Scratch, Crackle, Pop: The Enduring Appeal of Film at Home

Small-format Super 8 and 16mm film projection is alive and well in the home, possibly seeing a resurgence among enthusiasts similar to the vinyl craze for audio aficionados. But what is it about imperfect analogue images on a living room wall that many just can’t give up? Martin Dew explains.

Words: Martin Dew, Images: Van Eck Video Services

 

 

Christopher Nolan has been hard at work. Just now, though, he’s not been channeling his resources into another mind-bending cinematic extravaganza à la “Inception”, but has been supervising the creation of a limited number of ‘unrestored’ new prints of “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 70mm for showing at Cannes Film Festival, and subsequently in major cities across the US. On the back of the success of “Dunkirk” in IMAX 15/70, as well as runs in regular 70mm houses, you might forgive him for declaring to “Variety” last month that digital projection loses “the magnificence of the best possible exhibition.” He went on to assert that cleaning a film print digitally removes what he calls, somewhat startlingly, the “emotional information.”

 

Quite apart from the growing number of film-shooting advocate directors, such as Steven Spielberg, Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, it appears that Nolan is not isolated in his passion for natural-looking photochemical processes of film capture and presentation.

 

That fervour for celluloid is alive and well in residential circles too. A growing number of film-obsessed home cinema junkies are shunning 2160p and 1080p projectors and Dolby Atmos audio immersion in favour of Super 8 and 16mm projectors, with their attendant turning spools, clatter of a juddering claw arm, and bold — but dynamically-limited — monaural optical and magnetic sound.

 

The love of film, its legacy and mechanics, clearly has a trickle-down effect, and Kodak is still promising to release a Super 8 camera for the hipster movie-maker generation. The company brought the CES 2016 show to a momentary standstill when it showed up with the new gizmo, replete with its USB charger, and swivel-mounted 3.5in LCD screen viewer. Sadly, the slick-looking cam has yet to see the exposed commercial light of day, although J. J. Abrams, director of appositely-titled hit “Super 8”, was quick to back the project, suggesting it would be “a dream come true.”

 

None of this is coincidence. Film-based home cinema has been around since the era of Nickelodeon picture houses more than 100 years ago. It was always going to be a tall order for the digital revolution of the 1990s to convert absolutely everyone. Home cinema was once the exclusive preserve of Hollywood moguls and glitterati, as well-heeled die-hards chilled out in their own darkened rooms, adjusting comfy recliners, and kicking back for their feature presentation. Before the Great War, hefty, expensive 35mm projectors performed video duties in the home. The capital outlay for equipment providing this domestic luxury meant home screening rooms were rare beasts. Consequently, between the wars, more compact and manageable film formats jockeyed for a position in the home cinema.

 

By the mid-1960s, a revolution took place in the form of Super 8 film. What had once been the staple of the wealthy was now a joy the masses could embrace. The leading manufacturer of Super 8 projectors, Eumig of Austria, was making over half a million projectors a year by 1976, while punters increasingly reaped the rewards of a big screen experience to take on the underwhelming output of small TVs. Collecting Super 8 films became an obsession for thousands of cinema devotees before the VHS revolution, but the magic of celluloid film in the home still hangs on.

 

An en-gauging pastime

 

The driving force for film projectors in the home was not only film collecting, but movie-making itself. The market for film formats less cumbersome than professional 35mm film goes back to 1923 when Eastman Kodak introduced its ‘amateur’ stock, 16mm. Billed as a budget alternative for keen makers of silent films, the company touted its first ‘outfit’, consisting of camera, projector, tripod, screen and splicer, which could be snapped up for $335 (a whopping $4,700 in today’s money). 16mm’s acetate base, as distinct from 35mm’s flammable nitrate base, made this new film gauge appealing to household users. The ability to rent and buy commercial films from the Kodascope Library was a further boon for investors in this equipment. In 1935, optical soundtracks became available on 16mm, and amateur filmmakers, documentarians and news stations regularly continued to adopt the format up until the 1990s. Before the VCR arrived in schools, 16mm film projectors remained the AV educational tool of choice, as well as the chief means by which to show rented commercial films in institutions.

