The Strange, Wonderful World of Super Eight

by Melvin Leavitt

Associate Editor

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    Strange, wonderful things were happening in Salt Lake City. Case 1. First came a few triumphant trumpet notes followed by the flash of brass and the happy feet of smart-stepping Dixieland jim-dandies. Behind came the somber pall bearers and their black burden. But what a burden! Fifteen feet long and as wavy as a roller coaster. Mourners reported that it contained the mortal remains of a beloved python.

    Case 2. A pretty girl perched shyly on a folding chair in the bed of a third-hand pickup. The pickup pulled into an automatic car wash and emerged on the other end transformed into a limousine. In the back seat the young lady was now resplendent in a beautiful gown. A fairy godperson in a seedy cape emerged to take credit for the magic.

    Case 3. On a dirt racing track a young man carefully adjusted his crash helmet and racing gloves, then took a two-inch motorcycle out of his pocket, climbed aboard, started the motor, and roared around the track in a cloud of dust.

    Case 4. Three plump young ladies had barely begun their attack on a table laden with yummy junk food when suddenly the feast vanished right before their eyes. Nearby three guardian angels looked suspiciously smug.

    Case 5. Cleopatra glided across a Salt Lake swimming pool in her royal canoe. A soldier in the prow of the craft paddled faithfully with a broom.

    Case 6. Two cowboys faced each other menacingly on a dusty street. With lightning speed they drew and fired—rubber bands.

    Case 7. Two missionaries struggled through barbed wire fences, sprinklers, mudholes, and ferocious dogs, but in the end they found a golden family—of members.

    Please understand, these are not wild rumors fabricated to sell this magazine. They really happened! There are eyewitnesses, and every single incident is recorded on film!

    Needless to say, amateur sleuths were dumbfounded by the weird outbreak of magnificent madness, but old timers recognized the MO immediately. Super Eight had struck again!

    How It All Began

    When the time came for the Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake to prepare for its annual roadshow presentation, the leaders put on their dark glasses, sat down on their studio chairs, and decided to go Hollywood. This year, instead of painting scenery, practicing jingles, and sewing costumes, the young people would pan, zoom, truck, and tilt. Thanks to uncomplicated Super Eight home movie equipment, they would become instant cameramen, directors, editors …

    Well, not instantly. First they attended a seminar at which professional filmmakers from around the Salt Lake Valley gave them expert instruction in such areas as script writing, camera work, editing, music, sound, and acting.

    After blood, sweat, and imagination produced some scripts, they started shooting on location, and “location” was just about anywhere. Curious bypassers stared in wonder as the casts recreated the Civil War, demonstrated a pickup’s ride by cutting an ice cube in it on a rough road, karate chopped styrofoam bricks in a public park, held a ball in the state capitol, and advertised an oil additive for Big Wheels. One cast even got free hamburgers for using a local drive-in in their movie.

    As each ward translated its script into film footage, they found it wasn’t quite as simple as it looked in the movies. They used the wrong film and had to do it over. The cameraman laughed, and they had to do it over (it’s hard to laugh without shaking). An actor laughed, and they had to do it over. A bystander wandered into camera range, and they had to do it over. They used the wrong filter, and they had to do it over. Some film was ruined in the developing lab, and they had to do it over. Cameras malfunctioned, and they had to do it over. The actors messed up the scene, and they had to do it over.

    But eventually it was over. The film was shot, developed, and edited, the sound was recorded, lost sleep was regained, and it was time for the gala film festival.

    But wait! These young people had to learn a lot of skills from specialists and hard knocks before they received their rewards. If you would like to learn along with them, read on!

    So, You Want to Break into the Movies, Kid?

    First, you need a camera. Borrow it if you can. Rent it if you can’t. Film is helpful. It will cost you about five dollars for a three-minute roll of silent film, about seven dollars for sound film.

    Next you will want a script, but before you start writing it, please keep one thing in mind: Movies are visual, more visual than roadshows, plays, or even television. So make a movie that a viewer could follow without a word of explanation. And keep it simple. If you try to film a complicated plot, you will lose the audience somewhere in the middle of the maze.

    Your script is the blueprint from which the film will be built, so include camera instructions. Here are the terms you will be using:

    Pan: A horizontal movement of the camera around a central axis. For example, if you are standing in one spot watching runners come past, you would pan with them. Indicate if the camera should pan right or left.

