8mm Home Movies, 1932-1982

If you’re under forty, chances are you have no memories of home “movies” that were made of actual movie film, ones that weren’t videotapes that played on your family TV set. Just maybe, if you’re forty-five or fifty, you might have distant memories of your dad periodically dragging out a projector and darkening the living room to show a few glowing memories of a previous year’s Christmas, or summer excursion.

And if you’re anywhere near as old as me, you remember when home movies were kind of special, a magical look into the past, and a mark of having made it into middle class life, a vanished world of long-ago outdoor weddings, family picnics and beach parties.

Kodak Turret Movie Camera“Home movies” weren’t always synonymous with little rolls of 8mm. The first amateur movies were made in 35mm, the professional size, and then in a myriad of smaller, cheaper film gauges. Wealthy families of the early 20th century had servants to run the picture machine, as in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “A Diamond as Big as the Ritz”. Chances are, your family did not.

From 1923 on,16mm became the de facto winner, of the just-good-enough to be professional, just-cheap-enough to be amateur sweepstakes. After the armed forces adopted it during World War II, it became an expensive pro gauge, but for another ten years or so 16mm held on as the home movie choice of the upper middle class and above. It’s one reason why mid-century famous rich families like the Kennedys, Fords, and Romneys have such sharp, clear, presentable film archives.

But 16mm cameras were almost all fairly large and heavy, very expensive to buy even back in amateur days, and complicated. They were for dedicated hobbyists, not casual family use. In 1932, a new amateur film size was introduced that would eventually take over the field of home movies, 8mm. This was a clever adaptation, for cheapness’ sake: The roll you loaded in the camera was actually 16mm film with twice the number of sprocket holes, filmed on one side and then flipped over to photograph on the other side. During processing the two halves were split apart side by side and then spliced together end to end. Sounds messy and complex? It was! But it used only a quarter as much film per minute. It made home movies affordable to the suburban middle class.

As the Depression ended, there was a mini-boom in 8mm color film right before the war. Thanks to the internet, we can now see some of those films, rare full-color glimpses of life in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Sports documentaries have been enlivened by amateur photographers filming pre-war major league baseball games in full, vivid color that makes the past look real, with people like you and me, not grey specters in a vanished, murky black and white world we can’t relate to. The green diamond of Yankee Stadium, the billboard of an orange bottle of soda pop, the blue skies—all of them were once as real as now. Paul Simon was right about Kodachrome; it made a summer day beautiful. It was literally made for them. Color film was “slow”; that is, it needed lots of light.

My wife’s family made 8mm home movies back then. A family outing to the Catskills mountains in the summer, circa 1938 had shots of dancing, comedy skits, and the usual hammy showing off that movie cameras always bring out in boys. Mel Brooks was not the first Jew to find humor in donning a fake mustache and mocking their most wicked enemy. We’re seeing the silent laughter of one of the only happy Jewish communities remaining in that world. Seeing these little four-minute films about eighty years later, there’s poignancy about something we know and they can’t; the future. In a couple of reels, nearly every man in the ’38 movie would be in olive drab or blue uniform, often filmed on leave, shyly grinning before shipping out. I only knew the vivacious young women on film as ladies in their sixties and seventies. If all family home movies have a master theme, it’s the Circle of Life.

The ‘50s were unprecedented boom times for the American economy, and for families, the real “wonder years” of the suburbs. Depression-bred parents enjoyed prosperity they’d never known. One big beneficiary of this baby boom was Eastman Kodak. At Christmastime, their snapshot and movie cameras included a card to place on the outside of the wrapping: “Open Me First”, so you could photograph Christmas Day with them. This was the single biggest annual use of 8mm film. Developing labs put on extra shifts each year to deal with the post-Christmas week rush.

It exposed, pun intended, one weakness of home movies of that era: it was tough to do it well indoors. Back then it required a row of hot, high powered lamps that put new meaning in the word “floodlight”, and that put off their dazzle-blinded subjects. Without the boost they gave, even a large, seemingly brightly lit place like a bowling alley, a church with stained glass windows, a school gymnasium, or a store with banks of fluorescent lights could look dim, greenish, and flickery on film.

This home movie fad wasn’t just an American phenomenon. Europeans had always been enthusiastic about it. As postwar austerity slowly lifted, children’s early steps were once again filmed everywhere, on Agfa film (Germany), Pathecolor (France), and Ilford (UK and Ireland).

