IN A HOMEMADE STUDIO IN REGIONAL VICTORIA, TWO MOVIEMAKERS ARE QUIETLY
REVIVING A NEARLY LOST FILM FORMAT.
GROWING UP, RICHARD TUOHY UNDERSTOOD THE LURE OF FILM MORE THAN MOST ’70S KIDS.
His parents ran a pharmacy in suburban Melbourne that had a camera shop, with a darkroom in the laundry. Tuohy remembers watching spools of film being developed by his father, and being enchanted by the alchemical process that brought them to life. “There’s always been a connection for me with those images and that time,” he says, taking a break from work at Nanolab, which he owns and operates with his partner, Dianna Barrie. It’s based in Daylesford, about 90 minutes north-west of Melbourne, and it’s Australasia’s only Super 8 processing lab.
Super 8 film was introduced by Kodak in 1965 as a user-friendly update of the 8mm format. While 8mm film had to be carefully threaded into the camera, Super 8 came in cartridges that could be quickly slotted in. The new format also had smaller perforations on the edges, allowing for greater exposure space and better quality images. Shortly after the format's release, many companies started producing dedicated Super 8 cameras. It was an instant hit with amateur filmmakers, who threw themselves into movie making. Barrie’s family held their own home-movie nights a decade later. “It wasn’t just films of us growing up,” she remembers. “My father had been in the navy, and one film showed a helicopter being winched out of the sea. I said, ‘Where is that camera? I want to start shooting some film.’”
The accessible format also lent itself to experimentation when it found itself in the hands of art students and young filmmakers. When Tuohy left school in 1986 he chanced upon the Melbourne Super 8 Film Group, which ran out of RMIT’s former Glasshouse Theatre. There he met people making their own experimental films, and he started to see the format’s potential to make something more than family movies. “That group turned out to be a life-directing discovery,” he says.
By then the format was in trouble. In 1983, the Super 8 market took a massive hit when Sony released the first consumer camcorder, the Betamovie BMC-100P, which could film up to three and a half hours of footage, compared with Super 8’s three minutes. Footage recorded with these video cameras could be viewed on a television rather than a sputtering projector. Slowly, the oncebeloved Super 8 format fell out of usage.
Recently, though, Super 8 has experienced something of a comeback. This resurgence may stem from a broader nostalgia for handson technology. But it’s also likely due to apps such as Instagram using so-called ‘retro’ filters, which have introduced new generations to the blasts of saturated colour and winsome fade-outs that came from dunking good old-fashioned film in chemicals.
Tuohy says this assumption checks out. “Out of our thousands of customers, most are young and are excited by the medium for aesthetic reasons.” Around a quarter of the films Nanolab receives are of weddings, as couples pay homage to the grainy movies of their parents’ nuptials. Another quarter is made up of music videos, which are matched in number by skaters and surfers seeking to replicate the look and feel of the original MacGillivray Freeman documentaries from the ’70s. The final slice of the pie is divided between home movies, documentaries and advertisements that feature re-enactments of times gone by.
BEYOND ITS AESTHETIC QUALITIES, THE THING THAT MOST DEFINES SUPER 8 IS ITS LIMITATIONS; EACH CARTRIDGE PRODUCES JUST OVER THREE MINUTES OF FOOTAGE.
The inside of a c ontact printer, which expo ses the negative’s image onto stock for making prints.
This page, from top Tuohy creates a fresh batch of liquid developer. The wrong chemical composition can be disastr ous, so pharmaceutical-level care is taken.
Despite the tactile appeal of Super 8, f ew of Nanolab’s clients choo se to watch their f ilms on a projector. Barrie handles the digitisation pr ocess, known as telecining.
Tuohy and Barrie met while studying philosophy at university, but didn’t become serious about making movies until they moved to Daylesford in 1999. Tuohy was working a pleasingly cluttered bookstore with views of Lake Daylesford, while Barrie was painting houses and labouring on building sites. “One day a customer came in and told me about the Daylesford Super 8 Group,” Tuohy recalls. “I thought, ‘Get away!’ I couldn’t believe Super 8 was still going.” Curious, he decided to make one last film, “for old times’ sake.” Everything that had drawn him to the format all those years ago resurfaced. “I just went crazy, and made dozens of experimental films.”
