Here are excerpts from the filmmaking book "Super 8 in the Video Age" by Brodsky and Treadway ©1982. This is a new edited version of Fundamentals, Chapter 3, 3rd ed. ©1988, updated and revised by Treadway ©2001. Please visit the rest of the website for more information and FAQs about filmmaking and preservation of 8mm and Super 8 films: LittleFilm.org
Super 8 Gauge Limitations
Kodachrome 40 Film Stock
Processing Super 8
Black and White Film
Choosing 24 or 18 Frames Per Second Speed
Setting your Diopter
When to Use a Light Meter
Filming in Reversal Film for Video Transfer
A LIMITED BUT WONDERFUL GAUGE
Super 8 film is a limited medium. To take best advantage of it, you must understand, accept and work within its limitations. We repeat this frequently to help filmmakers avoid the twin constraints of high expectations and complicated techniques that can strangle this otherwise excellent gauge. There were many basic limitations that underlie all the Super 8 production systems we designed in the 1980s editions of the book. If the basics are understood, accepted and put into practice from the beginning, your filmmaking can be released and be wonderful. Super 8 filmmaking seems to be best suited to the solo filmmaker who can enjoy the subject of the film and the making of it.
We use Kodachrome 40 wherever there is sufficient light for it and even when the camera (by an indicator in the viewfinder) tells us there is not. Kodachrome 40, although rated as less sensitive by 2 f/stops than Ektachrome, has the ability to capture great detail in shadow areas. The detail Kodachrome 40 can record within shadow areas is truly amazing. The reason for this is its fine grain structure; it has the smallest grain of all common motion picture films. The blacks of Kodachrome 40 are denser than those of other motion picture films, too. If you want to render fine detail and deep tones, there is no substitute for Kodachrome 40. Camera original Kodachrome 40 can be projected on full size theatre screens by arc light with breathtaking effect.
There are other advantages to Kodachrome 40. It runs more smoothly through cameras than the Ektachromes because it has a thinner emulsion. It seems much more tolerant of temperature extremes than its Ektachrome cousins which may be why so many National Geographic photographers counted on Kodachrome slide film at all the ends of the earth. Even after processing, Kodachrome 40 seems able to withstand more physical abuse than other film stocks. It is unrivalled for long-lasting color and should be the choice for filmmakers filming subjects of lasting interest, like grandchildren.
The dye stability of Kodachrome 40 is far superior to other color films because Kodachrome 40 is essentially a layered, fine grained black and white emulsion to which highly stable dyes are coupled during processing. Kodachrome images from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s reveal very little fading today, making Kodachrome 40 our choice for recording images that are precious, unique and deserve to be kept in an archive, whether personal or public. At the rate that the world's cultures are changing today, many images that a culturally sensitive observer can gather may be worth archiving.Top
We recommend sending Kodachrome film to Kodak itself for processing at its lab in Switzerland. In the US, this means sending it to Kodak's fair Lawn NJ plant and waiting a couple of weeks. Local labs sometimes offer cheap and fast service for Kodachrome but the result can be uneven color and damage to the film. We have seen scratches and gouges from careless processor loading, coarse grain and poor color from chemicals that are not fresh or too hot, curl and shrinkage from drying temperatures set too high (to speed through the work), and dust storms dried into the film surface.Poor processing, chemicals, handling or temperature will set your films on a path to early deterioration.Top
BLACK & WHITE
Super 8 filmmakers have maintained a strong interest in black & white film, particularly for the gritty grain of Tri-X and the platinum-surfaced, mid-range tones of Plus-X. Kodak offers two excellent black and white Super 8 reversal (direct projection) films. Plus-X (EI 50) has fine grain with lots of mid-grays but is not as fine as Kodachrome 40, and Tri-X (EI 200)with more contrast than Plus-X. One final precaution: black & white films seem to be much more susceptible to scratching right after processing so they must be handled carefully.
WHEN TO FILM AT 24 FRAMES PER SECOND
All Super 8 cameras run at 18 frames per second, many also run at 24 fps, and some run at other speeds as well, both slower and faster. This means that 18 fps was the standard Super 8 framing rate. All Super 8 front screen sound projectors can project films not only at 18 fps but also at 24 frames per second (which is the 16mm and 35mm standard film industry speed for theatre projection). Shooting at 18 fps affords you certain advantages not found at 24 fps. It is good to shoot at 24 fps:
a. when filming for 16mm or 35mm blow-ups so you will have a 1:1 correspondence of images;
b. when your subjects move fast. Dancers, athletes, cars and fast moving events all call for filming at 24 fps to smooth out motions that are the center of attention.
