(Pictured above: Snehal Patel. Photo by Jordan Lee.)
Shooting Super 8
By Snehal Patel
Hello StudentFilmmakers Readers! Are you stuck at home and thinking about making a short film? Have you considered using a Super8 camera? Many people have vintage cameras sitting around and gathering dust. Some rental houses also have higher-quality professional cameras that are quite affordable to rent for a weekend. I recently made a “Pandemic” short film with an old Canon Super8 from the 1970s that has been in my family for a while. It was quite an experience, and I had a lot of fun but had to really pay attention to all the steps. If you are contemplating shooting something on the Super8 format, I’ve put together this short checklist to help you out.
Super8 shoot checklist:
- Camera – Make sure it works! All Super8 cameras are battery powered, and it’s usually AA size. Check the battery compartment for residue and clean with rubbing alcohol if needed. Some cameras have built-in light meters that require a watch size battery. You can run the camera without film, and it will not damage anything. Check any zoom function that may also be possible with batteries, like with the Canon 518 camera I was using, which sports “Auto-Zoom” functionality.
- Manuals – Always read the instructions for the camera that you are using. It’s pretty easy to find a PDF of older cameras online. The instructions are valuable because they outline all the quirks and tricks you may use. The basics are the most important thing to pay attention to: how to load and unload film stock, how to trigger and stop filming, how to check battery levels, and how to read the film count down.
- Lenses – Many consumer cameras will have fixed lenses. In this case, it’s better to have a zoom. Professional cameras may have interchangeable mounts. Be sure to test all your lenses ahead of time so that you can figure out the angle of view and close focusing distance. This will come in handy when you want to frame up your shot as the focal lengths will behave quite differently on the tiny Super8 film plane, compared to much larger formats like Super35. I was lucky enough to have screw-in diopters that fit on the camera’s zoom lens, which allowed me to get a lot closer to my subject. Testing all your lensing options will help you during the shoot.
- Film stock – There are a couple of different ways to go with this. Kodak is selling rolls of Super8 which you can then send in for processing and scanning for an additional fee. You will need to process and scan the footage to a digital video file if you wish to edit and show your film. I went with a company called Pro8mm in Burbank, California. Pro8mm also has film rolls, which they cut from 35mm film stock and repackage into Super8 cartridges. Pro8mm gives you a number of Kodak and other choices of film type and sells them in packages that include processing and scanning. Since Pro8mm serves the professional cinematography community, they have many high-quality choices for scanning and delivery. (https://www.pro8mm.com/collections/film-stock-process-and-scan-film-to-digital)
- Lighting – Generally your film stock is not going to be as sensitive as the modern digital sensor when it comes to lighting. Stocks like 50T or 200T are quite slow in comparison to the 800 ISO settings you may be used to. For example, to expose the same F-stop with 50 ISO film, you would need 16 times more light than if using a film stock that is 800 ISO. Grab a light meter and test your key and fill lights to make sure you are getting the exposure that you need. Check the reflective light coming off your subject. Don’t rely on the light meters in the camera as they may not work properly anymore, plus they are overall measurements and not precise for different parts of the frame. If you want to use Tungsten film stock outdoors with Daylight, you will need to apply an 85 filter. Some cameras will have this filter built-in as an option. If it doesn’t have one, then you need to have an external screw-in filter for the lens instead. The 85 filter does slow the light sensitivity down, for example, it makes a 200T go from 200 ISO to 125 ISO with filter in place.
- Planning – Keep in mind that your film roll runs out fast. At 18 frames per second (most common frame rate for consumer Super8 cameras), you get around three minutes of footage. At 24 fps, this drops down to two and half minutes. It’s even lower for cameras that shoot higher speeds like 36 fps or more. For the short film I shot, we made sure to rehearse and practice the blocking, camera movements, focusing, etc. as much as possible. In fact, we took our time and shot over three days. This allowed me to take my time setting up lighting, check framing, follow the action and get confident before rolling the camera.
- Stabilizing the shot – Super8 cameras are perfect for handholding, but since the format is so small, any slight bump can really change the look of your shot. For this reason, I attached my camera to a tripod and mostly filmed in a locked position with loose head so that I could make smooth pans and tilts. I also used a remote trigger for still cameras so that I didn’t have to touch the camera body during the shot.
- Best practices – Be sure to treat your project just like any other film job. Use a slate, take notes and pay attention to every detail. Just because the camera is smaller, doesn’t mean that it is plug and play. It requires the same attention that a 16mm or 35mm camera would demand of you.
You can see our completed Super8 short film here: https://vimeo.com/410881084
I love watching your shorts, so do send me links to completed work here: email@example.com
Snehal Patel is a film and television professional with over two decades of experience creating content and adapting new technology. He started the first Canon Bootcamp in Los Angeles during the Canon 5D DSLR craze and has over twenty years of experience in cinema. Snehal has lived and worked in Chicago, Mumbai and Los Angeles as a freelance Producer & Director. He was a camera technical salesperson at ARRI, and currently works as the Sales Director for Cinema at ZEISS. He represents the Americas for ZEISS and is proud to call Hollywood his home.