The Movie Waffler Dead Format Month - The Reel Deal: Growing Up With Super 8 | The Movie Waffler

Dead Format Month - The Reel Deal: Growing Up With Super 8

Ruairi Kavanagh remembers the magic of a room in the house dedicated to cinema and Super-8.

The early 1980’s, hot on the heels of the end of debatably the greatest decade in moviemaking history, and change was in the air. For a child whose first experience of the movies was through the flickering light of celluloid, the talk of impending battle lines between VHS and Betamax video formats was a bit confusing, and in my innocent mind, irrelevant. I didn’t care which format won out, I had real movies at home, I had Super 8.
A modified attic was our auditorium, and a modest but durable Bell speaker provided the soundtrack to my early cinematic memories. I do remember vaguely the first film I ever saw in the Cinema, which I believe was "The Further Adventures of the Wilderness Family" in 1978 at the age of four, but the magic of cinema was apparent to me before that. To the casual visitor to our modified attic, the best thing was, and still is, that it actually looks custom-made. The screen covers the front window perfectly and the eaves of the house slope down on each side of the room, to create a cosy little auditorium effect. We never got around to the seats, but like a gang of kids (then teenagers, then adults with grandchildren) cared about that as they climbed the precarious hand built stairs year after year for birthday parties or rainy day escapes.  This was a room dedicated and built from my father’s love of the movies and it was, and still is, perfect.
The mix was eclectic, Errol Flynn’s "Robin Hood" served up with an aperitif of Disney’s "Cinderella" and a digestif of "The Treasure of Sierra Madre", and after dinner drinks of "Star Wars", "The Magnificent Seven" and "Anchors Aweigh". In order to keep the rabble happy, my father would splice these moves together on longer and longer reels. It was great, because the hits kept on coming. But it also meant that he had to store the expanding reels of celluloid in plain plastic film boxes as opposed to the wonderful boxes the original films came in.
Of course these weren’t full movies, just edited highlights. But they were very well edited, though admittedly not always. For example, until I saw the original "Star Wars" in the Cinema in 1981, I thought it actually ended when our heroes escaped the Death Star, because that’s the way it ended in my attic. "Star Wars" and "Raider of the Lost Ark" were two of my favourites on Super 8, particularly because of the boxes; the German "Raiders of the Lost Ark" box and the tattered but iconic "Star Wars" box with Han Solo and Chewbacca.
The art of splicing was a laborious and tricky one, done with a small device that resembled a mutated stapler. The sequencing between the movies was smooth though; you attached the films to one another with small strips of clear, or white, leader tape. The act of playing the movie was magic; dust flickering through the trusty bulb as the Bell & Howell projector was switched on, the staccato clicking as the film fed through and then the wonderfully cool countdown of inverted numbers on the screen before the movie started.
The halcyon days of Super 8 burned relatively short sadly, the format was expensive. Buying movies was not practical in those days so it was a case of trading and swapping to boost the collection. There must be well over a hundred films in our collection so Dad was obviously busy enough on that front. Photocopied and typed catalogues from the U.K would appear in the house from time to time and he’d be on the phone then or filling out order forms. Everything probably took an age compared to today of course but it didn’t seem that way. Things moved slower and the movie would arrive when it was God-damned good and ready. It was when things started to break there was a serious problem. There was no reliable stockist for fixing Super 8 projectors or cameras in Ireland and I remember Dad was heartbroken when a camera he had sent out to be fixed came back in a plastic bag in pieces. The Super 8 community may have been small, but it was passionate, and still is. Today, a supplier in Galway pledges to fix, repair and find spare parts for the Super 8 aficionado ( A modern day hero, if ever there was. Anyway, our projector still works as good as it did 30 years ago, the clarity of the celluloid is as bright as ever and the screen still covers that window perfectly, albeit with a little bit of aged mildew around the edges.
Of course, yes, these days it is possible to transfer your Super 8 film to DVD or video, but really, why would you do that? We have a chronicle of our childhood shot on Super 8 film, some silent, some narrated by my parents and some set even to music. It’s pure magic. Could I imagine sitting around a high quality DVD transfer on a plasma screen and watching it? Definitely not and neither would any of the rest of my family. The format was the magic, the feeling of going somewhere to watch a movie. It was the closest to a cinema you could find in the heart of West Wicklow, and it still is.

My Top 10 Super 8 Films (not ranked as movies, but how they appeared and were edited in the Super 8 format)

Robin Hood (1938)

The Sea Hawk (1940)

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Superman (1978)

Jaws (1975)

Star Wars (1977)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Guns of San Sebastian (1968)

Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948)

Carquake (1976-because it was an actual full movie!)

Ruairi Kavanagh