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Ken Paul Rosenthal img
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The Grace of 8: Shooting Super 8 for the Love of It

An Interview with Ken Paul Rosenthal

by Norwood Cheek, Editor Flicker: Your Guide to the World of Super 8

2007

 

How did you first get interested in super 8?

Super 8 was the very first motion picture format I was introduced to in film school. Within the confines of formal training, super 8 was considered a mere stepping-stone towards more ‘professional’ gauges and methods. In hindsight, its economy of means—low cost, ease of operation, especially its portability—planted sacred seeds for what was to blossom into my film practice. That is, shooting film not just as a means of ‘taking pictures’, but mindfully and intimately exploring urban space, natural environments, and human gesture.

Describe the filmmaking community in SF – are there many people are shooting super 8 there?

The San Francisco film scene is like an enormous Banyan tree—an above ground root system that branches out in a multitude of intertwined, serpentine paths. We have it all here from the industry to commercial independents to a very above ground underground. On one block you might stumble onto the set of a Will Smith film, and on the next through an ‘electric corridor’ featuring a live orchestra playing before a 2-story projection of re-authored porno films on the backside of a Safeway supermarket. Super 8 is but one element in a vital film milieu of repertory and open screenings, multiple projection performances, and film installations. And three local college film programs—City College of San Francisco, San Francisco Art Institute, and Academy of Art University—all feature Super 8 in their curriculum.

How and why did you decide to do hand processing?

I was introduced to the tactile universe of hand processing movie film at the San Francisco Art Institute back in 1988. Watching the beautiful mess of images tumble from a stainless steel womb for the first time irrevocably altered my relationship to making film. Serendipity was the rule rather than the exception; an antidote to conventional methods of filmmaking that increasingly emphasized image control over chance operations. Whereas new technologies moved me away from the medium, I could use my own hands to embrace the film material more directly and intimately, and by extension my own heart. But it would be many, many (many) years until I fully embraced the consciousness-expanding potential of indeterminate processes. My initial intrigue with unpredictable artifacts such as sweeping sprocket holes and sudden shifts from positive to negative gave way to a deep regard for the short-circuiting of my own intentions. Presently, my regard for the indeterminate has moved away from the film plane, and into the field. Hand processing liberated me from being obsessed with control, so that I approach shooting as more of a conversation wherein I ‘listen’ to how my subject wants to be filmed. Therein, ‘happy accidents’ take on an entirely fresh meaning—all I have inside me is inspiration, but the shot exists outside of me. The film is something to be found; a string of unscripted possibilities, or collaboration with the unknown made known. Hand processing helped me cultivate this sensibility, this film practice.

Describe your workshops and how people respond to hand processing super 8.

I often introduce my hand processing workshops by sharing a story about an older woman who approached me at a local whole foods store, and asked me to recite the ingredients on a candy bar label. As a matter of habit, she wasn’t wearing her glasses because it exercised her eyes, and was slowly improving her vision. I’ve taken to doing the same, and have become rather obsessed with traveling about ‘out of focus’. I like occupying that gap between intention and achievement, both visually and psychologically because I’m released from expectation. Hand processing similarly dissolves the ego. So from the outset, my students come to appreciate hand processing as not just a technique for producing alternative effects, but for broadening their internal visual field as it relates to the larger world. ‘Following focus’ resonates as a gesture that is both cinematic and personal. I usually demonstrate with Super 8 because it is more manageable logistically, less chemistry, smaller tank, etc. I’ve conducted well over 100 workshops, and folks are continually mesmerized by the creative, messy magic that is akin to giving birth. And in these technocratic times, people want a more a humble, direct engagement in all aspects of their lives. In this respect, super 8 and hand processing are ideal bedfellows.

Describe your latest project that involves super 8.

My current project, Crooked Beauty, is a poetic documentary that explores positive and progressive models for living with conditions commonly labeled by Western society as ‘mental illness’, through the experiences of an artist/activist. Fragmented montages of urban and natural landscapes—shot entirely in super 8—will evoke the fluctuations of mania and depression as a backdrop for the voiceover testimony. With my lightweight Canon 1014XLS on my back, I’ve been flaneuring (wandering) and filming images that characterize the extremes of mania and depression. The ease with which super 8 cartridges can be inserted and removed permits quick switches between multiple stocks. Mixing up a wide palate of black & white, color, and fast & slow stocks offers me compelling photographic analogs for illustrating multiple states of ‘madness’.

Why do you think super 8 film is still coveted by contemporary filmmakers?

With such an extraordinary dearth of stocks: three black & white reversal stocks (Plus-X, Tri-X, Hi-con 7363), three reversal color stocks (Velvia 50, 64T and 100D Ektachrome), and two negative stocks (200T, 500T), it’s no wonder Super 8 film is still coveted by students, independent artists, music video makers and Hollywood cinematographers alike. And there's a superlative magazine, Super 8 Today. So why aren’t more filmmakers shooting super 8? Passersby’s frequently approach me, mid-shot on the sidewalk and inquire about my crazy looking video camera. When I explain that I’m shooting Super 8, they swoon, “Wow, my grandfather had one of those!” In these digital days, Super 8 is considered an antique, a Victorian-era toy or at best an amateur format even in its heyday. Let us not forget, ‘amateur’ is Latin for the love of it. If one loves film, one can love Super 8.

