THE SUPER 8 DIARIES: VOL III “The mechanics of production”

July 7, 2011 § Leave a comment

Our mainstay film stock for shooting our Super 8 films was Kodachrome 40 color reversal film.   The film came in plastic light-proof cartridges containing coaxial supply and take-up spools loaded with 50 feet (15 m) of film.  This was enough film for 2.5 minutes at the U.S. motion picture professional standard of 24 frames per second, and for 3 minutes and 20 seconds of continuous filming at 18 frames per second.  When we shot sound, I recall it was at 24 fps and that used more film and meant bigger budgets.  Again, you have to remember that Super 8 film has no negative, so the footage you developed was it.  Any damage to the film was permanent.  If you ripped the sprocket holes on the film, you could add splicing tape to fix it, but many times it would make the film a little too thick and it would cause the film to jump and stutter as it went through the projector gate.  I remember a few times we lost precious frames of a shot that we could not get back.  A scene could survive losing frames at the beginning or ending, but never in the middle.  We had a deep respect for the film itself, because we knew there were no other copies and we couldn’t just access a hard drive and edit another version.  We were editing the master and only copy.

Back in those days we’d have to wait to get our Super 8 film developed and sometimes it would take four or five days.  The wait felt like an eternity and production could not go forward until we saw the last footage.  We never knew if a scene worked or if we needed to do re-shoots until a week later.  I remember always looking forward to getting the film back and being able to screen it to see if our shots worked, the acting was okay, and if the footage would cut together.  I could only imagine how different our creative choices would be if we had instant access to seeing our footage and we knew immediately if a shot worked or not.  

At the time, Super 8 film stock and developing was expensive and I had limited funds to make my films.  I remember asking the key players involved to “invest” in the film and help pay for the budget.  In return they would own a piece of the film and receive a highly coveted PRODUCER title.  One year the price of silver went up and caused the price of Super 8 film to skyrocket.  We had to adapt and work within a budget because we were NOT going to shoot video.  I did not have unlimited funds, but I’d spend whatever it took to film what I had written in the script.  I figured that my film “Ironside: The Motion Picture” would have cost over twice as much to produce today.  We definitely would shoot on digital if making the film today to save money but also for speed in production. 

We only started to edit after we had filmed the entire movie and not during the shooting.  We of course did all the “editing” ourselves.  It was really called “splicing” because we never did coverage of a shot and didn’t have a master shot, medium shot, and close up to choose from.  We made those decisions on the spot during filming, as we were really editing in the camera.

The Super 8 editing consisted of a small reel to reel viewer and a splicing block with editing tape.  We’d splice the film pieces together with the splicing tape that looked like a small strip of clear Super 8 film and would go on both sides of the film.  Once we got into Super 8 sound films, editing became considerably more tricky as the sound was actually recorded on a magnetic strip on the film and was always 18 to 24 frames later.  This was because the camera’s sound recording head is at the base of the camera and the film hits the aperture first as the sound records 18 frames later on the film.  We never shot sync sound with a separate recording device that would need a clap board to match the sync.  If we edited scenes in the camera, I would tell my actors to take a breath and then say their lines as we couldn’t do sound editing either.

If we wanted to cut from a master to a close up, we’d stop filming, move the camera and resume filming.  It seemed that simple.  The only problem was if someone made a mistake or missed a cue and we had to do another take.  That’s when it really messed up our system of editing in the camera.  We stuck with our cinematic decisions and I think that made us really consider our shots carefully.  We didn’t have a ton of coverage to choose from – what you saw was it.   This method seemed easier to do and it would give us less editing to do later.  We didn’t quite realize the art and craft of film editing yet.  That really came later from our studies in film school.

Read VOLUME IV  in “The Super 8 Diaries” series, “Our Neighborhood: Hollywood’s Backlot”



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