The film is grainy, the color is off and the images are speckled with “film dirt.” But despite its flaws (or perhaps because of them), Super 8 moviemaking has survived since 1965. Indie directors Gus Van Sant and John Cameron Mitchell have used Super 8 in their most recent films, and less-visible Super 8 die-hards have started “small-gauge” film clubs everywhere from Liverpool to Athens, Ga. Super 8 has been compared to Fight Club—the only difference is that everyone wants to talk about it.
“There’s just something great about Super 8,” says filmmaker Matt McCormick, founder of the PDX (Portland Documentary and eXperimental) Film Fest. “Just about anyone can do it.” Another Portland filmmaker, Reed Harkness, founded the Tiny Picture Club to showcase Super 8 films he and his friends were shooting. The movement caught on, and soon they were showing their “beautiful little films” in festivals. When someone first discovers Super 8, the excitement is usually contagious.
“You have to check out this Tiny Picture Club,” a stranger once told Harkness on a ski lift, “it’s ... a beautiful kind of community that I just happened upon.”
Eastman Kodak first launched Super 8 as a simple, cheap way to make home movies—the cinematic equivalent of a Brownie (Kodak’s first handheld camera, introduced in 1900). But with the advent of cheap video and, later, digital technology, Super 8 cameras started appearing in garage sales and junk stores. In 1997, Kodak announced that it was discontinuing the film. Letters of protest poured in, and the company was shocked to find that Super 8 still had so many passionate fans. The fans convinced Kodak to keep making small batches of the film, and the company now sponsors a Super 8 tent at Cannes, run by straight8.net.
It’s not just nostalgia that makes small-gauge popular. Super 8, with its particular sensitivity to light and its other imperfections, records experiences like the mind does—fractured, impressionistic, spotted with doubt. “Super 8 is like memory,” says Steven “Flip” Lippman, who has shot Super 8 films for musicians like David Bowie and the Kronos Quartet. “I want people to be able to look at something like my Rosanne Cash film [Mariners & Musicians] and not necessarily know when it was made. I use it to evoke a state of mind.” Despite the crisp definition we admire in digital technology, we rarely experience life in HD. It seems fitting, then, that Super 8 first became popular as a way to keep a record of childhood. In those scratched, sun-bleached reels, the lack of clarity seems directly proportional to the emotional intensity—like childhood itself.