    Tilt: A vertical movement of the camera around a central axis. For example, if you are filming a rocket going up, you would tilt up. When it fell back down again you would tilt down. Indicate if the camera should tilt up or down.

    Dolly: A movement of the camera toward or away from the scene (not to be confused with a zoom, in which the camera remains stationary, but the image is magnified). Indicate if the camera should dolly in (closer) or out (away from the scene).

    Truck: Moving the camera parallel to a moving object. For example, if you are in a car keeping pace with the runners in a race, indicate if the camera should truck right or left.

    Crab: A diagonal combination of dolly and truck.

    Boom: Moving the camera up or down parallel with the subject. You probably won’t get a chance to use this one.

    Extreme Long Shot (ELS): A large area seen from a great distance. For example, a wagon train stretching across miles of prairie. Long Shot (LS): The entire area of action in a scene. This may be a living room, a football stadium, or about anything in between. Medium Shot (MS or MED): From above the knees or below the waist of the actors to above the head.

    Two Shot: A medium shot that includes the interactions of just two actors.

    Close-up (CU) designations include:

    Medium Close-up: From mid-torso to above the head.

    Head and Shoulder Close-up: From the subject’s shoulders to above the head.

    Choker Close-up: From below the lips to above the eyes.

    Extreme Close-up: Tiny objects or areas filmed so that they fill the whole screen.

    Cutaway Shot: A shot of something outside the borders of the shot that precedes it. For example, if John says, “There’s Mary,” you would probably next show a cutaway shot of Mary.

    Reaction Shot: A shot showing someone’s reaction to what is happening in a scene. For example, if there is a terrible war in progress, a reaction shot might show a woman weeping.

    Down Shot: A shot by a camera anywhere above the subject.

    Up Shot: A shot by a camera anywhere below the subject.

    If both you and the cameraman are familiar with these terms, you should be able to let him know exactly what you want him to do. You should always remember, however, not to ask for shots that are beyond the ability of your equipment or your cameraman.

    When the script is complete, you would be wise to make a storyboard of the action. A storyboard is a series of squares containing stick figure indications of the actors’ movements and corresponding camera directions for each scene. These should be keyed to the scenes in the script.

    In order to avoid repeated trips to the same location, you should now list each location where you plan to film and each scene that is to be shot there. Then you can shoot all the scenes you need at a given location before leaving it. For example, if your opening and closing scenes both take place in the same hamburger stand, you should film both scenes at the same time. They can be put in their proper places later.


    But later always arrives, and that brings us to editing. When you get your film back from the lab, it’s time to build a movie. Using your storyboard as a guide, you will cut the film up into scenes and splice them into the right order. That can be complicated. For instance, when you film all of one character’s speeches first, then all the other character’s speeches, you will have to sandwich the speeches together in the right order when you edit. Cutaway and reaction shots have also been shot separately and will have to be integrated into the film.

    The film editor must also be alert to the danger of overlapping. This results because each time the cameraman moves to a new shot, he has the actor repeat part of the action of the last shot from the new angle to be sure that there is not a gap. The editor must be sure not to leave in any of the same action from two different angles, since this would create a little time warp that would look very phony.

    The cameraman has almost certainly shot some scenes several times. The editor must also decide which take was the best. He must also be a heartless cutter. Some scenes will disappear entirely as he pares the movie down to the required length. You will need viewing and splicing equipment for this stage of your moviemaking. This can be rented if there’s nobody to borrow it from.

    Some Sound Advice

    Which brings us to sound. Actually, you should decide about sound before you ever write your script, but we’ll talk about it now. First of all, you have the option of avoiding the problem by making a silent movie. If you do, you might consider making it in black and white and filming it at a slow camera speed to give the appearance of an old-time flicker. If you have a single system camera, you can record dialogue on the film as you shoot, if you wish. You can then add music and narration on the film with a sound projector after it has been developed. If you don’t have a single system camera, you shouldn’t attempt dialogue. It’s almost impossible to synchronize taped dialogue with the lip movement of actors. You can tape narration and music, however. If you do decide to tape a narrative, you should run the movie through several times and carefully time the spots where you want narration. Then turn off the projector, turn on the tape recorder, and tape your narration by stopwatch. If you attempt to watch the movie and narrate at the same time, you won’t give proper attention to your narration, and you’ll pick up projector noise on your recorded soundtrack.

    If you use sound film, be very careful of background noises, such as an air conditioner, vacuum, motorcycle, chain saw, or your little brother’s snoring. When you get your film back, you will discover that they are not in the background at all, but in the foreground ruining your movie. As you film, be sure to get the microphone as close to the actors as you can without getting it into the picture.