The pair’s work is now shown at film festivals around the world. And while Nanolab, founded in 2006, has become their primary moneymaker, it began life as a way for them to process their own movies. “Kodak had just discontinued their Super 8 film stock and replaced it with Ektachrome,” Tuohy explains, which was a far more complex beast to work with. “We looked everywhere to find someone who could develop it for us, but were turned away at every point. So we decided to have a go at it ourselves.”
They started out using Soviet-era processing tanks and built things up from there. “It was just a matter of trial and error,” Barrie says. Back then, there were no YouTube tutorials to show first-timers the ropes (which, in any case, would have felt a bit sacrilegious). “You kept at it till you found a way to make it work.” Initially they started processing film in their laundry. “I used to have to climb in between the washing machine and trough, then shut the concertina door,” Tuohy says. It soon dawned on them that others might want to use their services, too. “Very quickly we thought, ‘Okay, this is what we’re going to do for a living,’ so we built a dedicated space for it.”
Beyond its aesthetic qualities, the thing that most defines Super 8 is its limitations. Each cartridge produces just over three minutes of footage, which means that even a short film might be made up of many segments that have to be spliced together. The process is incredibly hands-on, even when compared with other analogue formats. Which just means more work for Tuohy and Barrie. Their new, non-laundry-based Nanolab HQ is on the block of the couple’s mud-brick house, which they also built themselves. One building is for processing, and another is a darkroom for making their own films. “It’s not particularly glamorous, but people ooh and aah over it,” Tuohy says.
Tuohy handles the processing in the ‘wet lab’ and talks to customers about camera logistics, while Barrie runs the telecine department, transferring film to digital formats. Once a film has been processed, you can make as many copies of it as you like. Before that point, though, a roll of film lives a precarious life. “You’re given something that’s extremely sensitive,” Tuohy says, “and you’re about to pour chemicals on it.” The duo take extreme care processing their customers' film, as there are no backups. Still, mistakes can happen at nearly every stage of the process. Sometimes even the chemical manufacturer supplying the developing solution gets the formula wrong. When that happens, entire films can be lost.
Making their own films is the part of their practice that Barrie and Tuohy enjoy the most. To encourage others to pick up the format, they started a community lab in Melbourne, called Artist Film Workshop. “We’re about demystifying the process, because there is a knowledge barrier with film that intimidates people,” Tuohy says. “I resent this barrier because I don’t think film is any more esoteric than oil painting. It’s just that photographic knowledge has left us.” The workshops teach people how to shoot film and then process it with experimental techniques. “We focus on developing film in a way where you can have parts of it come out colour-negative, parts of it black and white, and parts of it colour-positive,” Tuohy says. “It’s a great way to understand what the various chemicals are doing.”
More than anything, Barrie and Tuohy are driven by a desire to keep the format alive. They understand Super 8 can’t just be the domain of inner-city artists and a few dedicated tree-changers; they have to take it to the world. To this end, the couple has held nearly 50 Super 8 workshops outside of Australia, including in Taiwan, Jakarta and South Korea, as well as across Europe and the U.S. This year they’re heading to Mexico and Uruguay. “I have a Johnny Appleseed fantasy of founding new filmmaking communities in other countries,” Tuohy says. “You can start with practically nothing. Bucket-processing is a viable option.”
The demand for their services at home and abroad should be cause for optimism. There’s always a backlog of film processing jobs waiting for them – enough that they frequently have to employ someone to help them with the task of working through all the film. Meanwhile, the news that Kodak will release a new Super 8 camera this year – the first since the 1980s – means Nanolab is unlikely to slow down anytime soon.
“It’s very encouraging,” Tuohy says. “It’s one more thing injecting new life and new confidence in the format.”
Using specially built equipment, Tuohy and Barrie can pr ocess up to 30 rolls of f ilm at once