What I Learned from Transferring Super 8 Film

(Writer: Dylan Mackenzie)

While my Bachelors Degree is in TV-Video Production where I work with electronic media, my experiences in transferring Super 8 film reels to digital has taught me a lot about the origins of the terminology used in the film/TV/video industry today. Many of the terms used in today’s media industry have been lost due to changes in technology and the migration of terminology across different forms of media. Think of terminology such as clip, footage, A-roll/B-roll, cut, and dissolve. Many of these terms have their origins in shooting with motion picture film and have carried over to TV-Video Production due to the skeuomorphism that often existed when the technology was invented but no longer does.

The term clip is a noun that describes a short section of a recorded material. The term originates from the action of cutting sections of film in order to arrange them into scenes in a coherent manner that tell the viewer a story. This brings up the fact that cutting film used to literally mean that you would cut the film into scenes by using a device called a splicer that would make a clean cut to the film stock in order to join the end of one scene to the beginning of the other. Being a form of destructive editing it was really important that you “cut once, measure many times” if you didn’t have the luxury of making print copies from negative film stock.

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Another term that has lost its original meaning is “footage”, today footage is a term we use to refer to any type of unedited motion picture media but in the days of shooting with movie film, footage referred to the length of the film in feet which is important to know in order to know the runtime of the film without running it through a projector. One example you may come across is old family films shot on super 8 film. Super 8 film was most commonly shot using a 50 foot cartridge that would be able to shoot 3 minutes and 20 seconds of footage at 18 frames per second with 72 frames per foot totalling 3,600 frames per film cartridge. That means if you cut a section of super 8 film that is 5 feet long you have 20 seconds worth of footage with 360 frames of footage. Back in the day, home movie makers used to cut and splice together their 50’ reels of film to make larger reels up to 400’ to make their home movies last 32 minutes!

You also may have came across the term B-roll which in modern terminology refers to cut away footage from the main action such as a person speaking in an interview in order to break up long takes, cover up jump cuts, or cut/expand the runtime of footage. In the days of film editing, B-roll referred to the system of editing where footage was cut from an A-roll and B -roll of film in order to accomplish similar tasks. An A-roll/B-roll system was also used in optical printing (A process for duplicating multiple film sources and creating compositing effects) in order to combine two prepared reels of film into one in order to avoid cutting and splicing the scenes for each copy of the film.

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With digital editing now being the norm we don’t think about how transitions like fades, dissolves, composites, and picture and picture effects used to be done on physical film. Before we had computers to create these effects, a film compositing device known as an optical printer had to be used. Optical Printers work by combining one or more reels of film by projecting them into a camera loaded with an undeveloped reel of film. Fades were done by increasing or decreasing the amount of light passing through the film being composited. Dissolves were done by fading one film to black, rewinding the capture cameras film, and then fading another reel of film from black creating a double exposure that appears to dissolve from one scene to the other. Compositing is done by creating a double exposure on the capture film to do things like combine different foregrounds with backgrounds. Picture in picture effects like the one seen in the brady bunch intro were created by printing each of the films to only part of the frame in order to fit the other footage on the same frame.

As the technology we use changes every year, we often carry over the old and sometimes outdated terms onto the new technology in order to convey similar ideas across a new medium. Few people today even ask about the etymology of the terms we used today and why they sometimes don’t make any sense in the modern world while still being used daily. In a way many of these terms we use today in television, video, and film have become metonymy and skeuomorphism in the modern world.

 

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