    Making Films Is a Long Shot

    Be as creative as you like in calling your shots, but there are a few basics that can serve as a starting place. Most scenes begin with a long shot to establish the scene. This may be the outside of a building, a group of people in a dining room, a marble game, or just about anything else. This is often a wide angle shot. The next shot is usually a medium shot showing the interaction between two or more actors. Then comes a close-up. From there you can take off and romp around through cutaways and reaction shots and even ELS’s if you want, but if you ever feel lost and lonely just remember that LS-MED-CU is always waiting to welcome you home.

    Know Whether Your Left Hand or Your Right Hand Is Doing It

    Consistency, or continuity, as it is usually called, is a constant concern to the filmmaker. This simply means that an actor who is heading left to right in one shot should still be going left to right in the next, unless we have seen him turn around on screen. If an actress is looking to her right in one shot, she should not be looking to her left in the next shot. To avoid this kind of problem, it is best to always film the actors from the same side during a scene. For example, if two actors are talking, the camera should always stay on the same side of an imaginary line connecting them. Once that line is crossed, the left-right position of the two actors will be reversed. A car going down the road should usually be filmed from the same side of the road for the same reason.

    How to Make Effects Special

    Who are we trying to kid? There’s no way you’re going to be turned loose with an expensive camera and not try some special effects. As long as you stick with simple ones, they may actually turn out to be special. Have you ever wanted to make someone disappear, for example? Just shoot a few seconds of a group of people. Then stop the camera and have one of them leave while all the rest stay in exactly the same positions they were in when you stopped shooting. Then hit the trigger again, and if everyone has been a good statue, you’ve got a mystifying event. If you have a fader on your camera, you can turn one person into another by fading out person number one, winding the film back to where the fade started, putting person number two in the same place, and fading him in. One of the Big Cottonwood wards changed the fairy godperson’s limousine back into a pickup that way. You can also make things appear to move in rather unusual ways by shooting them a frame at a time and moving them slightly each time. One young man in the festival used this technique to clear a pool table on the break. For fast motion shots, simply set the camera at 9 to 12 frames per second. For slow motion shots, set it at 36 to 48 frames per second.

    You’ve Got to Have an Angle

    Even after you’ve decided how far away to put the camera, you’ve still got 360 degrees to play with. A good starting place in that vast field of choice is 45 degrees to the side of the actor’s face. It’s often referred to as three-quarter front, and it gives depth and roundness to the facial features.

    There is one time when it is very important to change camera angles. When switching from one shot to another of the same people, you want the second shot to start exactly where the first left off. Since actors have a hard time striking exactly the same pose for the second shot, you should change the camera angle significantly. Thus the audience will attribute discrepancies to the change of angle, not actor movement.

    And speaking of angles, you should usually avoid filming actors moving across the screen in profile to the viewer. Actors and objects are more interesting when they are approaching or receding from the viewer (usually at an angle), thus growing larger or smaller.

    How to Remain Composed

    Here are a few hints on composition, but trust your eye first and these hints second. Avoid dividing the screen into two equal parts, either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. Remember that triangles are strong compositional elements. You can create them by using three people (the most important of the three should usually be the highest on the screen) or by architectural features or natural objects.

    Every frame that flashes on the screen should have a center of interest. All the lines, movements, colors, masses, and sounds reaching the viewer should lead his eye to that center. Remember that certain things tend to call more attention to themselves than others. For example:

    • The right side of the screen more than the left.

    • Moving objects more than stationary objects (or people).

    • Bright objects more than dull ones.

    • Warm colors more than cold.

    • Upper screen more than lower screen.

    • Isolated objects more than objects in a group.

    • Large objects more than small (other things being equal).

    • People speaking more than silent people.

    The screen (like any rectangle) has four natural centers of interest:








    These needn’t be used consciously on every shot, but it doesn’t hurt to have them in the back of your mind.

    Also remember that it is often artistically pleasing to frame the picture partially or completely with some object (a tree, a door, a river, a crane, etc.) that seems appropriate for a given setting.

    Let Your Light Shine

    Lighting is a complex skill, and must be learned largely by experience. Here are a couple of tips, however. On most indoor shots, you will probably need some supplemental lighting. Don’t flood the scene with unnaturally bright light, though. Don’t use front lighting all by itself. Add some side and top lighting to round out the faces of the actors. Remember that backlighting will create a silhouette, and bottom lighting will create monsters.

