by Joe Heuman
Cut, no. 15, 1977, p. 26
Super 8 equipment is still regarded as a threatening toy by many pros. Only when a Panavision camera arrives in eight huge, separate boxes do they feel comfortable. This was the idea I got after talking to a number of professional filmmakers in Chicago about using S-8 in the classroom. One of them told me to ball out of S-8. If I had $4,000 to buy a complete sync sound production system, I would be wiser to spend the money on a video mixer and stay within the context of videotape to teach cinema techniques. Videotape, however, is not film. Though some cinematic techniques can be taught through its use, the basic editing process (frame-to-frame relations) and the minimal production process experience are lost. There also are hidden costs, especially the price of tape as opposed to film.
A $4,000 investment would enable a film production class to purchase the following equipment:
This is everything needed to produce sync-sound film for a class of 12 to 16 students. On comparison, a new Nagra IV tape recorder costs $4,000, without the microphone. A 16mm system that would permit production as sophisticated as the S-8 system would cost at least $10,000, used. All materials at the level of 16mm are more expensive, too. (A fast rule of thumb is to calculate that l6mm is four times as expensive as S-8.)
Such film production, at a minimum expense and with a maximum of thoroughness, is essential for students of cinema. It does not give them the chance to break into the “big-time,” but it demystifies the primary system that creates film products. Until the production process is laid out, adequately described and analyzed, students are forced to keep a respectful distance.
It is also important for teachers and students to realize that S-8 is becoming the medium for many television stations because of its cost and quality. In tandem with the mini-camera video systems, S-8 is replacing 16mm equipment while offering dependable and durable service.
The books I use in my S-8 course are Lenny Lipton’s Super 8 Book and Independent Film Making, along with Russell Campbell’s Photographic Theory for the Motion Picture Cameraman. I stay away from classroom assignment of such valuable works as Eisenstein or Reisz because I want my students to decide gradually what formal strategies they will develop. Initially, they should understand the production process and the technology that makes it possible. There is no way to ensure that when a student sends a film cartridge to the drugstore for bulk processing, the film will be developed properly. But s/he should know how poor exposure can be differentiated from a bad processing job. The Lipton and Campbell books are needed to develop such rudimentary skills.
I use Independent Film Making as a comprehensive work that introduces students to most technical aspects of 16mm and to extensive production techniques, including how to produce high-quality professional work at low prices. The philosophy of the book fits well into a S-8 course, for it declares that price no longer determines a filmmaker’s parameters. Knowledge that filmmaking is similar, no matter what format, used is necessary to break down the fear of trying to solve problems with ingenuity and to break down the desire for fancy equipment.
Independent Film Making is a lead-in to Campbell’s rigorous work, which specifically concentrates on the photographic process itself. This book enables the student to understand the complexity of the lab process and also shows how logical it all is. Campbell covers film stock, processing and sensitometry, image formation and tone rendering, grain structure and definition, and printing. Most important for S-8 class are his four chapters covering the color photography process. Since most students shoot in color, this section helps them understand the basics of the subtractive process, color balance, color temperature and the printing of color film stocks. Confidence in these technical areas enables students who go to labs for custom service to talk with workers there, so that their films are produced in the way they want.
The Super 8 Book is valuable as a primary text but also is a breakthrough in the area of teaching because of its accessibility to students of the junior high level and above. Lipton’s informal approach does not hinder systematic study of the S-8 medium. He is able to trace the growth of the format in historical and technical terms while also describing in practical terms what is available to filmmakers. Pictures, diagrams and tables are well thought out, profuse and detailed. In the camera chapter, for example, Lipton covers design aspects, camera construction, and lens construction. He provides the technical diagrams and equations that enable students to calculate things such as exposure time (necessary for the XL cameras with variable shutters). Depth of field tables are included. There is comprehensive coverage of what’s right and wrong about cameras as inexpensive as Kodak Supermatic and as expensive as a Beaulieu 4008MZII. Sound, processing, editing, and projection are all discussed exhaustively. And the last chapter, called “Products and Services,” provides information on all the major supply and processing houses that deal with S-8 in the United States. Pertinent technical journals are cited, too.
Lipton’s philosophy, that technical competency can help free students to become independent workers, is continually reinforced. He is careful to show how theory and practice are a constant, intertwined process. Lipton believes that inexpensive methods for individual film production enable a person to understand a process and not fall in awe of it. Students find that film can be made cheaply, yet be refined at the same time. For those who dream of Panavisions in eight boxes, Lipton is an aberration, claiming the abilities and power of performance that only a capable technical elite can produce. Junior high school students can drop drugstore film into $250 XL sound-on-film cameras, powered by penlight batteries, and create an alternative film product. This is one of the strongest methods of making students aware of how the film process functions as an intelligible machine and of making them criticize it at its starting point, with a perception and logic developed by their own experience. Practice creates theory, and theory is instantly translated into practice.