by Philip Vigeant, President of Pro8mm (written ’06)
My first serious project in wide-screen super8 was with cinematographer Jan De Bont in 1989. He came into the shop and wanted to explore his options for a new feature film he was to be the DP on called Flatliner (1990). The director, Joel Schumacher, wanted to explore a different aesthetic for a flash back/ dream sequence where the characters in the movie would momentarily kill themselves. During their suspended state, different images were to be used to show the thought process of the character. In addition, the procedure was to be video taped and the point of view of the video camera, also be shown.
The technical challenge was that the only way at that time to get Super8 to 35mm was to use an optical printer. If the film was shot at a conventional Super8 aspect 1.33, it would have to be squeezed during the optical print process to create the 35mm anamorphic negative. At that time, no one had a squeeze lens for an optical super8 printer. The solution was to squeeze the original super8 footage using an anamorphic lens. This would give an anamorphic super8 original that could then be blown up 1 to 1 in the conventional Super8 to a 35mm optical process. I had a friend, Galen Burke, of In-House Pictures that did some amateur experimenting with some lenses that were originally produced for the airplane industry to show Super8 reduction prints of theatrical movies. Anamorphic lenses can be used in both applications for showing and for taking images. The anamorphic lens was fitted on a bracket to hold it in the correct position and rotation on a super8 camera - the Beaulieu 5008. The resulting images were a 2.35 aspect ratio, and used as both the video cameras point of view and in some of the suspended state sequences in the final film.
Although this does work and it was successful for the film Flatliner (1990) and many other super8 sequences in major movies, it is a very difficult way to work. Some of the many technical problems shooting this way include the fact that using this type of anamorphic lens changes the way focus is achieved. You can no longer zoom in and focus and then pull back and keep focus. Focus in this arrangement changes with the zoom position. So every time you change focal length, you need to change focus. You can set the lenses to what is called hyper focus. This is the maximum depth of field position, but this is limited particularly in shots that are close. Then there are the problems of holding the lens so that the rotation is not disturbed when you focus and the fact that you must keep the focus of both lenses; the anamorphic and the back element in focus. Over the years we have created different brackets to hold the lenses, and made a prime lens version so that we could avoid all the problems with focus.
You also see the image in the viewfinder in anamorphic or squeezed. This is very disorientating for the filmmaker, because you have to imagine how this will look when it all looks so tall and squeezed. in the viewfinder. Only when you see the footage unsqueezed do you see how fantastic wide-screen super8 can look!!! When working on the film The Point Of No Return (1993), I got a panic call from the staff. They were going to cancel the super8 footage in the opening because they just could not tell if it actually worked. I had to bring a projector down to their office, and using the anamorphic lens as the projection lens, we screened the footage unsqueezed to let them see what it was they had achieved. They got very excited once again about the look, and it’s in the final film, making up a good proportion of the opening sequence.
To solve some of these problem we decided to start from scratch and invent a more user friendly way of working in Super8 Wide Screen. We call it Max8. Max8 as a way to achieve wide-screen by solving a lot of the problems of working with an anamorphic lens. First, because it is an expansion of the gate aperture, the lens focuses like a normal lens. You don't have to deal with all the focus issues of the anamorphic lens. There are no brackets or rotation problems, so these issues are eliminated. The lens does have to be in the center in the new Max8 frame, and you have to concern yourself with the potential of vignetting. The limits of these optics are being pushed to their max, and are just capable of filling the Max8 frame. We use the 8-64mm Angenieux lens, which if there are no filters, will not vignette in Max 8. So Max8 solves these focus problems. The other major issue of seeing how this will look when you are working is achieved through marking in the viewfinder lines that clearly frame out a 16x9 frame. We did our first modification of this kind for John Toll, ASC, during the filming of the flashbacks in the movie Simpatico (1999). This is a great model for seeing the correct framing when using super8 in a wide screen application.
Now you can see what you’re aiming for in the camera. without guess work. When we combine this viewfinder modification with the wider aspect ratio of Max 8 (1.58), it becomes very easy to see and achieve an accurate framing. Last but not least, because the negative is actually expanded, not just squeezed, you pick up more resolution. If you do the math between Max8 and Super8 cropped to achieve 16x9, it’s a 20 % increase in the negative size. Max8 is also a less expensive alternative than a typical anamorphic set up. We charge just under $2000.00 for the 2.35 anamorphic Kiowa Lens with using a 4 x 4 matte box as the bracket. The Max8 modification to a Classic 8 Camera or Beaulieu 4008ZM4 is $750.00. To the Beaulieu ZM, ZM II or ZM3 its $1000.00 because the internal filter in the camera must be removed and the body recollimated so the lens will be in correct collimation. We do this to the body so that the resulting camera is now in standard with all C-Mount lens technology. It's also a good idea to remove the internal filter in these cameras because it increases resolution, and you never have to worry any more about the internal getting dirty, becoming mis-aligned and messing up some footage.
The only obstacle we have found so far to Max8 is that because you are pushing the image to the Super8 limits, there is no margin for error. Because we never look at this area of a piece of Super8 film, and it’s blocked on many devices, you typically don't experience any of these issues. Film can have dirt, scratches or edge fog in this area. You would never see these problems in Super 8, but in Max8 it is now part of your picture. The lens center and alignment in the camera and telecine is critical if you want the full Max8 effect. You have to work without a filter or even a lens shade attached to the lens. You also have to customize the telecine process if you want the full Max8 resolution, and you have to pay particular attention to the alignment of the optics in it. The saving grace is that because everything is being done digitally these days, it is very easy to zoom in and fix if there is a problem, or even use the film in a conventional telecine. You would just loose some of the resolution and frame of the full Max8. Is has now been nearly two years since we introducing the Max8 system. It was used extensively in the new feature film called "Factory Girl" (2006) a 35mm major motion picture being released in theatres this December. Schools are starting to modify their Classic Professional Cameras for Max 8 and are purchasing cameras to enhance their curriculums. I can not see a reason why we would ever go back to using an anamorphic lens. I could tell just by the dailies in Factory Girl that the new easy way to achieve super 8 wide-screen has made using it in production so comfortable that it will continue to be used with more and more frequency.