Small Format, Big View

The Super 8 Film + Digital Video Festival offers juried selections from around the world.

By: Elise Nakhnikian
   For some filmmakers — most famously Steven Spielberg, who shot Super 8 movies in his backyard as a kid — small-gauge movies are the first stop on the road to studio success. Others remain loyal to the format, addicted to the autonomy that comes with three- and four-figure production costs. Still others use 8mm or digital video as part of the mix, choosing them for the distinctive look they can give to a film that’s shot mostly in standard 35mm.
   There’s room for them all at the 2004 United States Super 8 Film + Digital Video Festival Feb. 20 to 22 in New Brunswick. The festival, which bills itself as "the largest and longest running juried Super 8mm film and digital video festival in North America," features 24 films this year, winnowed down from about 150 entries. Most under 10 minutes long and some as short as two or three minutes, the finalists were made by "everything from internationally recognized people to local artists," according to festival coordinator Albert Nigrin of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center.
   "They’ve had a lot of interesting artists, and they’re really taking risks showing projects that were shot on Super 8, which is kind of a fringe thing," says Short Hills-based filmmaker Jesse Kaye, whose film will be shown Friday night.
   8mm, the format of those cameras that whirred away at so many birthday parties and bar mitzvahs in the Eisenhower and Kennedy eras, is no longer used much by amateurs. With its distinctive, grainy look, it’s used mainly by pros in search of a certain effect — and most often in Super 8, a form of 8mm that increased the image size considerably by shrinking the sprocket holes. "Thirty percent of music videos use Super 8 film in one way or another," says Mr. Nigrin. "It has a very dreamy feel."
   Meanwhile, digital video is heading into the movie mainstream, used for films as diverse as the last two installments of the Star Wars series and the works of Dogme 95, the filmmaking collective whose members reject "the film of illusions" in favor of a stripped-down style that allows for no special lighting, props or sets.
   DV is also the choice of a number of the New Brunswick festival’s finalists. Mr. Kaye’s eight-minute DV entry, Cruel to Be Kind, which he describes as "a black comedy about friendship and games and personal space in marriage," was shot in just three days. The lightweight DV camera allowed the crew to move quickly, covering as many as nine locations in a day. It also gave them access to scenes that would be impossible to shoot with standard movie cameras.
   "We could strap the director of photography on the back of a truck and shoot amazing footage on the Garden State Parkway, which you could never do with traditional film," says Mr. Kaye.
   Another of Friday’s finalists will be The War Show, a half-hour critique of Bush Administration initiatives. Made by Termite TV, a collective of filmmakers and videomakers out of Buffalo, N.Y., whose work is shown primarily on cable public-access channels, it consists of about 10 short segments, each created by a different person or team dealing with a different aspect of the war in Iraq. "They’re subjective pieces from a variety of points of view," says Dorothea Braemer, who coordinated the making of the film. "We’re hoping that they will stimulate thought."
   Termite TV uses mini-DV, a digital format that allows members to cut costs by using a Mac-based editing system rather than renting an editing suite. "You can edit at home or on your laptop," says Ms. Braemer.
   Keeping costs to a minimum is still the main attraction of DV. "Basically the only money spent on this movie for production was on food," says Mr. Kaye, who used to be head of development for the New York office of Vanguard Films. As a result, he was able to shoot just what he wanted, with none of the "craziness" he had experienced on the feature films he’d made. "It was just a wonderful experience, better than any of my feature experiences," he says.
   Filmmakers generally agree that the main thing sacrificed for affordability and mobility in the switch to DV is image quality, but Kaye is enthusiastic about the DVX 100 camera he used to make his movie, which records 24 frames per second.
   "Most digital video has a different look to it," he says. "It doesn’t look bad, but it takes you a while to buy into it. With this, you can pretty much buy into it immediately. I really think it will be the way of the future."
   Mr. Nigrin foresees a different future, one in which all formats are equally valued. "Digital video is just a shiny penny now," he says. "Eventually, we’ll have film, analog video and digital video, and you’ll pick which one you want depending on what you want to do."
   In the meantime, Mr. Nigrin’s festival rounds up some of the best examples of how filmmakers are using small-gauge media today.
The 2004 United States Super 8 Film + Digital Video Festival takes place at Scott Hall, room 123, College Avenue Campus, Rutgers University, College Avenue and Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, Feb. 20-22, 7 p.m. Admission costs $6-$8. For information and schedules, call (732) 932-8482. On the Web: