All films are constructs, even the most verité. Among the more interesting items found while clearing Erica’s house were several reels of 8mm film dating from the 1960s. Knowing they might form part of the jigsaw of “Voyageuse” I was curious to know what they contained so duly sent them to London for transfer. This prompted a thought, of a time in the 1990s when videotape was poised to replace film but also when 8mm and S8mm film experienced a brief revival among ad agencies and music video production companies, no doubt prompted by Derek Jarman who first used the format in the 1970s.
Suddenly every tyro filmmaker was snapped in The Face and Blitz brandishing a Braun Nizo 801 camera – the Black Limited Edition was especially coveted, just as the Black version of the GoPro is today’s must-have. I recall my then-boyfriend placing a small ad in The Evening Times looking to buy old S8mm cameras, knowing many people had them catching dust in cupboards and only too pleased to be rid of them. His opportunism spiked just as the first consumer camcorders hit the market, whose ease-of-use and instant results were preferable to the faff of shooting at the correct exposure, mailing the film to a lab and waiting weeks on the outcome; indeed the same way Polaroid film launched a generation of DIY pornographers in the 1960s.
Unknown to most of these hapless camera owners, however, was the demand in London, with agencies willing to pay over the odds for what was seen as old and redundant tech. The other reason for S8mm’s demise among non-professionals was simply cost. I once calculated that foot for foot, S8mm was more expensive than 35mm film while video tape – U-Matic, VHS, Video 8 and later DV – was not only dirt cheap but reusable, if aesthetically challenging. That you could literally use Sellotape to edit film couldn’t dissuade the newly-converted who struggled with two-machine editing and a host of overpriced gadgets such as Time Base Correctors in order to get a functioning cut out of tape; the term ‘videographer’ never quite had cachet.
In 1997, while living in Berlin, I visited a shopfront office in Prenzlauer Berg to witness one of the first PC-based NLE (non linear edit) systems. After years of crude offline editing this was a revelation because finally I realised it was possible – for the cost of a second-hand car – to produce an end-to-end ‘film’ – a generic term now since the raw medium barely exists. Inspired, I ordered my own set-up – custom-built in a shed in Dudley – and had it shipped to our Barbarossastrasse apartment. Basic as the early software was, it marked the start of my career as a truly independent filmmaker, free to make films and more importantly, to make mistakes.
Today there’s more processing power in a smartphone than in my first edit suite but on reflection I feel fortunate to have worked during the first days of video and the last days of film – that chemical, even alchemical process that led to many an encounter in the Rank Labs at both Denham and Clydebank then at Duart Labs, New York and later still, the Sony Pictures Studio, Los Angeles. In these places and in the facility houses of Soho, thanks to many talented technicians, editors and graders, I learned my trade.
No sooner had the package arrived from London than I opened the box, retrieved the original reels then pulled out a second box: a hard drive containing the transferred films, or rather, the data gleaned from them, an experience that hardly induces the same frisson as threading a fragile strand of film through a projector. As expected these were home movies, nervily shot in hand-held monochrome and colour between 1965 and 1969 by Erica’s husband, Gwynne. The main subjects – inevitably – are my husband and his brother, first as babies then as toddlers at play in the private gardens behind their Edinburgh home. Like all amateur films, they are the definition of verité.
Apart from the novelty of seeing my husband in nappies, what’s striking is the quality of the images – those deep saturated colours and the animated grain absent from the metallic gloss of HD and 4K, the former look replicated today with grading plug-ins and Instagram presets, the kind of nostalgic retro filtering used to recreate that elusive last century feel sought after by filmmakers, just as the craze for S8mm enjoyed a fleeting revival in the 1990s. Surely there must be a plug-in somewhere for mushy VHS. If not, it won’t be long before some fanboy creates it.
Seeing these films raises an important question. With so much archive film (and video) at my disposal, shot on all kinds of formats and aspect ratios and with more material yet to be shot, how best to bring it together – to construct it – without compromising the originals?
The photograph used is a frame grab from recently transferred 8mm film shot by Erica’s husband, Dr. Gwynne Meyler Thomas during the mid-late 1960s.