Su­per he­roes

Smith Journal - - Opinion - Writer Jenny Valen­tish Pho­tog­ra­pher Stephanie Rose Wood





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.



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.”

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Us­ing spe­cially built equip­ment, Tuohy and Bar­rie can pr ocess up to 30 rolls of f ilm at once

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