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It's 1979, and a group of Midwest teens are shooting a monster movie with a Super 8 camera. Suddenly, an army freight train carrying secretive cargo from Area 51 derails in front of them. Amidst the explosive wreckage, the abandoned camera captures footage of, well, something big and bad -- and definitely not from Cleveland -- escaping into the night. Like in all movies shot with any camera, a government cover-up ensues. Can these spunky little Spielbergs use their forbidden film to help capture the beast and save the day?
That's the premise of the highly anticipated new alien action thriller Super 8, directed by J.J. Abrams ("Lost," Star Trek) and produced by Steven Spielberg. If it sounds like E.T. meets Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a little Unstoppable thrown in for good measure, well that's no accident.
Abrams was an aspiring filmmaker himself in the late '70s, making his own Super 8 flicks with friends. In fact, after winning a Super 8 film festival a few years later, the wunderkind crossed the radar of the sci-fi superstar, Mr. Spielberg. After seeing Abrams' amateur work, he asked the fledgling director to restore some of the 8 millimeter home movies that the Spielberg himself had made as a youngster.
That magical period in Abrams' life provided the germ of the idea for this film. After approaching several writers and not getting anywhere with a script though, "I said forget it, I'll write it myself," says Abrams. And he did.
While home-moviemaking has been possible in one shape or another for the last 70 years, the cameras were often expensive, klutzy and fragile. But it has come a long way since your uncle's Grand Canyon slides ignited a three-alarm fire on Thanksgiving. The home-movie revolution began when the easier, better and faster Super 8 cameras hit the mass market in 1965, allowing budding auteurs to replicate what they were watching on the big screen, at least in theory. Here's how home-filmmaking has been upgraded since then:
Originally released by Kodak in 1965, the handheld film cameras used plastic film cartridges with 8 mm film that could record up to three minutes and 20 seconds of footage. That was an upgrade from regular 8 film, which had to be manually loaded into a camera -- ergo no shiny yellow plastic cartridges. In 1973, sound was added to the film, and it became the go-to home movie camera of the '70s.
While it wasn't quite as sharp as studio-quality 16 mm film, the 8 mm's grainy look gave it a distinct and very cool feel that some major filmmakers have adapted for the big screen. Still, this wasn't for casual home moviemakers. A 1976 Canon 514 XL-S, one of the better-selling models at the time, sold at Sears for a then whopping $354.50, or the equivalent of more than $1,000 dollars in 2011.
The Video Revolution
Once VCRs and Betamax hit the scene in the late '70s, video recorders were easier and more immediate and began to dominate the home-movie market. But while the tapes were cheaper, had much longer running times, had a picture and sound, and could be viewed on a TV instead of a projector, they had some major drawbacks. For one thing, the cameras were so big and bulky that they made it really difficult to casually record the girl across the street engaging in some topless sunbathing by the pool er we mean, film your grandparents' anniversary party. The elements included a large shoulder-mounted video camera, a massive, built-in recording device and heavy battery pack, like 1981's bulky JVC KY-2000.
These soon gave way to all-inclusive models with compact VHS tapes inside the camera, signaling the dawn of the camcorder. The first big seller was 1984's JVC GR-C1 the camera Marty McFly used to film Doc Brown get shot at by the Libyans in Back to the Future. That was soon followed by Sony's even more convenient Handycam in 1985.
The Dawn of Digital
Digital video began to gain popularity with the advent of Sony's first digital camcorder in 1995, the DCR-VX1000. At first, you could only record onto Mini DV (digital video) cassettes, but as the format gained popularity, they were augmented by SD storage cards. The cameras were also equipped with new LCD screens to allow you to view your fine work in progress.
Digital Flip Cams
As digital video cameras became smaller and more technically challenging, developers at Pure Digital Technologies decided causal users were too overwhelmed, and introduced the flip cam in 2006. This idiot-proof video camera became an instant hit, allowing users to shoot high-quality video with very limited operator requirements. And instead of shooting to film, it had a ready-made port to stick right into your home computer and upload to YouTube. And that's why cats now rule the internet.
Today, video cameras are everywhere: You can shoot high-def video on your phone and wirelessly transmit it anywhere in the world with tools such as Samsung's Focus or Apple's iPhone (which offers the movie-editing iMovie app for just $4.99).
But if all of this newer technology leaves you nostalgic for the good old days, take heart. Apple's latest hit doo-hickey is, you guessed it, a Super 8 app. It tinges whatever video you take on your iPhone with the brownish hue and makes the same clackety projector sound as a Super 8 movie from your childhood. Just keep an eye out for the killer aliens in the background.
Photo Credit: @iStockphoto.com/Graffizone
Matt Coppa is the entertainment director of Star Magazine and a freelance web writer who covers sports, entertainment, tech and lifestyle. He was formerly a senior editor at a number of publications, including Stuff, Men's Fitness and Life & Style Weekly.