Chits and Chats: 8 Mins With straight 8's ED SAYERS

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“Super 8 is the most accessible format, the soft drug. 16mm, 35mm, 65mm – that’s what happens when you’re seriously hooked.”

This August, long time DIY film pals straight 8 will be premiering 28 new analogue works in the BFI’s 450 seater NFT1 - each 3 mins 20 seconds, filmed on a single, unedited cartridge of Super 8 and as yet unseen by even their creators. Ahead of their unveiling, we chatted to founder Ed Sayers about all things Super 8 and two decades of the straight 8 ethos.

straight 8 will be coming up 20 years young next year, how did it come to be?

It all started with an idea I’d had to attempt to shoot a short film on a single cartridge of Super 8, editing in camera, so that when the film came back from the lab, I could just spool it onto a Super 8 projector, play music and voila! Film done. Only, after about 2 years of thinking about it and not doing it, I decided a deadline was needed. So I asked 20 friends if they wanted to have a go too with the idea that we’d all see them together for the first time.

The premiere was planned to be in the upstairs of a local pub, but after a conversation about it was overheard by a cinema manager who was also a filmmaker, our first ever premiere got upgraded to a packed 220 seat cinema in London’s West End on a Friday night!

We projected off film and played the soundtracks from 20 audio cassettes. We would release the pause button on the tape deck in the projection booth as the first frame of each film hit that big screen. It was thrilling and there was a buzz before we’d even rolled the films - it’s all continued by word of mouth ever since with names like Edgar Wright, Alice Lowe, Steve Oram, Julia Davis and more all having a go over the years.

Why are we still so in love with Super 8? Isn’t nostalgia for suckers?

For straight 8, Super 8mm is the perfect way to enforce the ethos of totally linear filmmaking. It’s also a gorgeous medium, film, and Super 8 is the most accessible format, the soft drug. 16mm, 35mm, 65mm – that’s what happens when you’re seriously hooked.

Yes, the format is nostalgic but also the film we now use is mostly the latest negative stock from Kodak and it’s the same stuff as is used on features - it’s that 8mm frame, the grain is relatively bigger which gives us that look. The film has great exposure latitude so is quite forgiving, which is good for less experienced filmmakers or complete novices. We get it processed and scanned at Cinelab London and the film goes in the same night bath as major movies (they have tapering devices to join 8mm to 16mm and to 35mm and so on) – so we always say that straight 8 films share chemicals with [name famous upcoming movie here if you’ve signed an NDA].

Couple all that with the fact that you feel the film whirring through the camera and that every shot costs money and, for straight 8, each shot (pull of the trigger) will definitely be in your film… And it’s the perfect format. Professionally, we’re format-agnostic but there’s a big need now for digital detox and a huge interest in analogue and using celluloid.

You know, we can watch the football in SD or HD or Ultra HD – but I mean how sharp do you WANT life, especially when it comes to art?

Embracing the ‘imperfections’ and inherent atmosphere is what this is all about and it’s way more fun to get it all thrown in at the capture stage than spending weeks in front of a computer adding it all manually and getting sick to death of seeing your own film! Don’t we spend enough time on screens these days?

Why 3 minutes 20 seconds?

That’s what’s in the box: 50 feet of film.

You can make a shorter film but it cannot be one frame, or second, longer. If you miss your ending off, you have a new ending – which is wherever the film ran out! (That length is also about the length of the traditional pop song which is kind of interesting but above all a handy length for screenings…)

It also means that as an audience member, if you’ve decided that maybe a film is not quite up your street (because we never set a brief or theme, every straight8er becomes an auteur-filmmaker and makes their film about entirely whatever they want!), there’s something completely different on its way in a minute or two.

Why no retakes, and why no post?

It’s exciting to get from camera to screen with no fuss or fiddling. It’s also nerve-wracking. But it means people have a way-in to approach our concept… The limitation is liberating. It also means it’s almost impossible to make a ‘perfect’ film… I mean, there are some perfect straight 8’s but you’re not going to be Orson Welles making Citizen Kane as your first film – so the pressure’s off in that regard. And then, if you want to do great titles, or special effects, or Tony Scott skies – you get the text books out (ok, you Google it) and you use rear projection, half silvered mirrors, double exposures, filters on the lens, matte paintings…

Straight 8 sure doesn’t make it easy for its filmmakers - does a little restriction breed creativity? Never tempted by the path of least resistance?

Fear is the biggest killer of creativity, not deadlines, not rules… And definitely not people power. I think there’s a collective energy going on and when you enter something like straight 8, you know that people all over the world are attempting the same thing, over the same couple of months. We say it’s one of the hardest ways on earth to make a film. In fact, they’re all really hard in different ways, but clearly there’s something about our challenge that makes people really want to rise to it.

We’ve had lovely messages from people that went on to shoot their first feature film and they told us that one thing that got them through the pressure was the mantra: if I can do a straight 8, I can do this. Or put another way: thank god it’s not a straight 8.

How did your yearly Cannes straight 8 premiere come about?

David Webb from Kodak called up in April 2003 and asked if we could do a straight 8 premiere at Cannes Film Festival. O…K… When is it? In two and half weeks. We contacted 15 or so people who’d made great straight 8’s before and said to them: if we said there was the opportunity to have it seen at Cannes, could they make a straight 8 film by the end of the week? No-one said no.

We’ve now held 13 straight 8 Cannes premieres!

How many films do you reckon 20 years of straight 8 has seen developed?

Had to get an abacus out for this… A safe estimate is that 1500 straight 8’s exist. That’s 14 miles of celluloid with not one frame snipped out. That’s a 1:1 shooting ratio any studio head should be pretty impressed with – all those filmmakers should be snapped up.

What lessons have you learnt across two decades you can impart to future straight8ers?

Here’s one: It’s not the cameras that are hard to find. It’s the idea. Get a good idea and the people and props and everything you need will magnetically come around it, including the camera. Not having a camera is not an excuse!

Another: Plan like hell. And when the plan goes to hell, keep cool and carry on.

Another: After every take, tell your actors they did great. You’re moving on.

And one more: Be bold – make what you want to make. Do think about audience, but don’t let that stifle your fun, your style, your ideas.

Tickets are on sale now for straight 8’s 2018 London premiere in partnership with LSFF, happening 4th Aug, 3.45, BFI Southbank