06.09.11

Super 8: Abrams, Spielberg's Homage to Their Hollywood Beginnings

Super 8, opening Friday from director J.J. Abrams and producer Steven Spielberg, is not only an homage to Spielberg's sci-fi canon, but also the films both directors made as kids. Marlow Stern traces the history of Super 8 films, and the many famous filmmakers who got started on Super 8. PLUS, watch early, unreleased Super 8 films from some of our most celebrated directors.

It is a common presumption, thanks largely to author Malcolm Gladwell, that it takes 10,000 hours to attain mastery in a given enterprise. For The Beatles, it was Hamburg—sharpening their musical skills playing seven days a week in a series of cramped, caliginous nightclubs over a two-plus year period. For Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg, it was spending his teenage years inside a dark room fiddling with Atari BASIC Programming. And for many of our generation’s greatest filmmakers, from David Fincher to Christopher Nolan, it all began with Super 8.

Introduced in 1965 by Kodak, Super 8 film was a boon for amateur filmmakers. A marked improvement over the regular 8 mm motion-picture film format, Super 8 film’s perforations were reduced in size, allowing for an image about 50 percent wider than standard 8 mm. Nearly all Super 8 film cameras also came with a daylight filter switch built-in, allowing for both daytime and nighttime shoots, and also used plastic light-proof film cartridges that could be loaded directly into the camera in just two seconds, doing away with the tedious task of threading the film into the camera. Additionally, these little plastic cartridges afforded amateur filmmakers three minutes and 20 seconds of continuous filming at a rate of 18 frames per second (compared to regular 8 mm’s 16 frames per second). Although the original Super 8 could only produce silent films, in 1973, a version with sound was released.

Even more than it owes to the sci-fi canon of its producer, Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams’ retro blockbuster 'Super 8' is a love letter to its namesake. Set in the summer of 1979 in the fictional town of Lillian, Ohio, a group of teenagers set out to make a zombie movie to submit to a local film festival. Armed with a Eumig Makro Sound 65 XL Super 8 camera, a makeshift lighting kit, ketchup (for blood), and several film cartridges, the 'Goonies'-like crew films a pivotal scene by the train tracks to get “production value”—as their bossy director, a pudgy Orson Welles in training, puts it. They start filming, when suddenly a train carrying top-secret Air Force cargo speeds by and crashes into a vehicle on the tracks, resulting in arguably the most strident and spectacular train crash ever. The next day, the kids bring in the Super 8 film to be processed—which takes three days. Meanwhile, people start mysteriously disappearing in the town, and the amateur filmmakers soon realize that whatever evidence there is of the cause lies in that film.

Back in 1958, an 11-year-old Steve Spielberg became a Boy Scout and needed to fulfill a requirement for a photography merit badge. “My dad's still-camera was broken, so I asked the scoutmaster if I could tell a story with my father's movie camera,” Spielberg told Nickelodeon Magazine. “He said yes, and I got an idea to do a Western.” After filming his first 8 mm movie—a train wreck with model trains, believe it or not—Spielberg ended up making a nine-minute 8 mm film called 'The Last Gunfight.' “I made it and got my merit badge,” Spielberg later recalled. “That was how it all started.” At 13, Spielberg won a local Arizona film festival prize for a 40-minute World War II film shot on 8 mm entitled 'Escape to Nowhere,' and, at age 16, caught the attention of Universal execs with 'Firelight'—a 140-minute film about a UFO invading a small town (also shot on 8 mm).

Years later, a 1982 Los Angeles Times article was published under the headline, “Beardless Wonders of Film Making.” Most of the story was dedicated to a nerdy 15-year-old named J.J. Abrams, who had caused waves at a local Super 8 film festival, and said, “I see stuff by Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter, and I want to do it, too.” The article got in the hands of Spielberg, who by then had already established himself as one of the biggest directors in Hollywood with 'Jaws', 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind', and 'Raiders of the Lost Ark'. According to the newspaper, Spielberg then hired Abrams—and his childhood pal Matt Reeves—to restore his early 8 mm films 'Escape to Nowhere' and 'Firelight'. Abrams would go on to helm 'Star Trek,' while Reeves would direct the Abrams-produced monster flick 'Cloverfield', and the vampire film 'Let Me In.'

Like Abrams, Tim Burton started out making films on Super 8—shooting rough stop-motion animated shorts in his backyard. While a student at CalArts, his short film 'The Stalk of the Celery Monster,' animated entirely in pencil and shot on Super 8, won Burton an apprenticeship at Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he would go on to serve as a storyboard/conceptual artist for films like the original 'Tron.' And 'Lord of the Rings' filmmaker Peter Jackson, perhaps Spielberg’s heir apparent, was gifted a Super 8 cine-camera by a family friend, and proceeded to make short films with his friends, including a WWII epic, a James Bond spoof, and at 15, a short film called 'The Valley,' about a group of men who get sucked into a rift in the space/time continuum and are transported to a post-apocalyptic world run by wild beasts, which won Jackson a filmmaking prize.

An 11-year-old Steve Spielberg made a nine-minute 8 mm film called 'The Last Gunfight.' “I made it and got my merit badge,” he later recalled. “That was how it all started.”

Directors David Fincher ('The Social Network') and Christopher Nolan ('Inception') also caught the filmmaking bug after they were gifted Super 8 cameras at an early age, and 'Transformers' helmer Michael Bay almost destroyed his home as a child while making a particularly inventive Super 8 film. "I'd do little firecrackers on the train set. I actually set my bedroom on fire once,” Bay told USA Today. "The fire department came. It was a little Super 8 movie where the aliens invaded."

After Panasonic, RCA, and Hitachi began producing shoulder-mount camcorders in 1985 that could play full-size VHS cassettes, offering three hours of recording time—as opposed to three minutes and 20 seconds for Super 8—these handheld cameras soon became a relic of the past among budding directors. This was followed by the advent of DV (digital video) in 1995, which quickly established itself as the de facto standard for amateur and independent filmmaking. Kodak first discontinued the production of Super 8 sound film in 1997, and then in 2005, decided to cease producing the most popular Super 8 film stock, Kodachrome. While Kodak still manufactures several different varieties of Super 8 film, very few retailers carry it due to little to no demand from ordinary consumers.

But its legacy lives on.