straight 8: Why it's fun to shoot in one of the hardest ways imaginable

Ed fills us in on his super 8mm competition, straight 8, and the joys of shooting on film.

30 June 2017
By Ed Sayers
Ed is a director and the founder of straight 8, a short film competition celebrating super 8mm cine film.
If I were a real purist I’d write this post in one go with no editing, not even deleting typos, basically with everything on show - including all erroes [sic]…*
The reason is simple: I founded the short film competition ‘straight 8’ in 1999, and ever since then have been challenging people to make a short film without editing or post-production. The first time our filmmakers see their own film is at its premiere, alongside a packed cinema audience! It’s mildly terrifying, but a real rush.
The way we enforce the straight 8 rules is by having everyone shoot on super 8mm cine film.  The 50 foot length of celluloid film in the cartridge last 3 minutes 20 seconds and, being film, you can’t do re-takes. So you create your film with every pull of the super 8 camera trigger, shooting in story order. Want another take of a shot? Sure, go ahead. But the audience will see them both - which could be interesting, actually. When you’re done shooting, you send the cartridge to us to get it processed and then sit tight, hoping to be selected for one of our screenings, where you’ll finally see your film.
Since straight 8 began the bar has got higher and higher as word has spread and screening opportunities have become more exciting. We’ve just got back from our 12th year screening the best entries from around the globe, at The Cannes Film Festival. It was as hi-octane as ever, with 36 cast and crew travelling from Montreal, New York, Germany, Switzerland, London, Bath and Glasgow to see their work for the very first time. In a packed cinema. At Cannes.
We see animation, documentary, comedy, drama, thriller, shlock horror, and everything in between. Name a genre and we’ve got a film to match. We never set a creative theme, we just pose a single question: given 3 minutes 20 seconds of the silver screen at Cannes, or in London’s West End, what would you put up there? Now, do it. To the best of your ability. 
We all talk about filmmaking a lot more than we do it. Orson Welles said, “A writer needs a pen, an artist needs a brush, but a filmmaker needs an army”. Well good filmmaking takes a lot of planning, for sure, and prepping for a straight 8 shoot requires as much preparation as any other production, though your toolkit may be different. By the time you come to shoot, your army may more closely resemble a slightly apprehensive gang, and all you truly need is a super 8 camera and an idea.  The former is easy enough to find (so no excuses!) but the latter may take a little longer.
So why super 8? Film is a gorgeous medium and the experience of shooting with it is incomparable. The way it handles highlights and low-lights, the sound of the film reel transporting through the camera, and the vibration of the camera in your hand as you shoot is all so different to digital – it’s just awesome to play with. The chemical wizardry of light reacting with film is nothing short of magic, and the mystery of not knowing exactly what you’ve shot is thrilling. At straight 8, we want to encourage filmmakers that are used to shooting digitally to experience this for themselves – we promise you’ll love it.
At straight 8 we strip away budgets and backers, pitching and post-production, and leave you with a single reel of film. Think that sounds awful? I promise you it’s not! It’s a format that pretty much removes the possibility of making the perfect film, and instead celebrates imperfection. Levelling the playing field, we see rookies and pros going head-to-head, and it really is anybody’s game! 
After the shoot comes the screening. Audience members and filmmakers alike are totally invested in the ethos, the possibility, the jeopardy, and excitement runs high. For our filmmakers, the screening is the moment they take in their rushes, their final cut, their premiere and their reviews, all at once! It’s a buzz. 
We are constantly surprised - even after over 1500 straight 8s being made - by the films that come in, from where and by whom.  Two brothers who made super 8 films together as kids in the 70s, and who now work on blockbusters in VFX and concept art, got together to make a straight 8 this year, and saw it play in Cannes.  Last year a 76 year old retired French butcher was selected for Cannes with his wildlife film shot on specialist equipment he’s had since the 60s. Two Czech directors trashed seven Skodas in a quarry outside Prague, pretending they’d cheated by shooting an edited loop, but actually shooting the same sequence seven times. (One of them was in Variety’s top ten global feature newcomers to watch last year). Lee Hardcastle turned his hand to straight 8 with his awesome A Zombie Claymation. Edgar Wright has done it. Julia Davis has done it, so has Julian Barratt. And Alice Lowe, and Steve Oram. And many more. We want to continue to reach filmmakers around the world, and give them an opportunity to share their stories.
For the uninitiated, the best way to see these shorts and discover what works is to come to a screening. We guarantee you will leave inspired and ready to come back the following year with your own film. We want to keep changing it up and, with your help, keep raising the bar. Our ultimate motivation is this: we help people get films out of their heads and onto screens. So if you have a straight 8 in you, we want to see it.
* I did edit the above. But only a bit. Honest.
You can see the premiere of the best 48 films of straight 8 2017, including the 8 selected for Cannes, on Sunday July 9th at Picturehouse Central. Visit the straight 8 website to find out more.