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Super 8’s still good business

New England labs work with pros, amateurs

By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2011
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In “Super 8,’’ just out on DVD, some young teenagers become embroiled in an extraterrestrial mystery while filming their own low-budget zombie movie. The year is 1979.

It turned out to be a pivotal time for the format that gave the movie its name. Introduced in the 1960s as a user-friendly variation on the older 8mm film, Super 8 was quickly embraced by home-movie buffs. But its popularity was fleeting; by the early ’80s, it was already being pushed aside by the emergence of videocassettes. Yet Super 8 film, like movies about E.T.s and zombies, has retained a certain appeal. There are far fewer film labs working with old small-gauge film stock such as Super 8 than there were three decades ago. But those that remain still do considerable business with filmmakers, art students, and walk-ins from the general public who have uncovered troves of family footage.

Singapore native Myrtha Chang came to the Boston area to attend Massachusetts Institute of Technology. When she started a family here, she wanted a way to share her children’s upbringing with her parents overseas, so she began working with film and videotape. Soon she had her own video-transfer service in Boston. Last year she merged the business with Play It Again Video, formerly a “friendly competitor’’ of her service. Established in 1987 in Needham, Play It Again is now located in Newton.

Friends warned Chang about the business, which they saw as in decline. “People would say, ‘Careful, it’s a sunset industry,’ ’’ she says by phone during a recent visit to Singapore. Instead, she has seen consistently steady traffic, with advances in editing software inspiring people to haul out their old film, tapes, and cartridges so they can edit the footage into digital montages.

The holiday season is busy for shops such as Play It Again Video and Eclipse Video in Cambridge, with people converting family memories to DVD and hard drives. As recently as last year, Chang says, most people were still asking for DVD transfers. Now, the tendency is to save to hard drives, where footage can be retrieved and edited with programs such as iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

The striking visual quality of Super 8, invariably described as “grainy,’’ imparts an instantly recognizable sense of romance, nostalgia, and intrigue, says Rob Houllahan. He is one of five employee shareholders at Cinelab, a New Bedford film lab that is one of a dwindling number across the country with the ability to handle Super 8 film. Cinelab has made video from Super 8 footage for Bruce Springsteen, and the company recently worked with Martin Scorsese on a stylish commercial for Chanel. Cinelab has developed a reputation for its work with smaller-gauge films (8mm, Super 8, 16mm) using vintage equipment such as an old Photomec processor that once belonged to the National Football League’s Detroit Lions, who used it for game film. The company recently moved 50 tons of equipment from its previous space in Fall River (the building was taken over) to the new space in New Bedford.

Cinelab was founded more than 50 years ago in Boston by two men fresh out of the US Navy. Like dozens of film labs around the country at the time, Cinelab did “school stuff, industrial training films,’’ says Houllahan. “It ran the gamut. Now it’s more of an art form.’’

Another local operation, the North Shore mom-and-pop Brodsky & Treadway, has worked exclusively with archival footage for film and television producers for more than 30 years. Known for its high-quality transfers of small-gauge film, the company has restored old clips for filmmakers including Ken Burns, Michael Moore, and Spike Lee.

Houllahan’s business sees a huge range of material come through the door. It has handled old films from Times Square peep-show booths, and he once came across footage of the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge on a roll of 8mm film from a family archive.

“We don’t see too much dull imagery,’’ he says.

One trend he has noticed is a rise in the use of Super 8 by professional wedding photographers. That’s a clear testament to the romance of the format, he says.

Rob Todd, a filmmaker and faculty member at Emerson College, says one of the many appeals of Super 8 is the ease of use of the cameras, which, with their automatic light meters, are “pretty much point-and-shoot.’’

“They have a retro appeal for younger people,’’ Todd says. “Then there’s people like me who started using Super 8 when it was really cheap. You could buy a roll of film for a dollar and get it processed for three. People were giving the equipment away.’’

Lately Super 8 film festivals have been multiplying, he says, as the underground film community reacquaints itself with the vivid, supersaturated look of the film.

“You have to add a gloss or veneer if you’re doing that in digital, and you lose that raw, direct, almost painterly quality,’’ Todd says. For students, the film also offers a lesson in economy. Whereas with digital the tendency is to shoot everything and edit later, the three-minute Super 8 cartridges (which now sell for upward of $20 apiece) “really do focus you. You become a very deliberative shooter.’’

Like some audiophiles’ continuing allegiance to vinyl records, many filmmakers find the quality of the old small-gauge film types vastly superior to more recent magnetic media such as VHS tapes, says Chang. Her company offers a free service to customers, who can bring in old media and screen it before they decide whether to have it transferred.

“Bring me an 8mm film that’s 50 years old and I get excited at bringing back these old memories for you,’’ she says. “Bring me a 10-year-old videotape and I feel sorry for you.’’

Editing innovations have brought fresh possibilities to the process of rescuing old footage from the attic or the storage shed, Chang says.

“Who wants to watch silent old home movies of unrecognizable people and events? Now you can digitize them, have Grandma narrate with a microphone and add background music, and you’ve got a priceless holiday gift.’’

It’s a fun business, Chang says. “There’s a story behind every job that walks in.’’

James Sullivan can be reached at

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