Of course Super 8 does have certain comparative technical limitations that affect the image, if not define it. But I don’t want be an apologist for the so-called shortcomings of the stock or cameras any more than I want to earmark ‘the Super 8 look’ as nostalgic. I love grain—the ‘blood’ of a stock—and I also know that mounting the lens with glass filters, rather than the substandard acetate filters do wonders to sharpen resolution. What one person perceives as outdated, the next may embrace as a fresh possibility. As an artist, I live for limitations because they inspire creative solutions—and that is something to covet in this age of instant playback and planned obsolescence.

How do you distribute and screen your work?

Most of my films have been shot on super 8, then optically enlarged to 16mm, and distributed through Canyon Cinema (canyoncinema.com), or on video through Microcinema International. I was formally self-distributing vhs dubs culled from the 16mm internegs, but was extremely unhappy with the quality, especially the hand processed work. But the recent influx of state of the art super 8 telecine facilities has inspired me to make transfers from the original prints for future dvd compilations. Meditating between ideal exhibition formats and accessibility has always been a particularly challenging, if not contentious, matter amongst super 8 filmmakers. I do not aspire to showcase my work online. As long as the projection is ideal, I don’t mind screening a digital transfer in a theatre if that is the only option for a particular venue or festival. I don’t mean to dismiss my rather sacred affirmation of the power of film flicker, which does get seriously compromised when projected digitally. After all, such intermittency is powerfully aligned with the duality of human consciousness; motion pictures are an interplay of black frame lines and bright images just as our souls are a swirling yin/yang of dark and light impulses. Film stops and starts as it moves through a camera/projector just as we breathe in and out. Film can straddle both past and future on either side of a cut as easily as we traverse time in our dreams. But I digress...I just wanted to emphasize that super 8, like any film format, has unique properties and possibilities that should be celebrated and artfully exploited, rather than compromised in the name of access. Super 8 is cinema.

Who are some of your favorite super 8 filmmakers that are less known to the wider public?

Scott Stark www.hi-beam.net/mkr/ss/ss-bio.html is a quintessential super 8 filmmaker who also works in small-gauge video. His work is raw and refined, poetic, humorous, and deeply intelligent. The (now disbanded) collective known as silt, consisted of Jeff Warrin, Keith Evans and Christian Farrell. They worked almost exclusively in super 8, and created indoor and outdoor film performances and site-specific installations by using multiple projections, sculptural screens, mirrors, liquids, lenses and natural materials. I also love the work of a Canadian-based puppet collective named, Red Smarteez www.redsmarteez.com/index.htm. I’m particularly enamored with their piece, ‘One Last Trick’, a darkly poignant yet hilarious tale of a father who asks his son to ‘audition’ for a famous film director who covets ‘beautiful boys’.

What can today’s film students learn from working with super 8?

I believe it is essential for new makers to develop their budding interests in film through shooting Super 8. Most novice filmmakers define the viability of their work—if not themselves—by trumpeting the sophistication of their hardware. Maya Deren said, “Cameras do not make films. Filmmakers make films.” But technology can certainly mediate the way one shoots, if not how one sees. Super 8 cameras have a built-in ‘humility filter factor’. Its ease of use belies the fact that it is still a film camera, and therefore one must think a bit before pulling the trigger. Manipulating an image of one’s subject via a camcorder’s flip-out LCD screen inspires an entirely different level of engagement than looking through a film camera’s viewfinder. Super 8 cameras may offer the convenience of an internal spot meter, but using them requires making conscious decisions about exposure based on a combination of intuition and experience—a lesson that does not stop with super 8 but is relevant to shooting in all motion picture formats. I find it simplistic and reductive to refer to Super 8—or any piece of film technology—as just another tool. The rather tragic default belief is that the nature of the tool doesn’t matter; it’s merely a matter of how one uses it. Even Steven Spielberg acknowledged that flatbeds gave him time to reflect on his images while the plates were rewinding. The fundamental truth is that one’s tools do bare a direct effect on one’s creative process. Is there really any more critical tool for filmmakers to exploit other than their innate faculty to pay attention? Super 8’s lack of pretense and artifice encourages and facilitates a more immediate and direct connection to the animate world, the images we make of it, and by extension to ourselves.

In ‘The Book of Illusions’, Paul Auster wrote, “The closer movies come to representing reality, the worse they fail at representing the world.” Which begs some critical questions: How can we transform our technology-laden regard for film as a picture-taking medium to making film as a means of personal inquiry? How are the process of making film and the search for consciousness complimentary endeavors? How can we develop authentic images in an increasingly virtual world? I think a good ethos from which to address these questions is to ‘hold lightly’, be it the weight of one’s expectations or the camera itself. Super 8 is not a panacea; it is a practice. And there’s certainly grace to be found in shooting it.