A Super Short History of Super 8 Film

 

 

In these enlightened times, many A/V enthusiasts might be forgiven for thinking that the home cinema phenomena began first with VHS in the 80’s, then in the 90’s it was DVD. Since 2000 home theatres have been dominated, more or less, by the advent of Blu-Ray. And whereas that chain of command may be true, the practice of owning and operating your very own personal screening room goes back way before VHS.

But it could hardly have been called a common hobby. Prior to the First World War, domestic video duties were performed by heavy and costly 35mm reel-to-reel projectors, which called for an enormous financial investment and meant that home viewing remained a luxury for the chosen few. The situation did, however, bring forth a whole range of alternative formats which soon found themselves competing for a share of the home entertainment markets.

 

Enter Super 8mm

 

The arrival of Super 8mm in the mid-1960’s marked the first real revolution in the world of home screening. What had until then been a privilege of the rich became a joy that mere mortals could now also indulge. By 1976, Eumig of Austria, at the time the world leaders in the production of Super 8 projectors, were churning out over half a million models each year. Much to the pleasure of the normal viewing public, whose only alternative was the mediocre output of their living room tellies.

 

Yet collecting and watching films in the privacy of their own home wasn’t the only driving force behind the phenomena. Many enthusiasts also dabbled in producing their own masterpieces and Super 8mm became an obsession for thousands of film devotees as well as hobby directors and producers. At least for the short time before VHS came, saw and almost overnight, it conquered.

 

The search for a film format less unwieldy than the industrial 35mm stretches all the way back to 1923 when the so-called ‘16mm amateur stock’ was introduced by Eastman Kodak. Intended as a cheap alternative for enthusiastic producers of silent films, the company produced and marketed an entire home movie package. A projector, tripod, splicer, screen and camera could all be bought for a relatively affordable £270, (still just under £4000 in today’s money.)

 

Low-risk acetate

The acetate based 16mm film, as opposed to the industry standard’s distinct 35mm flammable nitrate base, was instantly more appealing to household users. Plus, the opportunity to buy or rent commercial films from the Kodascope Library added a further boost to private cinemas. In 1935, the introduction of optical soundtracks compatible with the 16mm film saw a huge surge in the number of amateur filmmakers, documentarians and news stations all rushing to get in on the act. A trend that continued well into the 90’s.

 

 

But it wasn’t all plain sailing for Eastman Kodak. Since the 1920’s they’d had an ardent rival breathing down their necks. Pathe’ Freres, the French film powerhouse pedalled a film format which was primarily aimed at collectors of commercial film titles, but the format also won favour with large numbers of creators of amateur content. But its popularity did not last. With the advent of Standard 8mm in 1932, Pathe’s damage-prone clunky mechanism with a centre sprocket hole was forced to step.

 

The Standard 8mm film from Eastman Kodak, aka ‘Regular 8’, functioned via sprocket holes mounted on the sides, the same calibre as on 16mm formats. Once modified, 16mm stock became the base for spools inserted into Standard 8 cameras. However, these spools had to be removed and turned over mid-film, otherwise, the rendering of images down both sides of the exposed areas was simply not possible.

 

Soon, major studios began to delight collectors with the release of what became known as ‘package movies’. But still, the hobbyists struggled with short film lengths, (approx. 200 feet, about 8 mins.) and the extremely low availability of projectors with sound capability.

 

Eastman Kodak to the rescue

 

Then with the introduction of Eastman Kodak's brilliant Super 8 in 1965, the entire home film industry was transformed. Smaller sized sprocket holes allowed for an enlarged picture area, and oxide stripes along the two stock edges meant that sound could be recorded during the actual filming process and then edited at home. At around the same time, Fujifilm let loose its own ‘Single 8’ format. The Japanese challenger replaced acetate with polyester based film and although its cartridge loading system was subject to a proprietary licensed camera for filming, the final developed film would run perfectly well in a Super 8 projector.

 

By the 1970s, Super 8 projectors were on sale at a variety of price levels, and with a mind-boggling array of extra features. They were available in camera shops all over the UK, and manufacturers from Japan, Germany and Austria) constituted the lion’s share of the market.

 

Anamorphic lenses were available for the commercial release of CinemaScope presentations by the end of the decade, and two-channel stereo and Dolby Stereo were incorporated into both magnetic sound stripes. The second stripe being originally designed as ballast to enable the film to run smoothly through the projector.

 

When highlights were hits

 

One of the biggest thrills of the whole Super 8 scene was the wide selection of films available to collectors. Before the flood of commercial VHS tapes, literally thousands of film titles were ready and waiting to be purchased by mail order, and at retail outlets all over the UK.

 

Amongst the most popular package films were the highlight reels of major titles. they came mounted on 400 ft spools and were released directly from the Hollywood studios. These highlight reels would include a highly professional edit of a complete feature film, would consist of skilfully spliced excerpts, and generally cost around £30. It might be a difficult concept to understand now, but back then these highlight reels were huge hits. How else could you watch the most exciting bits of Ridley Scott's Alien or Steven Spielberg's Jaws whenever you wanted? There was simply no other way.

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