Super 8's Purpose: Documenting the Past, Capturing the Present

While cultural and ethnographic film had been shot using other gauges, Super 8 quickly became the preferred stock after its release


J.J. Abrams' Super 8 is, in many ways, an autobiographical film. This is not to suggest that Abrams' childhood town was the site of an alien encounter, but rather that the film's central narrative about kids making a movie mirrors Abrams' own experience with amateur filmmaking. In an interview with Time magazine, Abrams reveals that in the early '80s, he and friend Matt Reeves submitted a Super 8 film to a teen amateur film festival where they received high praise and recognition from critics. Citing Steven Spielberg as one of his cinematic heroes, the then 15-year-old Abrams caught the eye of the famous director, who asked Abrams and Reeves to repair his own early 8mm films made in the 1960s. Little did Abrams or Spielberg know that thirty years later the two would again join forces, this time with Abrams directing and Spielberg producing, on a project paying homage to a particular time and style of movie making. (For more on the Spielberg/Abrams relationship in the creation of Super 8, see "Hero Complex" from the Los Angeles Times.)

Perhaps the most important aspect of Super 8 is its emphasis on careful documentation. In Super 8, film documentation plays a key role in providing the evidence and understanding of the creature wreaking havoc on the town. Not only do the kids inadvertently capture its image during their midnight movie shoot, they also stumble across an extensive B&W 8mm film record of its history, left by the ex-government scientist-turned-high school biology teacher. It is in that record that the identity and motive of the creature is finally revealed -- not in full cinematic widescreen, but rather in a small square of light projected onto a wall, accompanied by a separately recorded audiocassette tape.


Like the biologist in the movie, scientists have often applied film to their research, using it as a crucial tool for collecting visual data. This is especially true for anthropologists, who recognized the potential of film technology for their pursuits in documenting evidence to facilitate the understanding of different cultures. Any footage obtained could then be applied to a variety of scientific uses, including the creation of documentaries, as a teaching tool for building observational skills, or as a filmic record preserved for later research and study.

This footage from Gertrude Kurath's 1960 study of the music and dance of Rio Grande Pueblos provides a good example. Kurath's project was part of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, whose founding mission statement was the promotion and funding of "research, educational, technical and scientific work." Although filmed for her studies in ethnomusicology, Kurath's clear and well-documented raw footage has become a valuable source for study by scientists representing a wide range of interests.

While cultural and ethnographic film had been shot using other gauges, Super 8 quickly became the preferred stock. In a manuscript on "using Super 8 in the social sciences," filmmakers Robert and Eileen Zalisk specify how the gauge could best be used for research purposes. They suggest that because of the cheap cost and light weight, Super 8 was the ideal format for accumulating visual footage in the field. The Zalisks liken the camera to a field "notebook" with the ability of being able to take 3,600 individual pictures on a single cartridge of film -- the equivalent of 100 roles of standard 35mm 'still' film. Multiple cameras allowed for a single event to be captured from many angles, allowing for the differing views and perspectives of the filmer. Slow-motion camera settings could be used to capture variations in behaviors for close observation; similarly an individual's behavior could be filmed and monitored over a long period of time, or compared with footage of similar reactions in widely disparate regions. Super 8 cameras were fast and easy to reload, providing scientists and filmmakers with a quick reaction time allowing them to capture even the most spontaneous events.

Presented by

Adrianna Link is an intern at the Human Studies Film Archives, part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History. She is also a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University in the Department of the History of Science and Technology.

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