Dan Cheetham on Super 8 Sessions

Dan Cheetham on Super 8 Sessions

If you go looking hard enough, you'll find a different kind of climbing film tucked away in a corner of the internet. Climber and filmmaker Dan Cheetham has spent the last couple of years experimenting with climbing movie formats, with a particular focus on use of Super 8. Taking inspiration from a background in arts and his work as a psychotherapist his techniques have created a genre which is currently unique within climbing - beautiful, nostalgic portraits of the sport.  

Your climbing films have a real simple beauty and style to them. What made you start making them on Super 8?

I wanted to make climbing videos that were representative of memories, capturing experiences of times and places in a more intimate way. I was listening to an interview with philosopher and psychologist. They were talking about how a tired old Polaroid can have greater emotional significance than a more perfect representation of the same thing. I think this explains why the Super 8 film worked for me in the video of Rivelin Edge. It has emotional resonance because it feels like my memories of time spent there. I was originally inspired by this artist who makes films out of old reels of Super 8 movies he finds on eBay. He cuts the film in this strange but really interesting way to make what he calls "memory paintings". It's fascinating how we remember our experiences, one way of thinking about it is; when something intense happens it's captured like on video with all the sensory components playing out, it then gets integrated into a "super memory" like a complex emotional and sensory edit of life's film. It would be fantastic to try and capture that idea in a really simple way.

I think Super 8 and even VHS have a particular quality about them that help create a particular feeling along with other elements like the composition and editing choices which help remind me and maybe others what it's actually like to be doing this activity. There's so much focus around sometimes we forget to look behind us.

That's fascinating, the tone of capturing memories really comes across in your style. It's easy to shoot digital but filming on Super 8 takes commitment, what goes into producing a film?

Well Super 8 was kind of the iPhone camera of a the 70's, you can pick up a pretty cheap camera on eBay, stick a cartridge in and just point and shoot. There are some practicalities to learn like manual focus and about depth of field. If you get a reasonable camera it should expose the film well for you, I tend to ask for my film digitized in a "flat" profile meaning the saturation and contrast are reduced. This preserves the dynamic range or detail of the footage and allows for better color correction. There's lots of footage out there with a "cinematic" look to it which is great. But the really important parts of making a film, for me, are things like visual metaphor, symbolism and creating meaning. This can be with the image, composition, lighting, camera motion or in the editing. All of this is the most interesting part of the process, super 8 was just a small part of that.

You have a background in the arts. How much has that influenced the way you create these shorts?

I studied fine art printmaking about 20 years ago and was always interested in processes like lithography and etching. Now I really enjoy the editing process with video, thinking about how images go together and what you're trying to achieve. I like the idea of interpreting reality rather than making a factual representation of it. I believe this process is what makes a film a "film" rather than a documentary. When I was younger studying art I was overly concerned with perfection which led to a miserable experience at times. Now I feel it's great to be more relaxed about the creative process. I've read that lots of the things that make "cinema" special happen at a subconscious level. Strangely I think I've probably been more influenced by my current work, I talk a lot to people about their life experiences and how these are perceived. It's fascinating.

With the increases in technology it feels like the current digital landscape is saturated with point and shoot bouldering footage. What advice would you give to anyone looking to use Super 8 or even just break out of the traditional style?

If you're setting out to make a beta video or proof of send then it is what it is. One of my favorite videos like this is Malcolm Smith's ascent of Monk Life in Northumberland, it's like wobbly old school phone footage but just amazing. Ben Freeman also put a similar bit of video online of climbing Voyager in the Burbage valley. Phone in shoe stuff, but he was out there on his own with no spotter and minimal mats. These facts make the video what it is. Similar to this is Ben Pritchard's short film of the first ascent of Smiling Buttress by Tyler Landman, a great edit but what makes it is the totally historic nature of what's been filmed. If you want to make something a bit different maybe starting by thinking about what makes a climbing film really special. The two stand out shorts for me are Ben Pritchard's Splinter and Chris Doyle's film of Rich Simpson training for Action Directe. Both quite different, but just compelling viewing and totally inspiring. I often watch them just for psyche. Using this as a good starting point and moving on from there would be my advice. There's loads of stuff online about creating narratives and archetypes in film etc but to be honest I find it a bit dull. I reckon bin that stuff and keep it authentic to yourself. There's a great article on Nofilmschool by Werner Herzog where he writes; "develop your own voice" and "learn to read the inner essence of a landscape". Something to think about while worrying about how 'cinematic' your footage looks.

I quite like to experiment with this process, a bit like when painting a picture; some of it’s based on reality but mostly you’re adjusting reality to create something more meaningful

I've experimented using a range of cameras and lenses over the past few years, all of which are relatively inexpensive but often rely on manual controls. There is a bit of learning to do here if you're used to point and shoots, but it's rewarding in the end. I currently use a BMPCC (Black Magic Pocket Cinema Camera), a Nizo S560 Super 8 Camera and a kind of point and shoot Nikon V1. I own a few vintage lenses which give unusual flares including a Sankor 16C Anamorphic projector lens and some 50mm vintage taking lenses. There's a great online resource called Vintage Lenses for Video, I can't recommend it highly enough.

With regards the film cameras, Super 8 is definitely the cheapest place to start. You can pick them up on eBay; while they do vary greatly in quality some of the more expensive remodeled versions being sold by pro8mm in the U.S. give excellent image quality when combined with higher quality daylight film like Kodak 50D. When you've bought your camera you can go online to companies like pro8mm or Gauge film in the UK and pick up a process, scan and digitize package for about $60 per cartridge. This will give you about 3 mins of film at 18fps. Pro8mm have a great Super 8 top tips section which basically guides you through the process. I tend to film at 24fps or 54fps for slow motion, but 18fps will give you a more traditional Super 8 look. After filming I ask for my scans back in a "flat" profile which offers the most scope for creativity in the non linear editor.

I use Final Cut Pro X and sometimes DaVinci Resolve. Resolve is a very advanced color correction tool available freely online from Black Magic Design. There is a massive learning curve for me with these programs but there's so much scope for creativity when you understand better how to use them. I also use some plugins for Final Cut Pro like Film Convert and Color Finale. They're great tools to get you going. Often I try to do my editing in camera as much as possible, it's cheaper with film but also the limitations keep it tighter. You don't end up with 90 minutes of dull footage to wade through. Color correction and editing are my favorite part of the process. It's great to think about what you're trying to achieve here, what are you trying to say? There's a tendency for color corrected films to either be really saturated or very stylized or have an unsaturated low contrast look.

I quite like to experiment with this process, a bit like when painting a picture; some of it's based on reality but mostly you're adjusting reality to create something more meaningful. You have to be careful though because video doesn't like being pushed around too much, really it's best to make most of your creative choices when pointing the camera. 

With regards the Super 8 / Film vs Digital, certainly film has a great aesthetic appeal, an organic layered grainy quality that you would struggle to recreate with DSLR video. Even with editing programs it's hard to recreate. Part of that is just the unpredictability of the old cameras, the footage is poor in one way but really authentic in another. I'd really recommend giving it a go. I've recently bought an old Russian wind up Super 16 camera called the Krasnogorsk-3. It looks like a tank! Can't wait to give it a go.