Monday, June 20, 2011

Super-8 Mystique: When Moviemaking Was Special

Kenrg, in response to my previous post here at Childhood According to Rich, recently posted a vlog about his own early experiences in super-8 filmmaking.  His post, and the responses that followed, led me to consider the elements that made our individual experiences so special, and particularly unique to those times. Super-8 captures some of how we all took the process so very seriously, but I think it's worth asking why.

Central to the experience, of course, was the fact that film, unlike modern video, wasn't unlimited.  It cost money to buy, and cost money to develop.  Each reel of film was only about three minutes long - so we kept (or tried to keep) screwing around to the minimum.  As much as 12 or 13 year-olds could, anyway.

The challenge of creating a film without sound - super-8 sound didn't come around until I was in high school - also gave us a direct connection to the filmmaking process.  We felt connected to the history of movie-making.

It was a much smaller club than today.  While millions of people owned super-8 movie cameras, there weren't nearly as many kids making movies as there are today.  The process of movie making, even for kids, could be time consuming. You needed special equipment - I had some simple lights, some creature-type make-up (liquid latex and vampire blood come to mind), a hand-cranked viewer to look at my film, and splicer to cut and tape my film together - and a projector.  Most families simply shot home movies, got them developed, and ran them through the projector.    It was relatively rare for a kid to have what he needed to make movies.

As Kenrg remarked, a super-8 camera had some heft - it felt important.  Even this, my very first camera, which was small, minimal and light even by standards of the time, was solidly built - and it made that exciting mechanical noise as the film ran through the camera, you felt a jolt of adrenaline, and the scene began.  

Sure, everyone might crack up laughing a second later - but at that moment, we weren't just pretending - we felt like real filmmakers. 

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Kid Making Movies

I recently saw the new J.J. Abrams / Steven Spielberg film, Super 8, which centers around a group of 12 year old filmmakers in 1979 [you can see the review on my other blog] .  Both Abrams and Spielberg have a knack for portraying the subtleties of child with rare accuracy - the body language, the politics and the world perspective unique to a certain time in our lives.  In Super 8, the lead character is not the leader of the  group - he's not the kid who sets everyone off making a film.  He's bought into it wholeheartedly, though.  He's the head make-up guy (the only make-up guy) and he takes his position seriously.  He's even got a make-up kit so that he can handle everything from standard make-up to the zombies featured in their movie.  His friend the filmmaker has issues of Super-8 Filmmaker scattered about - the very magazine I read as a kid (in the time frame of the film, I would have been a few years older than these kids).

Here I am at 11, making my first film!
You know these kids.  Moviemakers or not, they're the kids you probably grew up with.  As a kid who considered himself a filmmaker, I recognize the dynamics.   Filmmaking was an adventure - certain friends signed aboard with me for the duration, and we took ourselves seriously (most of the time).  I did the same for them.  I starred as a priest in an Exorcist spoof, which required a special make-up application including liquid latex to form horns on my forehead.  The girl in the film was made-up in with the same material, leaving her as hideous as Linda Blair in the original film.

In junior high school, several friends joined with me to create outlines, scripts, costume designs and other elements of a Star Trek-like project that was never completed.  It didn't matter, though.  It really wasn't about finishing a film most of the time - it was about dreaming.

We did finish some films, though.  One friend joined with me to create a film called The Little Vampire, featuring his little brother as a vampire-in-training who couldn't do anything right.  We built a rickety coffin in my backyard, including a fishing-line contraption so that the lid would appear to rise by itself.  Another fishing line effect involved the boy vampire (costumed in a blue cape made from my old bedspread) attempting to turn himself into a bat - and becoming a white dove, instead.  Like all of my films of the time, this was a silent film with silent movie-style titles to represent dialogue.  I actually attempted a rough soundtrack via an audio cassette, which sorta-kinda ran in sync with the movie.
The film was completed and toured:  My home, for a screening for my family, and my friend's home, for a screening with his family.  Then, it was on to the next project, and the film would rarely be seen again.

I've come to recognize my childhood filmmaking adventures as my team sport.  We cared as much, and were as passionate as any ball player, but were doing it without much of an audience, and were entirely in our own world  - and having a heck of a lot of fun!  Even if we didn't finish half the films we started.

Like ballplayers say, it's not whether you win or lose...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Dawn of the Real Space Age

Article first published as Dawn of the Real Space Age on Blogcritics.

As the Space Shuttle program draws to a close, media outlets and enthusiasts are mourning what some see as the decline of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and America's manned space exploration program.  Thousands are being laid off at NASA and affiliate suppliers, and it seems destined that the USA will surrender its leading role at the cutting age of science and technology.  Don’t be so sure.

The future of manned space travel hasn't yet come into sharp focus - but activity in the private sector increasingly suggests that while NASA's manned space program may be winding down for the foreseeable future, private visionaries may be ushering a new Space Age that will rapidly expand human presence in space beyond anything that might now seem plausible.

The most well-known commercial space program at the moment is Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic.  Within the next few years, Virgin ferry passengers into space for a short ($200,000) ride.  True, it will be a plaything for the very wealthy - but the success of this program, and the pioneering technology that's making it happen, will also serve as a proof-of-concept demonstration that could encourage a renaissance of interest and investment in the commercial development of space.  Branson's stated dream is to bring space to all.

Increasingly affordable access to space will finally make feasible the heady fantasy of Stanley Kubrick's 1968 epic, 2001: A Space Odyssey - including the rotating space station and it’s Hilton Hotel and commercial airline access.   What seemed like a silly fantasy just a few years ago may be closer to reality than we think.   Even individual entrepreneurs will have the opportunity to travel into orbit to develop and test technologies that will further space-based technology. 

Will science be shunted aside with the commercialization of space?  Low cost access to space means that the cost of exploration will allow many more scientists and explorers to venture into space than was ever possible during the Space Shuttle era.   Just as Earth-bound exploration is often funded by foundations, non-profits, commercial and government partnerships, the same will evolve beyond earth.   NASA, and it's affiliated Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will benefit from this ease of access, and enter an age when some of the grand dreams of the space program will finally become a reality. 

As a small boy, I had to opportunity to see the Apollo 11 astronauts land on the moon.  We watched the spectacular images of 2001 and saw them not simply as science fiction, but as a sacred prediction of our inevitable future. 

While our dreams may have been delayed, they may very well become reality - sooner than we think.