The Summer of Super 8: A Look at the Film's Technological Origins

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To address the rising concerns with cost as the Great Depression loomed, Eastman Kodak introduced 8mm film in 1932

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For most who plan on attending showings of J.J. Abrams' much anticipated summer monster flick, Super 8, the historical and technological importance of Super 8 as a revolutionary film innovation will mean next to nothing. Similarly, it is unlikely anyone will give a thought to how Super 8 is different from any other film stock, other than maybe considering it an archaic design no longer relevant or useful in the digital age. In response, we present an analysis of the history and use of Super 8.

16MM: THE BEGINNINGS OF AMATEUR FILM

The invention and development of motion pictures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was rapidly followed by considerations of its potential as a consumer product in home entertainment. However, problems with size, price and safety meant that in order for movies to be a marketable commodity, certain adjustments needed to be made. At the time, standard film was 35mm wide and nitrate-based, requiring large equipment and expensive processing. It was also highly flammable. Because of this, efforts were focused on reducing the size of both film and film equipment, as well as on developing a non-nitrate "safety" film which would eliminate the possible risk of fire in the home.

While several safe, affordable and user-friendly cameras were made in both Europe and in the United States, Eastman Kodak's 1923 invention of the Cine-Kodak trumped the competition. The Cine-Koda used new, 16mm acetate safety film, which underwent a process of direct film reversal. During this process, exposed film is developed to a negative image, after which the image is bleached out, leaving unconverted silver grains. The film is then exposed and developed again, so that the unconverted silver grains reveal a positive image. This method shortens the developing process by one step, ultimately saving the user time and money. It was also discovered that through this process the grain size of a finished positive was finer than that produced from a "conventionally developed" negative, allowing for the overall size of an image to be clearly and accurately reduced. Eastman Kodak's final product was a 16mm wide film strip perforated on both sides with a 10mm x 7.5mm image moving at 40 frames per foot. The film was not only less than half the width of conventional 35mm film, but also 1/6th the cost.

The Cine-Kodak itself was a die-cast aluminum box measuring 8 ½ x 8 x 4 5/8 inches and weighing about seven pounds. At the time of its original release, the camera was only available in a set which also included a Kodascope Projector, tripod, screen and a splicer for $325. As Kodak points out on their website, this was at the time when a "new Ford automobile could be purchased for $550" (Kodak's "Super 8mm Film History"). Although expensive, it was thought that the all-inclusive package would facilitate success for amateur filmmakers. By 1929, 13 different cameras using 16mm film were available.

(Geologist and amateur filmmaker William Wrather used 16mm film to record this footage of the Gallup Ceremonial in New Mexico circa 1926-1932.)

DOUBLE 8 VS SINGLE 8 VS SUPER 8: WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE?

Although safe, easy-to-use cameras became more available, they had not become more affordable. In 1932, Kodak's most basic model, the M 475, cost $75 -- an amount equal to two weeks wages for hourly laborers. Similarly, the cheapest projector cost $60 and a 100-foot roll of film, $6. To address the rising concerns with cost as the Great Depression loomed, Eastman Kodak introduced 8mm film in 1932. This film came on 25' spools of 16mm, with two sides of 8mm film, or "double 8." After being threaded through the camera and exposed on one half, the film was then turned over and re-threaded to expose the other. During processing, this double width would be split down the middle and spliced together to make a 50-foot reel of 8mm film perforated only on one side. Since the 8mm was a quarter of the size of 16mm, it reduced the amount of film necessary to achieve the same running time as 16mm and the cost of processing by a factor of four. The Cine-Kodak Eight Model 20 cost $29.50, the projector, $22.50 and a spool of film, $2.50.

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Kodak's prime competitor, Bell & Howell, released their own 8mm camera in 1935, the Filmo Straight Eight, which sold for $69. Unlike Kodak's model, Bell & Howell used pre-split 8mm film to produce an even more compact, lightweight camera. In 1938, the Universal Camera Corporation put out an incredibly inexpensive single 8mm camera for only $9.95, with a companion projector for $14.95. The overall reduction of size and cost, and increased accessibility made 8mm the favorite format for hobby amateur filmmaking, a format that would remain essentially untouched for nearly 30 years.

(This footage from Adena Burial Mound Excavation" shows an archaeological excavation in eastern Kentucky circa 1939. Note the lack of sound; sound could not be recorded on 8mm stock, although it could be recorded separately and added during the editing process.)

Declining sales in the late 1950s meant it was time for Eastman Kodak's research team to go back to work. Maintaining the successful gauge of 8mm, the next improvement would be in finding a way to increase the size of the film image itself. One of the most important considerations for researchers was how a new format could be kept compatible with reduction printing from 16mm originals, which were thought to be the best stock for premium quality color and sound. In 1962, it became obvious to Kodak researchers C.J. Staud and W.T. Hanson, Jr., that the best way to increase image size would be by reducing the size of the side perforations. This would yield a 50% increase in image size while still allowing for the making of 16mm reduction prints.

In 1965, Eastman Kodak released its new line of Super 8 film and Kodak Instamatic Movie Cameras. The cameras featured 50-feet of drop-load Kodachrome II Super 8 Film housed in a black plastic cartridge known as a "Kodapack." This cartridge was extremely easy to load, as the film no longer had to be threaded in the camera or flipped. Each Super 8 camera also had a built-in filter allowing "Type-A" (tungsten) film to be used in different kinds of light, eliminating the need for both "Daylight" and "Type-A" film forms. Notches on the front edge of the film cartridge would automatically indicate whether the filter was needed. These notches also indicated the speed of the film. The cameras themselves had a die-cast metal body and were operated by a battery-powered motor, which replaced the need for a hand-crank. Kodak's different models -- the M2, M4 and M6 -- had different lenses, with the top-of-the-line model including a 12 to 36mm zoom lens and reflex through-the-lens viewing. The models were priced at $46.50, $69.50 and $174.50, respectively. While Bell & Howell offered competing Super 8 models, Kodaks were unquestionably the most popular.

THE USE OF SUPER 8: NOT JUST FOR AMATEURS

Although initially cited for education, commercial and industrial use, Kodak's first marketing campaign clearly indicated its intention for Super 8 use in making amateur films. As Alan Kattelle writes in Home Movies: A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979:

The targeted market for the new product seem unquestionably to have been the amateur filmer, beginning with the Instamatic name itself, thus tying the product in the public's mind with the hugely successful Instamatic still cameras, which sold over ten million units in the first two years on the market. And with Walt Disney as salesman for the vast TV audience, Kodak chose a handsome little blond four-year old called 'Speedy Loadum' to demonstrate the product to retailers.... The message was: Super 8 cameras are 'FUN' and 'EASY TO USE!'

The ease, accessibility and affordability of Super 8 made it an ideal technology for home movie makers. But Super 8 would also become indispensable for scientists and anthropologists. The addition of magnetic sound stripping to Super 8 film stock in 1973 would help solidify its role as an easily transportable and complete tool for use in capturing a "permanent" film record of the world's many different cultures.

(This particular clip, from Bering Sea Eskimos, filmed by VISTA Volunteer Joli Morgan in the Yup'ik village of Kasigluk, Alaska in 1968, had sound added during production, but it gives an idea of the great advantage for filmmakers in being able to capture noise.)

See more posts from and about the Smithsonian.


This post was originally published on the Smithsonian Collections Blog and is republished here with permission.

Images: 1. Roll of 8mm film with its original box/Karma Foley for Human Studies Film Archives; 2. From left to right: 35mm, 16mm, 8mm, Super 8mm/Human Studies Film Archives.

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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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