 

Another rather quirky film gauge arrived on the scene in the early 1920s from French power-house, Pathé Frères. Introduced mainly for collectors of commercial movie titles (including Mickey Mouse shorts and features such as Alfred Hitchcock’s “Blackmail”), the format was a favourite with amateur content creators. Its slightly clunky single central sprocket hole mechanism meant cheap toy projectors destroyed a lot of early films, and the arrival of Standard 8mm film in 1932 largely outmoded the gauge.

 

Also known as ‘Regular 8’, Eastman Kodak’s Standard 8mm film used side-mounted sprocket holes, identical in size to those on 16mm prints. Modified 16mm stock formed the basis of spools inserted into a Standard 8 camera, which needed removing and turning over mid-filming to render images down both sides of the exposable area. Major studios began to release ‘package movies’ for collectors, but few were more than 200ft in length (about 8 minutes), and Standard 8 projectors with sound were rare.

 

Once again, it was Eastman Kodak, this time with its brilliant 1965 8mm innovation, known as Super 8, which transformed the home movie industry. Smaller sprocket holes than Standard 8 allowed for a larger exposed picture area, and oxide stripes on both edges of the stock provided the means by which to record sound easily during image capture, or later during the editing process at home. Fujifilm introduced a competing format, Single-8. This Japanese challenger deployed a polyester (rather than acetate) film base, and its cartridge loading system required the use of proprietary licensed cameras for shooting, even though the final developed film would run fine in a Super 8 projector.

 

By the 1970s, Super 8 projectors at various price points, with a head-swirling range of features, could be purchased from camera stores, with the bulk of manufacturers hailing from Austria (Eumig), Germany (Bauer) and Japan (Elmo, Sankyo, Chinon), while the US’s own Bell & Howell was also a major player. By the end of the decade, 2x anamorphic lenses were available for 2.66:1 Cinemascope presentations of commercial releases, while two-channel stereo and Dolby Stereo exploited both magnetic sound stripes (the second designed originally for ballast as the film ran in the projector).

 

Package Deals

 

Unquestionably, the thrill of Super 8 was the selection of films available to collectors. Prior to the onset of commercial VHS tapes, there were thousands of film titles for purchase by mail order, or at retail stores peppered across the UK.

 

The most popular package movies were the 17-minute highlight reels (mounted on a 400ft spools) of major feature films, and which Hollywood studios released directly or via third parties. A highlight reel would include a skillful edit of an entire feature with beginning, middle and end intact, costing around £30 for recent releases. As the VHS juggernaut advanced, Warner Bros, Fox, Disney and Columbia presented their titles in evermore alluring packaging, while Universal Pictures’ Universal 8 distribution arm pushed out a series of beautifully transferred reels from its archive, housed in rugged injection-moulded casings, including Hitchcock’s “Psycho” and “The Birds”, disaster movies, and legacy horror.

 

Every taste was catered for, from the latest tent-poles, to the rarest Harold Lloyd silent caper. Paramount even released full length features on 6 or 7x 400ft reels, including “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”, while UK-based Derann Film Services (who sadly closed doors in 2011) specialised in full-length British greats from the Hammer vaults and Ealing Studios, and went on to release meticulously mastered prints of features such as “Alien” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark”, and version-upon-version of authentic cinema adverts, trailers and day-sets. German-based Kempski, meanwhile, produced beautiful full-length prints of “Ben-Hur” and “West Side Story” on mylar stock, in both Cinemascope and stereo sound. Walton Sound and Film Services in London also provided a host of abridged and feature prints, mostly gleaned from the Rank catalogue. Prices were usually north of £200 for a modern feature at the time. Film collecting was not for the faint-hearted.

