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
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
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
Why do you think super 8 film is still coveted by contemporary
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
So why aren’t more filmmakers shooting super 8?
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
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
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
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.