WHEN TO FILM AT 18 FRAMES PER SECOND
We need to point out the advantages to filming at 18 fps rather than at 24 fps. 18 fps permits more light to reach the film, allowing for better images in low light. 18 fps makes a 50'/15m cartridge run for 3 minutes 20 seconds, a critical difference in a micro-or-no-budget film, compared to the 2 minutes 30 seconds run of 24 fps cartridges. Cameras run more quietly at 18 fps than at 24 fps.Top
SETTING YOUR DIOPTER
Not enough emphasis can be put on the importance of setting the camera's eyepiece. If you neglect to do this, your scenes may appear in focus through the lens, but your images will be out-of-focus. Set the diopter of your camera each time you start filming or when your camera is used by a different person. Do not assume that the eyepiece has stayed where you last set it, or that two people's eyes are the same.
There are several ways to set the diopter including those outlined in camera manuals. We suggest this is the easiest way to adjust cameras with split-image rangefinders (the circle with a line through it in the center of the viewfinder). Point the camera at a bright light source, throw the lens totally out-of-focus, and set the diopter (by twisting the eyepiece or turning a wheel) until the horizontal line within the circle is as sharp and clear as possible. For cameras with microprism rangefinders (a circle with a prismatic image within it) do the same but concentrate on making the circle etching itself as sharp and clear as possible.
If you are the primary user of a camera, mark the correct diopter setting for your eye by scoring a line across the moveable and stationary rings after correctly setting the diopter. Fill the scoring with China marker wax to be able to match them later. Some people have found two dots of nail polish color works too, in different color dots for different users.
On cameras that have ground glass focusing screens, attempt to make the grain of the glass as pronounced as possible. With ground glass focusing screens the diopter adjustment is more of a nicety than a necessity; adjusting the diopter will change the relative definition of the viewfinder image, not the image on the film. Sometimes the ground glass of the viewfinder is not precisely adjusted relative to the film plane. You can prove this when telephoto images you precisely focused end up out-of-focus on the film. The camera, usually a Beaulieu or Leicina, must then go to a shop for adjustment of the back-focus. Send the test roll in with the camera.Top
Light affects everything: planes, sizes, shapes, textures, shadow, contrast and color. How you arrange these things in the frame determines what lines of force or pools of interest can be created. The strength of the lines and restfulness of the pools increase with skill. There is no substitute for playing around with your camera on inconsequential subjects, trying to draw the best out of every lighting situation. In fact, we advocate using video cameras to learn about framing, and the dynamics of maoving image photography before you expose real film!
The ideal lighting for a full range of detail on direct projection film (called reversal film) is bright and flat lighting, like under very hazy skies or in a brightly lit, white walled room. This is also the most boring lighting. Composing an image with this lighting is like trying to make mashed potatoes visually appealing. You must work hard to reveal some texture.
Try to give the center of interest in every moment of filming as much light as anything else in the frame. This requires the documentary filmmaker to be fast on his or her feet to move around the subject. When your subject walks near a window, you must be fast to close in and film with your back to the window. Keep the center of interest prominent; throw a cluttered background out of focus. When filming, wear white; this serves as a reflector to soften shadows in close-ups. Even deep eye shadows can be minimized with a strong close-up.
Under fluorescent lighting, always use a filter or everybody will look ghastly green. Place an FLB filter (available in most sizes from Spiratone) over the camera lens to replace the reds that fluorescents lack. Short of this, use the camera's built-in daylight filter. Plan shots to keep flourescent lighting fixtures themselves out of the frame.
When you have added light to a scene, try to make it flatter than you want the final result to be. Do this because reversal film will record the image with much more contrast than is apparent to the eye. Reversal film was created as direct projection material, meant to be shown in a darkened room. Negative film stocks (which have been offered to Super 8 filmmakers in the last decade) compress the inherent contrast of a scene as they were created to be shown on television or as print material (both post-production paths increase contrast.) Artificial lighting can be very beautiful when used with reversal film if it is softened by a large reflector or a diffuser. For this reason and low cost, we tend to recommend the large inexpensive hardware store type of reflectors with 500 watt, 3200ēK or 4800ēK bulbs in them (not Photofloods). If your project incudes personelle, lighting gear and such, you are already working beyond the scale of most Super 8 filmmakers we know.Top
Super 8 film is usually most pleasingly exposed using each camera's own built-in exposure meter. Despite this, fine 16mm and 35mm camerapeople we've known often bring their hand-held metering habits to Super 8 with bad results. Super 8 cameras are consumer items; their meters are not necessarily calibrated to work with professional light meters. If you must work with your hand held light meter, make no assumptions about Super 8 settings. Test your camera carefully to learn how to get good exposures with it.