 

Collectors of 16mm titles were also rewarded by the disbandment of film libraries in the 1980s, which left thousands of titles in circulation even to this day. Perusal of eBay and other auction sites will show both Super 8 and 16mm sought-after titles in good condition fetch eye-watering prices.

 

Fade to Black

 

As we all know, nothing is perfect about film. Colours on many pre-1980s Eastman Kodak Super 8 and 16mm films have faded to pink or brown, and prints of both are susceptible to emulsion and base side scratching from repeated use and/or insufficiently clean projector film paths and storage. Film projectors are noisy (and should be in a booth) and putting on a movie show was always hard work. But home cinema enthusiasts even remotely repelled on occasion by the clinical sterility of their Blu-ray “Transformers” collection might still be in the market for a film projector. The act of watching film in the home is utterly unique.

 

Home cinema projection took a nosedive in the early 1990s before the advent of DVD. That the AV industry
sat through demos of VHS tapes and laser discs feeding £30,000 line-doubled and -quadrupled Runco and Barco CRTs, pretending they looked good while smiling politely, is extraordinary, particularly given that only 10 years previously most 8mm and 16mm projectors had been binned.

 

Film collecting and appreciation isn’t just the pursuit of a few errant garage-based geeks either. There is a rollcall of seasoned industry pros who can’t get enough of it. Keith Wilton, former BBC documentary editor of 30 years and chief of the British Film Collectors Convention, says he “…was captivated by the content and colour” when he first saw “The Adventures of Robin Hood” in the cinema, but loves the “subtlety” of a good film print and the “black level and contrast ranges available from different film stocks.” Jon Thompson, studio post-production consultant and owner of Picture Worx Films, says that “…film is an amazing format that we still have not managed to create digitally,” Gwyn Morgan, resident projectionist at Plymouth Arts Centre —who owns a vast personal 16mm collection — perhaps sums it up best by insisting “…film just has that human touch.”

 

After all, this is about the romanticism of being willingly hypnotised by the mechanics of a persistent turning feeder reel and take-up spool, or memories of wandering down to your local fleapit for a double-bill feature back in the ’70s; all those things of which Quentin Tarantino was reminding us in “Grindhouse”. As Christopher Nolan would attest, it’s all about analogue warmth and coziness, a gently meandering weave as the film passes through the gate, the sumptuous contrast and depth of field, the light-starved inky blacks, and picture grain so dense you can bathe in it. The greatest travesty of the past 30 years has been the slow, miserable decline of film. Let’s play a part in keeping it alive.

 

With thanks to Van Eck Video Services for images. The company fabricates parts for projectors (mainly 8/16mm) to keep them running into the future.  www.van-eck.net

Martin Dew

About Martin Dew

Martin moved to San Francisco in 1995 to join the THX Division of Lucasfilm Ltd., initially overseeing global retail training for consumer products, and subsequently as director of international sales for professional cinema. He then joined the Digital Cinema Division of NEC Corporation in Los Angeles as director of sales for North and South America, selling DCI-compliant 2K projectors to exhibitors as part of the digital cinema rollout. He was later employed by DreamWorks Pictures to assist with shooting schedule mapping for several major feature films for budgetary and planning analysis, including The Revenant (2015) and The BFG (2016). During his last few years stateside, Martin worked on the other side of the camera as an actor, with cast credits in Steven Spielberg’s War Horse (2011), Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015), and Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014) and Phantom Thread (2017). He played Hugh Hibbert in Mad Men, appeared on the Conan O’Brien US network chat show, Conan, and regularly worked with Will Ferrell’s online comedy troupe, Funny or Die. Since returning to the UK in 2016, he has been writing as a freelance journalist for this publication, Essential Install and Home Cinema Choice consumer electronics magazine. He is also news editor of the US website, Home Theater Forum (www.hometheaterforum.com).

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