I’ve made it a point to start shooting more film recently, as I have a Super 16mm project on the horizon and want to experiment as much as possible before hand.
I plan to test out a bunch of different cameras and film stocks, and run through the whole workflow – shooting, processing/scanning, color grading – to get a sense of what to expect. As part of this process, I thought it would be fun to buy a Super 8mm camera and shoot tests with it whenever possible, as it’s so cheap when compared to shooting 35mm or even 16mm.
This of course won’t replace testing other cameras or film gauges, but it is a fun experiment on its own to see how far I can push such a small format.
What I’ve learned so far is that super 8mm has come a very long way in recent years, both in terms of the quality of the film stocks and the processing & scanning technology. Today’s well produced Super 8mm film can look more like the 16mm film of years past, which is pretty amazing to consider.
That said, in order to achieve the best possible results there is still a lot to consider, and a lot that goes into it. And really, it all starts with the camera –
THE BEAULIEU 4008 ZMII
When I first started looking for a Super 8mm camera to buy, I almost didn’t care which camera I got. I figured as long as it could shoot 24fps (some Super 8 cameras only shoot 18fps), I would be happy.
After all, unlike digital cameras that can drastically affect image quality (based on sensor technology), a film camera is really just a box that moves film through a gate and lets in light. It’s really the film stock, lighting, and lenses that make all the difference… But even still, as I started doing my research it became clear that there was one camera that stood out above all the others: The Beaulieu 4008 ZMII.
The Beaulieu was a clear choice for a number of reasons. First off, it is widely regarded as one of the best (if not the best) Super 8 camera ever made, based on it’s build quality and reliability alone. It is built like a tank, and was designed to be a professional option for those wanting the best possible Super 8mm experience.
It has countless professional caliber features, such as the ability to shoot up to 70fps (some versions even do 80fps), shutter angle adjustments, a reflex viewfinder, built in light metering, interchangeable c-mount lenses, and much more. This all results in a shooting experience that I believe is closer to 16mm than 8mm.
The camera is also able to be upgraded and restored beautifully, which can’t be said for many other Super 8mm cameras. Although this particular model was manufactured in the early – mid 1970’s, it is still more sought after than many more recent Super 8mm cameras. This again, is largely because of it’s amazing feature set, and ability to continually be restored if needed.
I was able to pick up a second hand 4008 ZMII for a couple hundred bucks, and decided to shoot a few test rolls with the camera as-is before getting it serviced. If the camera was in really bad shape, I would have had it serviced first, but for 40 – 45 years old it was looking pretty good… The viewfinder was a little foggy and the ground glass/focusing screen needed to be cleaned, but that wasn’t a concern as it wouldn’t affect picture quality.
The camera comes with a Schneider Optivaron 6-66 F1.8 zoom lens (which is absolutely incredible), although the focus ring on the version that I had seized up, so I had to replace it with another identical Optivaron lens. This was easy thanks to the standard C-Mount, so I could just unscrew one and screw on the other.
After swapping the lens and ensuring the camera still ran smoothly off the batteries, I was more than confident to take it for a spin.
SHOOTING & SCANNING
I purchased a 3 rolls of 50D (daylight) film stock from Pro8mm in Burbank and took them with me on a little trip to Palm Springs last week. Each roll only gives you around 2 1/2 minutes, so I figured I would easily burn through all 3 rolls on my trip. To my surprise, I only shot 1 1/2 rolls though.
Something happens when you’re shooting film that makes you hyper aware of what you’re capturing at all times. I found this true even just shooting test footage. I was being so selective that I ended up under-shooting, which was kind a nice change of pace. I can only imagine treating a feature film with that level of efficiency, and how it would affect the process both on set and in the editing room.
I took the rolls back to Pro 8mm for processing and scanning, where they were scanned in Log at 2K in ProRes 422 (HQ). Super 8mm can currently be scanned up to 5K, but I don’t believe there is much (if any) quality difference above 2K.
The files were ready a few days later, and I was really impressed with the dynamic range and color quality.
Despite the fact that I didn’t use a proper light meter and was basically guessing the exposure, every image was exposed perfectly fine. That is not a testament to my skill, but rather to the flexibility of film. It just has so much latitude that under or overexposed images were so easily adjusted in post. I really couldn’t get over how much information was in those ProRes files. No digital footage that I’ve ever graded has even come close.
The only real issue with the footage that I found were some dark spots on certain shots (with deep F stops) that I believe were caused by a dirty internal UV filter. I plan to remove this filter (as well as the built in 85 filter) as they are both so old and nearly impossible to clean. Once they are removed, that issue should be resolved and the footage should look cleaner.
Below are a handful of shots captured on the Beaulieu last week. These were overscanned (which is why you see the top and bottom of the previous/next frames).
Take a look:
I will be sure to post some additional articles on this camera and any other film experiments in the near future, so stay tuned!