novelty. However, since analogue video’s ascent the amateur film gauges have all comprehensibly lost the battle for the home use market. This was by far the largest section of amateur film and the manufacturers’ overt target segment, so the amateur film gauges’ contemporary survival and significance is as something else.

Though all the gauges from 8mm to 16mm remain available today to the curious and enthusiastic, Super 8’s afterlife is distinguished by the peculiar combination of having been a tremendously popular substandard to the substandard (ie, to 16mm, the standardised film gauge directly below 35mm in both price and quality), and now being prized for its technological excellence. When the large scale consumption that had supported Super 8’s manufacture dropped away, it revealed the set of much smaller, apparently non-transferable uses that would determine whether and as what Super 8 survived. Consequently, though Super 8 has been superseded many times over as a home movie format, it is not obsolete today as an art medium, a professional format used in the commercial industry, or as an alternative to digital video and 16mm for low budget independent production. In other words, everything it was never intended to be.

I lately witnessed an occasion of the kind of high-fetishism for film-versus-video and analogue-versus-digital that the experimental moving image world is justifiably famed for. Discussion around the screening of Peter Tscherkassky’s films at the Xperimenta ‘09 festival raised the specifics and availability of the technology he relies on, both because of the peculiarity of his production method – found-footage collaging onto black and white 35mm stock via handheld light pen – and the issue of projection. Has digital technology supplied an alternative workflow? Would 35mm stock to work on (and prints to pillage) continue to be available? Is the availability of 35mm projectors in major venues holding up? Although this insider view of 35mm’s waning market share was more a performance of technological cultural politics than an analysis of it, it raised a series of issues central to any such analysis. Each film format is a gestalt item, consisting of four parts (that an individual might own): film stock, camera, projector and editor. Along with the availability of processing services, these items comprise a gauge’s viability (not withstanding the existence of camera-less and unedited workflows, and numerous folk developing methods). All these are needed to conjure the geist of the machine at full strength. More importantly, the discussion highlights what happens when such a technology collides with idiosyncratic and unintended use, which happens only because it is manufactured on a much wider scale than eccentric use alone can support.

Although nostalgia often plays a role in the advocacy of obsolete technology, its role here should be carefully qualified and not overstated. If it plays a role in the three main economies that support contemporary Super 8, it need not be the same role. Further, even though it is now chiefly the same specialist shops and technicians that supply and service 9.5mm, 8mm, Super 8, and 16mm, they are not sold on the same scale nor to the same purpose. There has been no reported Renaissances of 9.5mm or 8mm, though, as long term home movie formats, they must loom large in the memories of many, and their particular look evokes pastness as surely as any two-colour process. There are some specifics to the trajectory of Super 8 as a non-amateur format that cannot simply be subsumed to general nostalgia or dead technology fetishism.

Super 8 as an Art Medium

Super 8 has a longer history as an art medium than as a pro-tool or low budget substandard. One key aspect in the invention and supply of amateur film was that it not be an adequate substitute for the professional technology used to populate the media sphere proper. Thus the price of access to motion picture making through amateur gauges has been a marginalisation of the outcome for format reasons alone (Zimmermann, Professional 24; Reekie 110) Eastman Kodak established their 16mm as the acceptable substandard for many non-theatrical uses of film in the 1920s, Pathé’s earlier 28mm having already had some success in this area (Mebold and Tepperman 137, 148-9). But 16mm was still relatively expensive for the home market, and when Kiyooka Eiichi filmed his drive across the US in 1927, his 16mm camera alone cost more than his car (Ruoff 240, 243). Against this, 9.5mm, 8mm and eventually Super 8 were the increasingly affordable substandards to the substandard, marginalised twice over in the commercial world, but far more popular in the consumer market.

The 1960s underground film, and the modern artists’ film that was partly recuperated from it, was overwhelmingly based on 16mm, as the collections of its chief distributors, the New York Film-Makers’ Co-op, Canyon Cinema and the Lux clearly show. In the context of experimental film’s longstanding commitment to 16mm, an artist filmmaker’s choice to work with Super 8 had important resonances. Experimental work on 8mm and Super 8 is not hard to come by, even from the 1960s, but consider the cultural stakes of Jonas Mekas’s description of 8mm films as “beautiful folk art, like song and lyric poetry, that was created by the people” (Mekas 83). The evocation of ‘folk art’ signals a yawning gap between 8mm, whose richness has been produced collectively by a large and anonymous group, and the work produced by individual artists such as those (like Mekas himself) who founded the New American Cinema Group. The resonance for artists of the 1960s and 1970s who worked with 8mm and Super 8 was from their status as the premier vulgar film gauge, compounding-through-repetition their choice to work with film at all.

