PHILADELPHIA — It was the feeling of the film against your palm, and the cartridge spinning inside the camera, always running out too quickly, that made some filmmakers yearn for Super 8mm film in an age now dominated by digital.
The sci-fi mystery “Super 8” — which grossed $95 million in its first two weeks of release — is reminding many people of the film format popular in the 1970s, once used to shoot everything from back-yard birthdays to experimental films.
“Super 8” is tinged with nostalgia, featuring teenagers in 1979 who film a zombie movie with the compact device. Its writer-director, J.J. Abrams, like Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Sam Raimi, is among the noted filmmakers who began their careers with it or used the handheld camera.
But it also serves as a reminder that the film format — remembered for its grainy, slightly out-of-focus images — is less used and less valued than it once was.
“In a way, Super 8 is going out with ... silver-based film. They’ll pretty much go out together,” said Phil Solomon, an experimental filmmaker and film studies professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder who began his work with Super 8.
“I think there’s something missing in digital cinematography. ... It’s so crisp and clear and automatically beautiful, but the digital image still feels like a recording. It doesn’t feel like an emblazoned image.”
Introduced in 1965 by Kodak, Super 8mm cameras were easier to use and more affordable than 16mm cameras. The 1973 model could record sound, unlike a regular 8mm camera. Prices ranged from $300 to $1,000, with film costing $5 to $12 in the heyday of the 1970s, said Toni Treadway of Brodsky & Treadway, a Massachusetts film transfer studio that has handled Super 8 film since 1975.
But the medium started fading in the 1980s as Hi8 and VHS offered better sound and ease. Today, Super 8, which requires projection, is sold only in a few specialized stores across the country, or online.
“You have tons of options now, but there’s always an industry standard that everyone goes to. You’d be silly now to not make a movie in high-def,” said Glenn Holsten, a Philadelphia-based documentarian.
Many music videos are shot in Super 8 to save money but are then transferred to a digital format, said Rhonda Vigeant, director of marketing at Pro8mm, a California business that processes, scans, repairs, and sells film products and helped Abrams’ film with its Super 8 work.
Super 8 is more a part of avant-garde and experimental work, with training typically offered in art schools rather than film programs, said Elisabeth Subrin, assistant professor at Temple University’s film and media arts department.
Subrin used Super 8 in college and shot a film using it in 1997. But today “no student would ever, ever, ever shoot” in it, she said.
It can be a difficult format. Time is precious, with only a few minutes per cartridge. Editing is nearly impossible given the film’s small size, so scenes need to be planned ahead and shot in order. And footage can only be viewed later, making it hard to gauge its quality.
But these limitations inspired creativity that is lost nowadays as digital formats allow for infinite hours of footage and intensive editing is a production staple, said Louis Pepe and Keith Fulton, Los Angeles-based filmmakers who graduated from Temple’s master of fine arts program. “Sometimes limitless choices can lead to paralysis,” Pepe said.
And then, many wonder, how can families and artists even keep archives today?
VHS video degrades and digital backups are not always foolproof, Subrin and Solomon noted. And “in 50 years are we going to be able to find the little cellphone movies we made of whatever?” Fulton asked.
But Super 8, like other film formats, can last without decay.
“My home movies from my childhood still exist,” Subrin said. “My dad shot in Super 8. They’re beautiful, they’re stunning.”
You’d think today’s budding filmmakers are “so ensconced with digital” that they wouldn’t turn to other media, Solomon said. But many get nostalgic for a time they didn’t even know.
“I think my students are hungering for something authentic,” he said. “Many of our students really do fall in love with film.”
To view the Low Road’s music video “The Devil’s Pocket,” with Super 8 footage, go to www.philly.com/lowroad.