While many big filmmakers started their careers with the silent visuals of Super 8, it is likely the device of their humble beginnings is now left to gather dust in the coffers. However, contributors to straight 8, the annual Super 8 filmmaking competition, have clocked on to the fact that the limitations of Super 8 film also give rise to an ‘olde worlde’ creativity and pleasing simplicity.
The rules of the competition are simple; apply to compete, get sent a registered Super 8 cartridge and get three months to make your film. The soundtrack must be supplied separately (to be added later) and the only editing allowed is what you can do on the camera itself. Apart from this, filmmakers are free to fill the 3,600 frames as they see fit.
‘We don’t limit creativity’, says competition founder Ed Sayers. ‘That’s when you get really nice, artistic work. We don’t set a theme and if people have access to studio lighting for example, they can use it. People are starting to be smart about it by playing to their strengths and avoiding their weaknesses. Teams can sometimes be up to 10 or 20 people, and it doesn’t have to cost more as no one is being paid.’
This does not mean that those with an eager workforce and a wealth of equipment always end up on top. Sayers is proud of the fact that he has created a level playing field for those wanting to take part. ‘We are about to screen the winning films at Cannes Advertising Week. People working in advertising could be watching a film made by absolutely anyone, including a cardiologist (I explain participants’ professions in the programme). Normally, the entrants are filmmakers but The Last Trip is the third film made by cardiologist Malcolm Finlay and it’s brilliant.’ Finlay’s film is a far-fetched story about a Welshman who wants to send the ashes of a departed friend into space. Simply, yet amusingly told, and starring a host of non-professional actors, it is story-telling at its finest.
Similarly inventive is 2007 winner Sticks and Balls made by Jacqueline Wright and Alice Lowe. Using the euphemistic potential of a game of golf, the film depicts a frolicking female player trying to distract her man while out on the green. Set to a witty electro soundtrack, it is easy to see why it has notched up nearly 30,000 hits on YouTube, demonstrating the potential of basic filmmaking.
Often entries are lavishly executed, their simplicity betrayed only by the occasional flickering or underexposure at the edges of the frame. Some have even pushed the camera to its limits by coming up with painstakingly meticulous production methods. Herrjaapmans’s Spring Love, for example, follows a couple through the streets and parks on a spring day. The simple love story is made more complex in two ways: Firstly, it is set to the jagged edges of the soundtrack; secondly (and most impressively) it is filmed entirely in stop-motion so that the actors are suspended in the air for each and every shot. ‘The actors had to leap into the air. It’s amazing that they were all caught mid-air for every single shot, you would expect a couple of them to be on the ground but it is just done so well’, says Sayers. ‘The title is a clever play on words in that it’s spring and they’re literally springing in the air. When someone has a really great technique and works it so well into a theme, that’s when I really want to show the film up on a big screen.’
The suspense of darkroom development, often forgotten in the wake of ever-ready digital imaging, is magnified by the competition, as the winners see their films for the very first time only when they are being screened to an entire cinema audience. This is obviously part of the fun. Some of this year’s films were given a preview screening on Channel 4, but the man behind The Last Trip reportedly avoided watching his film on TV, preferring to wait until the Cannes screening.
It is the unpredictability of Super 8 that Ed Sayers loves above all. ‘You could accidentally push ‘record’ as you’re walking across the road and when you watch the film a random floor shot will appear – which actually happens quite a lot – and you will be worried but no one else will really notice it.’ Maybe precisely because of that unpredictability, Sayers believes that it takes a lot of careful planning to make a good Super 8 film: ‘You have to be a bit ‘zen’ and go with it. You have to plan thoroughly and do more pre-production. It pushes you to be a better filmmaker.’
Super 8 can also help to remind the industry types what filmmaking is all about. ‘Kodak started to show an interest in what we were doing and suggested we did a regular screening at the Cannes Film Festival. Now some people tell us that it’s the part of the festival that they most look forward to. Super 8 appeals to these ‘grown-up’ film people as it is often easy for them to forget what attracted them to the industry in the first place.’
Sayers is particularly proud of the fact that 75 of the 175 films submitted to this year’s straight 8 will be shown in London at the end of July during the Rushes Soho Shorts Festival, both at the Curzon cinema in Mayfair and the Renoir cinema near Russell Square. ‘It’s amazing how a film that began with an old camera can end up in a nice cinema like the Curzon or the Renoir. From having no budget, to having a West End audience! This is why we do it.’