Just finished a new student short, “Metro-North,” shot in NYC. This was my first time using Super 8 film, and I’m very happy with the results. Super 8 has an off-kilter, impressionistic quality that’s impossible to replicate digitally. Plus, it’s a blast to work with! The camera size and cartridge loading make for fun, easy film shooting, provided you have a reasonable idea of what you are doing. Though the format is supposedly outdated (Super 8 cameras are no longer manufactured), it is still often used professionally in music videos, commercials, and films where a specific vintage quality is desired. It also continues to be quite popular with artists and independent filmmakers.
Huge thanks goes out to my talented actors: Zeth Zena, Shermaine Liggions, and the lovely Sarah Silbert. They all went above and beyond.
I rented equipment from DuAll Camera. This shop has a large array of Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm cameras for rental or sale, all in perfect condition. Tons of lenses and other accessories. The guys there really know their stuff, and were very helpful in going over how everything works and providing tips. I ended up selecting the Beaulieu 4008 ZM II, a French camera made in 1971. This camera was tailored to professionals rather than the home movie market; it has interchangeable c-mount lenses, and mine came with a Schneider 6-66mm zoom. You get control of the iris right on the lens itself, which I much prefer over the small, unwieldy exposure wheels on other S8 cameras.
Other features include fully ramping framerate (from 1-70fps) and a variable shutter that allows for in-camera dissolves. Very cool stuff. The main gripe I have with this camera is the handle, which is simply too small to get a good grip on (see pic). This makes handheld work a bit more taxing than it has to be (and this camera is practically all-metal, so it has some heft).
Th 4008 originally came with a rechargeable battery that clipped onto the side of the body, but such batteries are now decades old, so DuAll replaced them with apparently custom-made, long-lasting powerpacks (I shot three days and 7 rolls, never had to change once– though I suspect this may be due more to the light power consumption of the camera than the batteries’ capacity). These run off a thick red cable that plug into the old battery socket, and you wear the packs.
I bought negative S8 film from Kodak; 200T for daylight scenes, and 500T for evening exteriors / dark interiors. 500T is much grainier, but I figured its added sensitivity would be necessary for the low light scenes. First time dealing with Kodak, and they were swell; very pleasant customer service. I had developing done via Pac Lab, also located in NYC, however, I hear that for negative S8 they just send out the film to Pro8mm in Burbank, CA. Very few places develop negative S8 these days, but I was too worried about light levels to shoot reversal.
I had the video transfer done at DuAll. By their own admission they were not really set up for negative transferring, but I needed it done quickly and cheaply. They did their best under the circumstances, and ran some tests with me beforehand to figure out what settings worked best with the footage. Someday I would very much like to get a better transfer done; there is just too much flicker for me, and I feel the true quality of the negative isn’t represented currently.
[UPDATE, August 2011]: The film has been updated with a 1080 HD scan courtesy of Screenshot, in Berlin. Excellent service and excellent quality. Updated film on Vimeo.
One scene took place in a dark club, so for the main tracking shot of the lead actress I decided to rent a battery-powered, 200-watt Pocket Par and had Zeth follow her from the side with it (thanks for gaffing in a pinch, Zeth!). Totally essential for decent exposure, and I think it lent the scene a very cool feel.
This film is very unusual for me for a number of reasons: I was basically trying to degrade the image as much as possible, I shot on film rather than digital, I went entirely handheld, and shot it in 4:3 fullscreen. The idea was to put more emphasis on movement and color than on image quality and detail; I wanted it to feel more like a motion painting than a motion picture. Usually I am much more concerened with stable shots and image quality, so this was a big experiment for me. Overall, I am extremely pleased with how it turned out.