The rest of us will be very satisfied using the through-the-lens metering system in the camera as they are usually quite reliable. When the most important part of the scene is lighter or darker than the average light in the rest of the scene, move in or zoom in on the important part and let the camera determine the proper exposure. Then lock the aperture on this setting (or set it manually) before returning to the wider perspective. Be aware that zooming in beyond 50mm usually gives a slightly overexposed indication; you need to compensate for this if you choose to film at a wider frame. This indication of overexposure happens because zoom lenses transmit less light above 50mm, and therefore the automatic metering will indicate a wider f/stop.
Remember, whenever a lighted lamp or bright window appear in the frame, they will cause an automatic iris to close down. The same goes for automobile windshields flashing in the sun. Even when these light sources are outside the frame, they can cause an automatic iris to oscillate. If possible, lock the iris to prevent a momentary darkening of the frame.
If you cannot lock your camera on a predetermined setting but can adjust it for an overall correction, set it according to the lightness or darkness of your subject relative to the overall lightness or darkness of the scene. Good judgement and the automatic metering system usually work well together.Top
WHEN TO USE A LIGHT METER
An incident light meter is a standard tool in professional cinematography, but with Super 8 film, it's a liability. 16mm filmmakers who come to Super 8, be forewarned. We have seen more unevenly, imperfectly exposed footage from filmmakers who have set their exposure with a separate light meter than from those who haven't. Why? Super 8 cameras have unusual exposure logarithms. You cannot count on an exposure set according to an external light meter, especially a reflected or spot reading type. The zoom range setting, the viewfinder's beamsplitter prism and the internal exposure metering system all affect the light reaching Super 8 film. The best exposures come from apertures set with the internal meters reading the area of most importance in the scene at the focal length (if possible) of the particular shot. Long zoom lens extensions will cause the aperture to open up 1/2 to 2 stops more than a medium extension would indicate. We do not recommend separate light meters. Those who ignore this advice are urged to test carefully their own equipment for its particular, idiosyncratic variations and to maintain their sense of humor when their exposures are wrong.
The place to use a light meter is where you have control over the lighting and can use the meter to help balance the lighting. (Remember the contrast inherent in reversal filmstocks.) Use an incident meter (with a white dome) to keep the main light level within one-half stop in the entire action area, from above head height to waist height. This is more difficult than it might appear, but it is necessary if the lighting is not to draw attention to itself when the scene is filmed on projection contrast film, as are Super 8 reversal films. An easy-to-use low cost meter for this function is the Sekonic L-246; slightly more complicated (and versatile) is the L-398.Top
FILMING IN SUPER 8 REVERSAL FILM FOR VIDEO TRANSFER
Whenever possible, film in the following manner for video transfer:
1. Use soft lighting, or move into soft lighting (away from harsh lights or open sun). Interiors are best lit by windows or 500 watt, 3200ēK bulbs in hardware store reflectors.
2. Avoid large areas of white or light colors and masses of white sky. If you must include these, don't allow them to cause your camera's light meter to stop down its aperture. Use your backlight button, or set and lock the exposure on darker elements in the scene, especially if they are the main areas of interest.
3. Include an extraordinary number of close-up shots, compared to medium and long shots.
4. Allow for a 10% cut-off of the frame around the sides of your image during the transfer. Allow even more space around titles.
5. Shoot Kodachrome 40 in all situations unless you have an aesthetic preference for another stock.
The best exposure for video transfer of Super 8 reversal film is normal exposure of the area of interest, whether it be out in the sun or under a beach umbrella. Video chops off detail at both ends of the illumination scale, hence the desire of videographers for flat lighting. This means that compared to the projected image of a properly exposed, full range Kodachrome 40 image, any video transfer will lose shadow and highlight detail. It is possible to shift more of this loss toward the highlights or into the shadows, but a loss will occur somewhere. Such is the state of video so far.Top
Excerpts from Super 8 in the Video Age by Brodsky and Treadway ©1982, Fundamentals chapter 3, 3rd ed. ©1988, updated and revised by Treadway ©2001.
Please visit our website for more information about filmmaking and preservation of 8mm films. LittleFilm.org