Even the USSR and the socialist countries of central and eastern Europe would eventually have thousands of dads taking the family out to the country in the coveted Zaporozhets, the Skoda, the Dacia, or the Trabant, making 8mm holiday family films that on a human level are reassuringly like ours, but are now also visual testimony to the privations of everyday life there in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. This casual, unintentional preservation of the details of everyday life that fall below the level of interest of most artists and historians is one of the most valuable things about them.

Kodak stoutly claimed that home movies weren’t expensive, not really, when you think of all you got. In, say, 1960, with developing included, each four-minute roll of 8mm film cost about $4.00 and it could have something like fifty individual, six second color pictures in full motion. That doesn’t sound like a bad value, but that four bucks in 1960 would be about $35 today, about $8 a minute, whether the pictures came out or not. And home movies were notoriously prone to not coming out the way you’d hoped.

That was one of the stubborn problems that Eastman Kodak confronted when they strategized how to further grow their market. They discovered a blunt, un-PC truth: housewives, in fact women in general, did not like using home movie cameras. They were too large, too heavy, made for tripods, not hand held, and too complicated for easy use on family occasions, with fussy settings for exposure and focus. Furthermore, the results too often came out poorly for women or for men. Moms, who by then were taking most family snapshots, were particularly shy about potentially being blamed for poorly made movies. So as the ‘60s began, Eastman set about fixing most of those problems. The solution was a remodeled 8mm wide film called Super 8, introduced in 1965.

Super 8 had a smaller sprocket hole to move the film, and a thinner line between frames, which allowed a 30% more efficient use of the existing space. That meant a much better picture. All Super 8 cameras had electric motors, not spring-wound. They ran at 18, not 16 frames a second to reduce flicker. Above all it meant easy loading, with Kodak’s patented drop-in cartridge. You never touched the film. Notches on the plastic cartridge set the proper film type. The first generations of Super 8 cameras all had automatic exposure and pre-set “universal” focus. For indoor filming, the new halogen lights fit on top of the camera, with a slot that moved the daylight color filter out of the way. Product design engineers aimed at a size and light weight that could be carried in a purse, about the size of a transistor radio, and came close. They came up with a home movie camera that moms could love, and did. For about the next 15 years, Super 8 was America’s family storyteller. It became as successful as Kodak and the whole amateur cine industry hoped, greatly expanding the number of users.

Super 8 Home Movie CameraBy the early ‘70s, faster color film and a new generation of camera design made it possible to film indoors with less added light. Then in 1973, Kodak made a great jump, introducing sound film cartridges for Super 8, a major revolution for home movies. Taking out and setting up the projector had always been a minor chore, so that too was thoughtfully redesigned. The new projectors sat flat, on a shelf against the wall, looking like an open reel tape deck. But by then, the sun was already beginning to set on 8mm film, no doubt a Kodachrome sunset.

One lingering issue was having to wait to see how the movies came out. In 1977, Polaroid finally unveiled its Polavision system of instant-developing Super 8 sound home movies. It was an ingenious accomplishment that, like the development costs of Polaroid’s flagship SX-70 camera, almost bankrupted the company. This time there’d be no happy ending, though. If Polavision had hit the market in 1967, it would have been a sensation. But ten years later, everyone knew that home video was right around the corner. Sure, video equipment was expensive, finicky, and could barely be used outdoors. But that would change, and quickly.

By 1985, even Marty McFly was using a camcorder. Family tapes of the ‘80s and ‘90s are low resolution, squarish images that for many of us are now precious artifacts of distant times and now-deceased relatives. They may not be technically perfect, but at least you hear their words; you’ve got your late aunt and your mom laughing together, sharing a joke at a wedding in 1994. Those VHS tapes, so modern-seeming when we made them, are now aging themselves, with fewer and fewer working machines left to play them on.

Even today, there are still a handful of people and small companies involved with Super 8 film, for artistic or retro reasons. With costly professional processing, it can look nearly as good in 4K as conventional movie photography. Super 8 lives, sort of. But when I think of home movies, I’m thinking of the flickering darkness of an earlier era, of sharing a few distant moments again, especially with those now departed. Like ghosts, they smile and speak to us from a silent, dreamlike realm of the past. They tug at our hearts, but their words cannot reach our ears.