The Middle Six Feet: the birth and demise of regular-8 film and personal cinema

Recently I attended the SF Art Institute's Regular 8mm Film Festival at the Center for the Arts in San Francisco, co-presented by the SF Cinematheque. It was a wonderfully programmed two-evening festival, highlighting what is exquisite and intimate about this nearly-forgotten but durable medium.

The theater, which seats about 110, was packed for both shows. The festival was organized and curated by SFAI students, and I was told the high attendance would be a surprise to the Art Institute administrators, who were initially skeptical about sponsoring the event, thinking nobody would be interested in small gauge film in these times of digital mega-splendor.

The programs included films by (in approximate order): Stan Brakhage, Greg Sharits, Phil Weisman, Chun-Hui Wu, Scott Stark (me), Susan Barron, David Heatley, Bill Baldewicz, Robbie Land, Tom Whiteside, Hans Michaud, Steve Polta, Brian Frye, Saul Levine, Michael Mideke, Takahiko Iimura, Marjorie Keller and Jamie Peterson. There were also several remarkable found home movies. All films were either regular 8mm (no super-8) or unsplit regular 8 shown as 16.

The students also produced a festival poster and small-format booklet with short essays by David Heatley, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Stan Brakhage and the late Marjorie Keller.

Below are some thoughts I wrote up that were inspired by the festival. Hope you enjoy them. -- Scott Stark

The Middle Six Feet: the birth and demise of regular-8 film and personal cinema

[inspired by the SFAI Regular 8mm Film Festival, February 5-6, 2000, San Francisco]

When Kodak first introduced regular-8mm film in 1933, the world witnessed the birth of what later came to be known as "personal cinema." Although the apparatus for home moviemaking was available to the general public practically since the dawn of motion pictures, most home equipment was in the larger, more expensive 16mm format, with its heavy and bulky cameras. With the advent of inexpensive 8mm cameras, projectors and film, suddenly the average person could afford to make movies. They could carry the camera with them and unobtrusively document the events and nuances of their personal lives. The process no longer required the apparatus of professional filmmaking, and makers were free, whether they did so consciously or not, to invent their own cinematic languages, unencumbered by commercial conventions.

A roll of regular-8mm film is really a roll of 16mm film, with twice as many perforations to accommodate the smaller frame size. The camera records images along one side of the film, and once the entire roll has been shot, the photographer opens the camera, flips the roll, and shoots again along the other side. After processing the film, the lab splits the film down the middle, separating the two rows of images into two 8mm strips, and splices them together. Thus a 25-foot roll yields 50 feet of projectable film.

Arising in this new apparatus was the vocabulary of a new cinematic language. Unlike today's moviemaking technologies, the photographer actually handled the film while loading the camera, and had to run the motor for a few seconds with the camera door open to make sure it was threaded properly. The first three to five feet were considered leader, since they became unavoidably exposed during the loading and threading process.

Thus every roll of 8mm film that came back from the lab started and ended with fogs and flares. And if everything wasn't done properly -- perhaps there was too much light when the film was loaded, or maybe it wasn't advanced far enough before shooting began -- the first images were sometimes bathed in a sublime, supernatural light.

The most distinctive feature of regular-8mm filmmaking, though, was the middle six feet or so, where the filmmaker flipped over the roll to shoot the second half. It became, inadvertently, record of human interaction with the technology, right in the middle of the reel. While shooting, you were supposed to watch the footage counter to know when the first half of the roll was near completion, knowing that the last few feet would be fogged. Often, though, you were paying more attention to the action in front of the camera than to the footage counter, so that the colorful shots of baby's first birthday or the Golden Gate Bridge would rhythmically dissolve into a teasing blaze of orange and white light. Or perhaps you were overly meticulous about the footage counter and stopped well before the end, resulting in a pause of pure black before the midpoint. Or maybe you didn't even cover the lens while getting to the end of the roll, producing a lovely shot of your knee against the colorful pattern of your linoleum floor.

In any case, 8mm filmmaking invariably included this momentary interruption midway through the roll, where the tension between reality and abstraction was at its most volatile. It was a moment of suspense, reflection, annoyance, boredom, surprise. It was a moment that you'd edit out in your mind but that persistently reappeared with each subsequent viewing.

The nature of this momentary midway pause was subject to many variables that were dependent on the filmmaker's own behavior and environment, including the quality of the light when the film was being loaded, and the attentiveness and expertise of the filmmaker. In short, the filmmaker's personal interaction with the technology was indelibly left on every roll, like fingerprints. The human element became unalterably fused with the mechanical and the photochemical.

Perhaps the defining moment of the middle six feet was the splice itself. It was an inescapable link, an apex, a momentary affirmation that this was indeed only a strip of film running through the projector, and that those images on the screen were merely imitations of the real moments that had already slipped into memory. The splice was also final proof of human interaction: proof that the filmmaker had correctly (or incorrectly) flipped the roll, and proof that some anonymous lab technician had split the film and spliced the two ends together by hand.

That evidence of human interaction -- along with uneven camera movements, blinding floodlights, best-guess exposures, and flat focus -- is much of what gave regular-8mm filmmaking its uniquely personal quality. The person operating the camera was never completely invisible.

In the 1960s, Kodak developed the Super-8mm film cartridge. Suddenly, the filmmaker no longer had to handle the film. Super-8 was easier to load and resulted in fewer errors. The only fogging was a few frames at the very beginning and end of the roll, which the lab often chopped off after processing. And perhaps most importantly, the roll didn't have to be flipped midway; 50 feet of Super-8 film was 50 feet long.

The middle six feet, that most human of moments in the realm of personal filmmaking, began to disappear. The convenience of the new super-format was paired with a resultant loss of control, a severing of the filmmaker's tactile relationship to the medium.

In the 1980s, as video began replacing film as the home movie medium of choice, movie makers found themselves even further distanced from the technology they were using to create images. Video tape couldn't be fogged, and mistakes were easily corrected. The images were recorded through some mysterious electronic process that couldn't be seen or touched.

And now, in the year 2000, digital video requires an even more complex and impersonal apparatus, further distancing makers from the physical processes involved in creating and recording images. Sophisticated internal motors reduce camera shakiness. Exposure and focus are instantaneous, automatic and exact. Sound precludes a need for visual cues. Images do not exist without the machines and software required to interpret binary data.

Technology, driven by commerce and a thirst for efficiency, endlessly attempts to eradicate any lingering traces of humanity from the craft of cinema. History is rewritten to accommodate the trend of the moment.

Any personal vision in contemporary moviemaking must now come solely from its content, not its form.

The splice has become invisible. The middle six feet were never there.

Scott Stark, 2/8/2000

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