Developing A New Digital Super 8 Cartridge
Super 8 is a cartridge based movie film format. Developed in 1965 in the shadow of 16mm & Standard 8 film, the design goal was to make filmmaking easier by putting the whole film transport into an easy drop-in cartridge. In the 60s and 70s (and maybe even the 80s), anyone who was holding back from making movies could simply snap a cart into a compact camera and start shooting.
Today, the spiritual successor for easy-breezy home movie making is of course the little video camera built into smartphones. Digital home movies don't face the same 3 minute limit of a Super 8 cartridge (which isn't always a good thing), and most significantly you get synchronized sound. You can even apply digital filters while shooting to get a resulting image that sort of resembles Super 8.
Super 8 has evolved into more of a specialty look for arty projects, music videos and the like. The problem is that while Super 8 camera still have plenty of life in them, the world's supply of the film is dwindling. It's expensive to shoot Super 8, and pretty soon those gorgeous cameras could end up as dusty relics on a forgotten closet shelf.
Nolab has a different idea - one that we've fantasized about many times here on Retro Thing. They are developing a self-contained digital sensor/recorder that is the same size as a Super 8 cartridge. You snap the Nolab cart into your favorite super 8 camera, and the Nolab promises to record 720p 4:3 aspect video (though to be correct, Super 8's aspect is 1.58:1) to the internal SD card. They promise that the recorder will synchronize to the camera's shutter, and in addition to recording "clean" video, you can chose one of two "film look" filters (labeled Ektachrome and Kodachrome!) to apply during recording.
There aren't too many more details available now as Nolab is still in the early stages of development (they report that they have an early working prototype), but we have lots of questions even at this stage. Right now in the professional filmmaking world, there are two smaller "digital film" cameras getting a lot of attention. The Digital Bolex (shipping next week) and the Black Magic Pocket Cinema (one is sitting on my desk right now). Both employ what they call a "super 16" sized sensor. Smaller than a DSLR sensor, but potentially capable of tremendous dynamic range and picture quality, and both can use vintage lenses. Both are also quite expensive, and aimed at the filmmaking crowd.
Will Nolab price their Digital Super 8 Cartridge for this same group, or will it be a more affordable alternative, much the way Super 8 was? The few details on the company's web page point to something aimed at filmmakers, but I'd like to see this competitively priced. At this point they're still only talking about shooting 720p (I'd really like to see at least 1080, if not 2K shooting) with a 5 megapixel sensor. Right now the specs list h.264 format recording, which is really not good enough for the visual artists they should be including in their plans. I also hope that they don't skimp on the sensor, simply relying on the kitsch value of shooting with an old camera to sell units. I also hope that there will be some thought given to recording audio at the same time - I don't relish the "vintage" vibe of synching audio by eye later.
One more thing comes to mind - among the exciting draws of shooting with the new Digital 16 cameras is being able to shoot with vintage 16mm lenses. In the Super 8 world, few cameras had interchangeable lenses. Most were equipped with a permanent zoom lens, and that was it. The charm and nostalgia of the picture comes from the grain quality and color of the final picture rather than esoteric lens choices. I really hope that the Nolab cart is capable of those sorts of evocative visuals. Otherwise I'm just getting nice clean video through an okay lens - something I can do with the phone that's in my pocket right now.
There's clearly more to this than what they're hinting on the website... and you can expect that we'll be watching this project with much interest. I have a half dozen high end Super 8 cameras that are dying to see the sun again.