By the time Super 8 was declared ‘dead’ in 1980, numerous works by canonical artists had been made in the format (Stan Brakhage, Derek Jarman, Carolee Schneemann, Anthony McCall), and various practices had evolved around the specific possibilities of this emulsion and that camera. The camcorder not only displaced Super 8 as the simplest to use, most ubiquitous and cheapest moving image format, at the same time it changed the hierarchy of moving image formats because Super 8 was now incontestably better than something. Further, beyond the ubiquity, simplicity and size, camcorder video and Super 8 film had little in common. Camcorder replay took advantage of the ubiquity of television, but to this day video projection remains a relatively expensive business and for some time after 1980 the projectors were rare and of undistinguished quality. Until the more recent emergence of large format television (also relatively expensive), projection was necessary to screen to anything beyond very small audience. So, considering the gestalt aspect of these technologies and their functions, camcorders could replace Super 8 only for the capture of home movies and small-scale domestic replay.

Super 8 maintained its position as the cheapest way into filmmaking for at least 20 years after its ‘death’, but lost its position as the premier ‘folk’ moving image format. It remained a key format for experimental film through the 1990s, but with constant competition from evolving analogue and digital video, and improved and more affordable video projection, its market share diminished. Kodak has continued to assert the viability of its film stocks and gauges, but across 2005-06 it deleted its Kodachrome Super 8, 16mm and slide range (Kodak, Kodachrome). This became a newsworthy Super 8 story (see Morgan; NYT; Hodgkinson; Radio 4) because Super 8 was the first deletion announced, this was very close to 8 May 2005, which was Global Super 8 Day, Kodachrome 40 (K40) was Super 8’s most famous and still used stock, and because 2005 was Super 8’s 40th birthday. Kodachome was then the most long-lived colour process still available, but there were only two labs left in the world which could supply processing- Kodak’s Lausanne Kodachrome lab in Switzerland, using the authentic company method, and Dwayne’s Photo in the US, using a tolerable but substandard process (Hodgkinson). Kodak launched a replacement stock simultaneously, and indeed the variety of Super 8 stocks is increasing year to year, partly because of new Kodak releases and partly because other companies split Kodak’s 16mm and 35mm stock for use as Super 8 (Allen; Muldowney; Pro8mm; Dager). Nonetheless, the cancelling of K40 convulsed the artists’ film community, and a spirited defence of its unique and excellent properties was lead by artist and activist Pip Chodorov.  Chodorov met with a Kodak executive at the Cannes Film Festival, appealed to the French Government and started an online petition. His campaign circular read:


We have to show why we care specifically about Kodachrome and why Ektachrome is not a replacement. Kodachrome […] whose fine grain and warm colors […] are often used as a benchmark of quality for other stocks. The unique qualities of the Kodachrome image should be pointed out, and especially the differences between Kodachrome and Ektachrome […]. What great films were shot in Kodachrome, and why? […] What are the advantages to the K-14 process and the Lausanne laboratory? Is K40 a more stable stock, is it more preservable, do the colors fade resistant? Point out differences in the sensitometry curves, the grain structure...

There was a rash of protest screenings, including a special all-day programme at Le Festival des Cinemas Différents de Paris, about which Raphaël Bassan wrote

This initiative was justified, Kodak having announced in 2005 that it was going to stop the manufacturing of the ultra-sensitive film Kodachrome 40, which allowed such recognized artists as Gérard Courant, Joseph Morder, Stéphane Marti and a whole new generation of filmmakers to express themselves through this supple and inexpensive format with such a particular texture. (Bassan)

The distance Super 8 has travelled culturally since analogue video can be seen in the distance between these statements of excellence and the attributes of Super 8 and 8mm that appealed to earlier artists:

The great thing about Super 8 is that you can switch is onto automatic and get beyond all those technicalities” (Jarman)

An 8mm camera is the ballpoint of the visual world. Soon […] people will use camera-pens as casually as they jot memos today […] and the narrow gauge can make finished works of art. (Durgnat 30)

Far from the traits that defined it as an amateur gauge, Super 8 is now lionised in terms more resembling a chemistry historian’s eulogy to the pigments used in Dark Ages illuminated manuscripts. From bic to laspis lazuli.

