A Film Festival Like No Other: The Super Gr8 Experience

Nov 16, 2016

The Virginia Film Festival may have wrapped in Charlottesville for the year, but the city of Harrisonburg is just getting ready to roll out its own red carpet. The 7th annual “Super Gr8” Film Festival will take place in town this Thursday and Friday. Emily Richardson-Lorente has the story.

[CLIP from “Really Reelz”]

“He goes to confession every week, even though he has nothing to confess. He is the least interesting man in the world …”

Think of great filmmaking duos, and Paul Somers and Tim Estep probably don’t come to mind, but maybe they should. For 7 years now, they’ve been hosting the Super Gr8 Film Festival in Harrisonburg.

TIM ESTEP: Every year we get tons of e-mails, “Hey, can we submit our film?” Well, it's not really sort of that type of festival.

That’s Tim Estep, and he’s right. It’s not that type of festival because all of the films that will screen over the course of the 2-night long event, have been made specifically for Super Gr8.

ESTEP: That's the difference. We're giving people cameras and film and they have about three months to create a film, they give it back to us and then they come and watch their film for the first time when it airs the night of the screening.

If you’re thinking, wait, what? How can you make a film and not see it while you’re making it? Good question. All of the movies shown at Super Gr8 are shot on Super8 film, which needs to be developed before you can watch it. Do you remember Super8? It came out in the 60’s, for use in home video cameras. It’s what filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams shot on when they were kids.

PAUL SOMERS: You know, it’s a breath of fresh air in a digital world.

That’s Paul Somers. Chat with him and Tim Estep for a few minutes, and it becomes pretty clear that they’re both a little bit in love with Super8 film.

SOMERS: The shot that you can get on Super8 is absolutely, astonishingly beautiful and it looks like nothing else.

ESTEP: If you were going to say one word, I think “dreamlike.”

Back in 2010, Tim and Paul decided to harness that “dreamlike” quality by  holding a film festival built around Super8. Initially they had to sell people on the idea.

SOMERS: But then once you broke the cameras out it was just kind of like “WHOA this is sick! What is this?!” You know, it looks like a pistol and it has a pistol grip and, and it just does all these things that are really, really unique.

And the films that are created with this 50-year old technology tend to be pretty unique too. Like an animation of a woman who seems to be eating her own head. Or movies about making toast … Big Foot … even a mysterious hole in the ground.

[CLIP from “The Hole Story”]

CHILD: “Hey down there!”

Registration is open to anyone interested in making a film, though there is a $60 registration fee, but in return:

SOMERS: We provide the film cartridge, we provide the camera, get other people like helpers, actors, cinematographers, you know — whatever people need if they want to make a film, we pretty much facilitate everything we can to make that possible for them.

Paul and Tim work hard to explain the process to participants, but there’s one thing some filmmakers still seem to have trouble wrapping their heads around.

SOMERS: We’ll sign people up for the film festival and we’ll get a call like, “Man, I'm looking at this camera and I can't figure out how to review the footage that I've already shot.” And it's like, well, unless you have a spare chemical bath, you're not going to be able to see it.

In fact, filmmakers send their undeveloped reels to Tim & Paul, who then send them off to California for processing. When the films come back, they’re often rife with little mistakes — actors dropping props, looking into the camera. Paul Somers calls these “ happy accidents.”

SOMERS: You know, you see them in the theater and everybody you know encouragingly laughs and it totally works.

But occasionally there are bigger problems. Like the time one man's reel came back all black.

SOMERS: And we called him and he was just — just made like this visceral kind of “Ugh!” and was telling us how he had pushed a car off of a cliff and got it on film and we were telling him that it was gone.

A far more common problem turns out to be length. Each filmmaker receives only one reel of Super8 film. 200 seconds of footage, no more. And sometimes that runs out before they think it will.  

ESTEP: There’s been a lot of films that don’t have a last shot, the punch line.

Audio turns out to be a big challenge too. Filmmakers have to create their soundtracks from the visuals, without the benefit of seeing what they’ve shot. That makes lining up — or “syncing” — dialogue really difficult, because it comes out looking like a badly dubbed kung fu film. Which gave one group of participants last year, an idea.

[CLIP from “Fist of the Serpent”]

Bad Guy: “I can end your life right now. That is of course, unless you know Kung Fuuuuuuuu”

Villager: “No please!”

SOMERS: And it was just like a 70’s kung fu film with the, you know, the fast zooms and the snappy cameras and the overdubbed audio.

But even those filmmakers didn’t know how their film had turned out before they screened it in front of an audience, which is why — Paul and Tim say — the Super Gr8 screenings are so fun and “electric”.

ESTEP: I think that's sort of the build up that happens before the festival and the buzz you feel in there is because like you have no idea.

Along with the 36 films that will be screened this week, there will be an award ceremony and after parties. Based on past attendance, Paul and Tim expect a full — and very happy — house.