    Also beware of flat lighting (as on a cloudy day). This may give you pleasing colors, but without shadows the scene will be flat.

    Some Hints on Making It a Festive Festival for Your Ward

    1. Start filming at least three months before the deadline, and leave yourself plenty of time at the end, because Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”) is in effect. (One ward got a crucial roll of film back the day before the festival.)

    2. Stay within time limits. Your movie will be better for the paring.

    3. Involve everybody in a crowd scene so that nobody will disappear utterly in the editing process. (All the wards in the Salt Lake Big Cottonwood Stake shot at least twice as much film as they used.)

    4. When writing the script or planning shots, ask yourself, “What will the audience want to know and see right now?” Then give them what they will want.

    5. Always check your camera’s batteries before shooting.

    6. When shooting people against a bright background, use your backlight compensation button or switch. This will open up the lens aperture a stop. Otherwise, the camera’s meter will overcompensate for the bright background, and you will lose the actor’s faces. If your camera has manual exposure control or override, check the camera’s light meter and set the exposure one stop wider (lower number).

    7. Use a tripod. You can’t hand hold a camera steady enough. For trucks and dollies, you can secure the tripod to a bicycle, wheel chair, skateboard, or other wheeled vehicle.

    8. When panning or tilting, always move the camera much more slowly than feels comfortable. Otherwise you will end up with a blur. (If you want a blur for a special effect, then pan away.)

    9. An actor should never look directly into the camera unless he is supposed to be talking to the audience (a newscaster, for example).

    10. Use your zoom sparingly. It is usually better to dolly in or out.

    11. When your film is ready for viewing, invite some very capable, critical, blunt person to evaluate it for you.

    12. When you run out of film in the middle of the scene, reshoot the last few seconds on the new roll. The ends of rolls are often lost in processing.

    Advice to Leaders

    1. Plan the festival six months in advance.

    2. Hold a seminar and invite local professionals to teach the youth.

    3. Insist that everyone use Super Eight. (This will mean only one projector at the festival and an even start for everyone.)

    4. Everyone should be asked to shoot at 18 frames per second, except for special effects. (Then the stake projectionist won’t have to keep adjusting projector speed).

    5. The deadline for turning in the films should be a week before judging. (This will give the stake projectionist a chance to iron out any bugs, and the specialists can suggest final editing ideas to the wards).

    6. The judging should be done a week before the festival so that the decisions won’t be made in haste and so there will be time to build or purchase suitable awards.

    7. Make sure the projector used on festival night has a bright lamp (at least 150 watts). It should be tungsten halogen.

    8. Hook the film sound up to the chapel P.A. system. (Any local sound company will be glad to tell you how.)

    9. Prepare a number of awards so that all areas of excellence can be recognized.

    Lighting Up Lives

    The cultural hall of the stake center was packed the night of the festival. Here and there a tuxedo could even be seen. On the stage was a table groaning under the weight of 45 (count them) “Youth Light Up Our Lives” awards!

    After the opening prayer, the projectionist hit the switch, and the evening was awash in cheers, laughter, and even a few friendly groans. Poor Cindy Ella, outcast because of her curly hair, did get to the governor’s ball (thanks to her fairy godperson) and fell in love with the governor’s curly headed son. A new banana eating record was set. The three junk food junkies did lose weight. The missionaries did keep tracting. Fun triumphed again. All seven wards had come up with their own idea of what the silver screen is all about, and all were pretty proud of what they had done.

    When the lights came on again after the last movie, the judges began handing out the handsome awards (wooden bases into which light bulbs had been screwed). There were no firsts, seconds, or thirds. Each ward was recognized for what it had done best, and there were awards for many of the actors and technicians, too. Some of the awards were traditional-sounding film categories, such as “Best Special Effects,” “Best Documentary,” and “Best Scriptwriting,” but others, like the “Three Little Pigs Award,” the “Sharp Elbow Award,” and the “2 Nephi 2:11 Award,” were straight out of the strange, wonderful world of Super Eight. Among those receiving awards and flashing happy Mormon smiles were a number of nonmembers (including one cameraman) who had taken part in the filming.

    And in case any one of the participants ever forgets how really strange and fun and wonderful the wacky world of Super Eight really is, he just has to turn on the projector and look at the evidence.

    Stephen Aubery, a professional filmmaker, provided much of the technical information for this article.

    Illustrated by Virginia Kuettel