Posted on September 01 2009
#6 The Mechanics of Film
Super 8 film is a technology based strongly on mechanical principles. Understanding a little about how the film travels through the camera will go a long way in helping you to get great super 8 images and avoid a lot of frustration. One of the important parts of the mechanics of shooting with film is being aware of when the film is running through the camera. Even though super 8 film comes in a convenient cartridge and is easy to load, the camera and film have to work together. One common problem for many new filmmakers is understanding that in a super 8 camera the footage counter works off the spinning of the take up, not actually the film moving through the camera. Therefore, as the take up is spinning it counts off the footage. This actually has nothing to do with whether film is moving through your camera. The take up spindle is designed with a slip clutch mechanism so that it always spins regardless if it is actually taking up film or not. What can happen is that you think you are shooting because the camera is running, but no film is actually being exposed. The most common mistake is that the roll of film has been totally shot and the filmmaker is unaware of this and keeps shooting. Often times in the excitement of shooting you fail to notice the end of the roll signal. Different cameras have different ways of indicating you are at the end of the roll, so check out how it is YOUR camera signals this. If you happen to take a cartridge out of your camera and then reinsert it, the footage counter will reset to zero. It does not know that you may have already shot some of the film.
The second problem is that sometimes a roll of film will jam, or perhaps it never got started in the first place. Sometimes this can be a problem with the cartridge, but usually it is with the the camera. When you first put a roll of film in a camera, the film must engage the camera’s claw mechanism, aligning the sprockets of the film with the camera’s claw. Typically, this will happen automatically, but if the guides are out of alignment, this might not take place at all and the roll will never start. It’s an easy fix. Usually just taking the cartridge out and reinserting it in the camera. However if your not aware of the problem, you will shoot for the next 3 minutes and get no pictures. The cartridge can also jam. The most common jam problems are not the cartridge, but the cameras. If the clutch of the take-up spindle is weak it will have trouble keeping pace with the advancing film pulled down by the claw. The film will build up in the take up chamber of the camera, and at some point will not be able to support the back up and simply quit. If you take a cartridge that has jammed like this out of the camera and turn the take up spindle to wind up the access you can typically reinsert the cartridge and start filming again. Many super 8 cameras use the clutches spinning to tell them the roll has ended. If the clutch is weak, the camera will keep shutting down, thinking it is at the end of the roll. As you gain experience with super8 you will become aware of the sound film makes going through your camera.
The first indicator you may have of problems is when you pull a finished roll of film from your camera and it is not at the end. With some films, there is and actual stamp on the film that says exposed. On others it will simply pull out of the cartridge. When you take out a cartridge, if the film looks like it did when you loaded the camera you have some investigating to do. You should always try to run your rolls out to the end. You do this for two reasons. First it tells you that you have shot the roll in the first place and second, if it does not roll out you need to investigate the issue. It is very easy to re-shoot something or grab another take when you are in the moment. It is often impossible to return a week later to get a shot you are missing.
In addition to the film physically moving through the camera, it has to register each frame at 18 or 24 times a second in perfect position to get good stability from the resulting photography. What this means is a balance must be present between the cartridge, the camera’s calibration and the type of film to make good super 8 images that have good stability or registration.
The state of super 8 is always evolving. Most super 8 cameras are no longer in tip-top shape and freshly calibrated from the factories they were born in. In addition, most super 8 technology was originally centered around one stock (Kodachrome 40) made by one manufacture. All camera manufactures set up their new super 8 cameras to work best with that film. Today you have over 25 different super 8 films made by different companies that all have different characteristics when running through a super 8 camera. In addition, super 8 cameras are aging and change with the aging process.
This is not all bad. Remember, it is a balance between the cameras, the film and the cartridge that makes it work. For example many older, less expensive super 8 camera have too much take-up torque because the slip clutch system has dried out and no longer slips when it should slip. If you shot Kodachrome 40 with these cameras or black and white traditional reversal film, it will often produce very poor registration of the images. If you take that same old camera and give it color negative film which is a little thicker and has a base coating which will provide some extra drag, this combination will tend to work much better. My experience is that different cameras just seem to like different film stocks based on the way they have aged. If a camera has a worn down gate with a clutch that no longer slips and the exposure system is off by 2 stops you have a choice of fixing it, throwing it away or give it a different film stock that is thicker and provides more drag with greater exposure latitude. It will work just as well as it did when new with traditional film because the camera was calibrated to thinner stock with less drag and tighter exposure tolerance. My dad would say, “You either raise the bridge or lower the dam”. The best and cheapest way to see if a given type of film is going to work well in a given camera at a given speed is to shoot a test roll. If you are just starting in Super 8 this is the best place to check out many issues. Do not worry about charts. Just shoot a roll in the conditions you want to shoot in with your best effort to get it in focus with the right exposure. Once you establish a base, you can expand your testing each time you shoot by experimenting with different stocks, speeds and exposures. You can also use this test to check out your digital workflow. For about $100.00 you can purchase a roll or Super 8 , including the processing , prep and Scan to digital even in HD. (c) Pro8mm ™ Phil Vigeant 2009
Did you know that one of the improvements Pro8mm makes to all the Beaulieu and Canon cameras that we rebuild is to increase the pick up torque? This is because negative film stocks are thicker than traditional reversal stocks . We do this so that the film goes through the camera better, improves registration and minimizes cartridge jams. – Rhonda www.pro8mm.com
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