Backyard Auteurs

How Kodak’s super 8 film changed moviemaking forever.

Super 8

In 2003, James Cameron called a man named Lenny Lipton to thank him for writing the book that inspired him to become a filmmaker. Back in 1975, Lipton had published The Super 8 Book, a how-to guide for using super 8, the inexpensive film stock that allowed a generation of novice filmmakers to make their first motion pictures. Lipton was grateful for the call, if not surprised by it. “I hear that all the time,” he told me. Joel Silver, the producer of The Matrixand Die Hard also got in touch recently to express his gratitude. A ring from J.J. Abrams, whose film Super 8 premieres Friday, can’t be far off.

Introduced by Kodak in 1965, super 8 was the cheapest film around—each roll was about $5, and worked on cameras that started for under $30. Many families purchased super 8 cameras to document birthday parties and barbecues, but the handheld cameras were light enough for a child to use, and soon kids were out in the backyard, playing auteur.

According to Rhonda Vigeant, the director of marketing for Pro8mm, a processing, scanning, repair, and sales business in Burbank, Calif., a slew of today’s most successful filmmakers got their start shooting on super 8 film. “We know that because we’ve transferred all their original movies,” Vigeant says conspiratorially, referring to the process of digitizing old film. She’s says she’s seen super 8 work by Ron Howard, Steven Soderbergh, Sam Raimi, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, J.J. Abrams.

On Friday, Abrams will pay homage to the antiquated film stock with his movie Super 8. A coming-of-age story about kids shooting homemade horror films in the late ‘70s, the movie takes a cue from Abrams’ own youth: He received his first super 8 camera at around age 12 and began rolling film on his family soon after. “Most of my first movies were excuses to test things out,” Abrams told Time recently. “Later I started telling stories with a narrative, though viewers of those films might question that statement.”

Before super 8, novices used regular 8mm film to make home movies. But 8mm, which Kodak had introduced in 1932, was much harder to use: Unlike super 8, which came in a cartridge, 8mm had to be threaded into the camera. Super 8 had smaller perforations on the edges, which led to better quality and larger image size. You could load the cartridge in direct sunlight without damaging the film (loading 8mm in daylight could damage about 20 percent of the roll). Cameras designed for use with super 8 film had faster lenses, greater zoom capacity, wider shutter openings, and could shoot in lower light. Unlike regular 8mm, the exposure system in a super 8 camera was automatic, which meant you didn’t have to adjust the setting yourself.

The invention of super 8 “was a little bit like the cassette replacing the 8-track,” explains Keith Anderson, one of the owners of Yale Film & Video in Burbank, Calif., another super 8 processing company. The low-cost and improved performance of super 8 fueled the rise of amateur filmmaking. An article from a 1968 issue of Popular Science urged its readers to take up filmmaking and advised them to do it on a super 8 camera. “Now, almost everybody from the hairy underground to the kids in the third grade makes movies,” the magazine noted. “Isn’t it time you got your feet wet?” It continued: “if your reluctance to take up movies is based on the old 8mm systems, forget everything you know. Today’s Super 8 is something else.” In 1969, Boys Life magazine suggested various super 8 cameras as ideal Christmas presents.

Kodak aggressively marketed the new film and cameras as the choice of the masses. An ad in the June 1967 issue of Life magazine promoted the new palm-size Kodak Instamatic M12 movie camera, retailing for less than $30. “This new Kodak super 8 movie camera is so easy to use, you’ll take terrific movies right from the start,” the ad promised. “Now that Kodak has invented super 8—shouldn’t you be in movies?”

For filmmakers growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, super 8 was a gateway drug into a lifetime of addiction. Steven Soderbergh’s super 8 fixation began as a distraction from a dull animation course his father enrolled him in at age 13. “I quickly gravitated toward grabbing the Nizo [a German-made super 8 camera] and shooting live action,” he recalled in Outsider Features: American Independent Films of the 1980s. Growing up in Houston, Wes Anderson used his two brothers as stars and paper boxes as sets in his super 8 films. Chris Nolan got the directing itch as soon as he picked up his father’s super 8 camera at age 7. Tim Burton “made models, fooled around with them and burned them and filmed them,” on super 8.

Did the medium leave its mark on the work of these directors? The low cost of super 8 encouraged experimentation. “You didn’t have to worry about experimenting with it. There was this sense of being able to be playful and experimental and try things out,” recalls Claude Kerven, co-chair of the filmmaking program at the New York Film Academy. At the same time, the short length of each roll forced amateurs to frame scenes with calculation and immediacy: They could only shoot for about two and a half minutes per roll. Kerven also noted that the lightweight nature of super 8 equipment allowed its users to incorporate motion into their work. “It kind of freed you a little bit from the idea that everything had to be so solid and locked down [on a tripod],” he says. “It really encouraged you to learn how to move the camera in creative ways.”

In filmmaker John Russo’s book Making Movies: The Inside Guide to Independent Movie Production,Sam Raimi recommends all young filmmakers start making movies in super-8. “You have all the same basic elements that are used in professional filmmaking, so it’s a chance to refine your skills and techniques,” Raimi says, noting that he made his first super 8 movies in high school. “You’ve got to write a script, deal with camera placement, movement, angles and lenses. The actors have to be directed and orchestrated in the same manner as in 35-milimeter filmmaking.”

One of super 8’s most important lessons came after the film was shot: The budding filmmaker would then have to mail it to Kodak for processing, which could take anywhere from four days to several weeks. Waiting to see the finished product required patience, a trait that isn’t exactly encouraged by today’s users of instantaneous-view digital technology. “The generation now is so different,” explains Anderson. “Fewer people are shooting film because everyone wants it [developed] yesterday.”

The sharp, digital images of today have rendered super 8 the picture of the past. Watching film shot in super 8—even if it was shot just last week—evokes nostalgia  for the era when the film first appeared. The film is grainy and just a little bit out of focus. The colors look warm and faded—there’s a spectrum of mellow tones. But Vigeant is quick to dispel the idea that super 8 is a medium of the past. She describes a robust contemporary market for the film: Pro8mm still works on more than 1,000 super 8 film projects a year for TV, music videos, and commercials. Celebrities like Christina Aguilera and Aaron Eckhart wanted their weddings filmed in super 8 because, Vigeant says, it gives the footage a retro look. Sen. John Kerry and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton used super 8 during their campaigns to establish warm, down-to-earth personas. Filmmakers attempting to fake a scene from the past often shoot in super 8. And young cinematographers, seeking to emulate the greats, may trade the sterility of digital for the messier, more hands-on format that their idols learned on.

“Super 8, in some ways, is having a comeback now,” says Amos Poe, who teaches at New York University’s film school. “I know my students at NYU love it. I think they realize it’s something that [could] go away, and they want to get a taste of it before that.”