Super 8 Filmmaker John Porter, Toronto, Canada
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36 Love Letters to Super 8
I came to filmmaking in 1968 from photography, acting, writing and painting in my teens. My mother was a painter, my father an engineer. I subscribed to photography magazines and read a column by Lenny Lipton who later wrote the still-authoritative "The Super 8 Book" (1975). He wrote about making home movies that aren't straight records of family events, but written and performed fantasies. I was inspired by Sergio Leone's "spaghetti westerns" which I saw as dance films, and by National Film Board of Canada animated shorts including Norman McLaren's. So I rented a super 8 camera and one afternoon shot a silent 3-minute film in a vacant lot with some friends, costumes, props and special effects. It was my "Eureka!" moment. As soon as I heard the film running through the camera while I was following my subjects through the viewfinder, I thought, "This is for me! This is what I want to do more than anything, forever!". Even before getting the film processed, I bought a new super 8 camera, projector and editing equipment.
So then I studied Photography and Film Production at college where I discovered personal film art by Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage and others, but all the films, equipment, lessons and services were 16mm. Super 8 and 8mm were not considered to be "real film". To me, this was a challenge. I would love to prove them wrong. Art and artists are at their best when challenged, often with self-imposed limitations. Super 8 artmaking became for me a welcome political, as well as physical, challenge, fun and exciting, remaining so today.
At college I found that 16mm equipment, not to mention 35mm, was clumsy, complicated, expensive, intimidating, and conspicuous. I was repelled by the excess of the film industry, and driven to practice the antithesis. Filmmaking can be a fine art even in its simplest form, maybe especially in its simplest form, when it is most direct, like a poem or painting, produced for a few dollars in a few hours at home by one person who can then produce hundreds of films including series' of films with slight variations. Films can be made spontaneously and presented in public mere days or hours after production began. Super 8 reversal film is perfect for this.
Just as film is a unique art medium, always distinct from video or digital, so too is super 8 a unique film format physically and politically distinct from larger film formats. Super 8 equipment is more accessible, both financially and in usability, so it is more egalitarian. It is simple and direct, lending itself more to spontaneity and uninhibited self-expression. And unlike negative film, super 8 reversal (positive) film is not only more immediate but it also has a more beautiful visual quality achieved by screening the original camera-stock film, like the difference between original paintings and prints.
Very few large-format filmmakers shoot on reversal and exhibit their originals, like Peter Hutton did with his 16mm black & white reversal films, but the vast majority of films currently shown on 8mm or super 8 are originals because making small-format prints is difficult or expensive, if not impossible. But for me this is also a choice. Even in the 1980s when good super 8 prints were made easily and cheaply by labs in my home town of Toronto, I made prints of very few of my 300 films and have always preferred to show my originals. For the cost of copying an old film, I instead made a new film. Yes it's a risk, but artists should take risks. It's more exciting. But for insurance, sometimes I shoot multiple originals simultaneously on multiple cameras, or remake them later. Last year I remade a 1983 film which I'd worn out from showing so often, and the remake is better. Thoroughly cleaning the entire film path of a projector, especially a super 8 projector, before projecting an original film is a rare skill, even among professional projectionists who are used to projecting large-format prints. I teach it in my super 8 workshops. I love cleaning projector paths even if they've just been cleaned by someone else, partly to "bond" with the projector, so the projector and I can get to know one another a little before we perform together, as with before mounting a horse..
Most super 8 film world-wide is transferred to digital video for exhibition, but for 20 years Canada has been a world leader, projecting many hundreds of new super 8 original films at many annual super 8 screenings and 3-day festivals in a dozen cities. Alex Rogalski began his annual make-a-film-for-the-screening "One Take Super 8 Event" franchise in Regina, Saskatchewan in 2000, but it has since expanded into ten Canadian and American cities, to date screening more than 1,000 new super 8 original films. Other similar annual "shoot & show" super 8 original films screenings in Canada have been held in Moncton, New Brunswick since 1997, in Sackville, NB since 2000, and in Halifax, Nova Scotia since 2001. The annual 3-day "the8fest" in Toronto has projected only on small-format film (mostly originals) for 10 years, and the annual 3-day "$100 Film Festival" in Calgary, Alberta has projected only on super 8 (mostly originals) and 16mm for 25 years. Other similar screenings since 1999 in the USA (such as “Attack of the 50-Foot Reels!”), the UK (“Straight 8”), and other countries, have mostly projected digital transfers of super 8 films.
Most professional film distributors, exhibitors and projectionists are mostly familiar with 16mm and 35mm so they assume that all films are prints and replaceable - a film industry bias. They are unfamiliar with the term and concept of "the original" applied to film projection as it is to painting, so when they hear the term "the original film", they think it means "the original print", "the first print" or "the only print". Disappointingly, film print bias is found even among personal film artists. Some argue that reproduction is essential to film. This was suggested by American filmmaker Saul Levine to Alex Rogalski at Alex’s Talk when they were both profiled artists giving Artist Talks at "the8fest" in Toronto this year. I say that reproduction is as essential to film as it is to we humans - it's optional. Also, the "$100 Film Festival" has shown hundreds of super 8 originals since 1992, but it's Call for Submissions has always said "If your film is selected for exhibition, you will be asked to ship A FILM PRINT." (The capitalized letters are theirs.) This even after I spoke to them about this years ago. And last October an international network of artist-run film labs based in Paris published a "Charter of Cinematographic Projection in the 21st Century" signed by hundreds of film people around the world "who care about photochemical film projection" and "the unique marvel which is the projection of a film print". I think that the marvel which is the projection of a film original is even more unique than that of a film print.
I was heavily involved with The Funnel Experimental Film Theatre in Toronto during its 10 years, 1977-1987. It was an artist-run alternative to the 16mm print bias at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Toronto Filmmakers Co-op, and the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, all in Toronto. The Funnel provided public screenings, production equipment rental, and distribution, for prints and originals on 16mm, 8mm, super 8 and video. I felt at home there. I still advocate its philosophy, published in its distribution catalogues in 1984 and 1987, and here I close with an excerpt:
"For various reasons an artist may never make copies of his or her work. A film or tape may change from presentation to presentation as the artist re-edits the piece; the nature of the film stock or material may preclude its reproducibility; in the extreme a film may exist only as a sculptural entity to be viewed on rewinds. Each presentation of a work of this nature is a unique performance. Accommodation of the diverse existing and possible future formats is a policy of the Collection, and a reflection of an historical and contemporary practice of artists' film."