Indie and Pro Super 8

Historian of the US amateur film Patricia R. Zimmermann has charted the long collision between small gauge film, domesticity and the various ‘how-to’ publications designed to bridge the gap. In this she pays particular attention to the ‘how-to’ publications’ drive to assert the commercial feature film as the only model worthy of emulation (Professional 267; Reel xii). This drive continues today in numerous magazines and books addressing the consumer and pro-sumer levels. Alan D. Kattelle has charted a different history of the US amateur film, concentrating on the cine clubs and their national organisation, the Amateur Cine League (ACL), competitive events and distribution, a somewhat less domestic part of the movement which aimed less at family documentation more toward ‘photo-plays’, travelogues and instructionals. Just as interested in achieving professional results with amateur means, the ACL encouraged excellence and some of their filmmakers received commissions to make more widely seen films (Kattelle, Amateur 242).  The ACL’s Ten Best competition still exists as The American International Film and Video Festival (Kattelle, Amateur 242), but its remit has changed from being “a showcase for amateur films” to being open “to all non-commercial films regardless of the status of the film makers” (AMPS). This points to both the relative marginalisation of the mid-century notion of the amateur, and that successful professionals and others working in the penumbra of independent production surrounding the industry proper are now important contributors to the festival. Both these groups are the economically important contemporary users of Super 8, but they use it in different ways. Low budget productions use it as cheap alternative to larger gauges or HD digital video and a better capture format than dv, while professional productions use it as a lo-fi format precisely for its degradation and archaic home movie look (Allen; Polisin).

Pro8mm is a key innovator, service provider and advocate of Super 8 as an industry standard tool, and is an important and long serving agent in what should be seen as the normalisation of Super 8 – a process of redressing its pariah status as a cheap substandard to the substandard, while progressively erasing the special qualities of Super 8 that underlay this. The company started as Super8 Sound, innovating a sync-sound system in 1971, prior to the release of Kodak’s magnetic stripe sound Super 8 in 1973. Kodak’s Super 8 sound film was discontinued in 1997, and in 2005 Pro8mm produced the Max8 format by altering camera front ends to shoot onto the unused stripe space, producing a better quality image for widescreen. In between they started cutting professional 35mm stocks for Super 8 cameras and are currently investing in ever more high-quality HD film scanners (Allen; Pro8mm). Simultaneous to this, Kodak has brought out a series of stocks for Super 8, and more have been cut down for Super 8 by third parties, that offer a wider range of light responses or ever finer grain structure, thus progressively removing the limitations and visible artefacts associated with the format (Allen; Muldowney; Perkins; Kodak, Motion). These films stocks are designed to be captured to digital video as a normal part of their processing, and then entered into the contemporary digital work flow, leaving little or no indication of the their origins on a format designed to be the 1960s equivalent of the Box Brownie.

However, while Super 8 has been used by financially robust companies to produce full-length programmes, its role at the top end of production is more usually as home movie footage and/or to evoke pastness. When service provider and advocate OnSuper8 interviewed professional cinematographer James Chressanthis, he asserted that “if there is a problem with Super 8 it is that it can look too good!” and spent much of the interview explaining how a particular combination of stocks, low shutter speeds and digital conversion could reproduce the traditional degraded look and avoid “looking like a completely transparent professional medium” (Perkins). In his history of the British amateur movement, Duncan Reekie deals with this distinction between the professional and amateur moving image, defining the professional as having a

drive towards clarity [that] eventually produced [what] we could term ‘hyper-lucidity’, a form of cinematography which idealises the perception of the human eye: deep focus, increased colour saturation, digital effects and so on. (108)

Against this the amateur as distinguished by a visible cinematic surface, where

the screen image does not seem natural or fluent but is composed of photographic grain which in 8mm appears to vibrate and weave. Since the amateur often worked with only one reversal print the final film would also often become scratched and dirty. (108-9)

As Super 8’s function has moved away from the home movie, so its look has adjusted to the new role. Kodak’s replacement for K40 was finer grained (Kodak, Kodak), designed for a life as good to high quality digital video rather than a film strip, and so for video replay rather than a small gauge projector.  In the economy that supports Super 8’s survival, its cameras and film stock have become part of a different gestalt. Continued use is still justified by appeals to geist, but the geist of film in a general and abstract way, not specific to Super 8 and more closely resembling the industry-centric view of film propounded by decades of ‘how-to’ guides.

Activity that originally supported Super 8 continues, and currently has embraced the ubiquitous and extremely substandard cameras embedded in mobile phones and still cameras for home movies and social documentation.  As Super 8 has moved to a new cultural position it has shed its most recognisable trait, the visible surface of grain and scratches, and it is that which has become obsolete, discontinued and the focus of nostalgia, along with the sound of a film projector (which you can get to go with films transferred to dvd). So it will be left to artist filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, talking in 1995 about what Super 8 was to him in the 1980s, to evoke what there is to miss about Super 8 today.

Unlike any other format, Super-8 was a microscope, making visible the inner life of images by entering beneath the skin of reality. […] Most remarkable of all was the grain. While 'resolution' is the technical term for the sharpness of a film image, Super-8 was really never too concerned with this. Here, quite a different kind of resolution could be witnessed: the crystal-clear and bright light of a Xenon-projection gave us shapes dissolving into the grain; amorphous bodies and forms surreptitiously transformed into new shapes and disappeared again into a sea of colour. Super-8 was the pointillism, impressionism and the abstract expressionism of cinematography. (Howath)


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artists' film; amateur film; independent film; film technology; small gauge film;

Copyright (c) 2009 Peter Thomas

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