I’m sitting in a room with five other young women, each of us holding a small, colorful box of film. It’s nearing the end of the first day of Sam Hoolihan’s Caffeinated Images: Nontoxic Super 8 Development course and we’re eager to load the film into our borrowed Super 8 cameras and start shooting our first roll.
On Hoolihan’s cue, we rip off the top, clawing at the film cartridge inside, when he suddenly interrupts—“But wait!” We stop and meet his gaze. “First, take a sniff,” he says, and we all take a deep inhale from our box. There’s nothing like that new film smell.
It’s this kind of fun attitude that makes Hoolihan so relatable to his students. This is his first time teaching an MCAD Continuing Education (CE) course, but having taught at MCAD and the University of Minnesota for four years, he’s no stranger to cultivating students’ excitement for the media arts.
“Historically, when new technology comes along and old tools get tossed aside, artists are the ones that grab those tools and reinvent them.”
Hoolihan started out as a photographer but always considered moving image to be “magical and powerful.” After he got his BFA in photography from the University of Minnesota, he went back for his MFA and redirected his focus on film, taking inspiration from his musical background. “Going from still image to moving image was a way to return to that time-based durational form within the visual arts,” he says. Working with moving image allowed him to create work that unfolds in the same way a piece of music does.
Instructor Sam Hoolihan (left) with his Caffeinated Images: Non-Toxic Super 8 Development students. Photo by Forrest Wasko.
During graduate school, Hoolihan took his first Super 8 film class and was instantly hooked. Super 8 film was first released in 1965 and revolutionized home movies. With a frame size of only eight millimeters, it had a low resolution, but was cheap, accessible, and easy to use, with the small cameras acting almost as an extension of the arm and cartridges that contained about three minutes of film each. When VHS rose to popularity in the ’80s, Super 8 use declined, but artists continue to experiment with the medium today. “Historically, when new technology comes along and old tools get tossed aside, artists are the ones that grab those tools and reinvent them,” he says.
The limitation of Super 8 film excited Hoolihan. “I loved buying a roll and filling the three minutes with as much as I could,” he says. He has since added 16mm film to his repertoire, but works with both film and digital processes. The many unique qualities of working with film have shaped his art practice. He loves the physicality of the process and working with his hands in shooting, developing, and projecting the film. He likens setting up the projector before a screening to the experience of setting up his drum set to play a show with his band in his earlier years. “The projector requires me to be there physically working everything and I really enjoy that,” he says. And though not particular to celluloid film, the overall power of the cinema space is special for him: “In the cinema, in a dark space like that, there’s a built-in contract with the audience where they’re like, ‘I’m going to give this person sixty minutes of my time.’”
Excerpt from a 16mm film work-in-progress, City of Lakes, by Sam Hoolihan
These are the aspects of working with film that he loves passing onto students. “The first time I saw an artist working with Super 8 and 16mm, it made such an impact on me. I wanted to investigate that and dive in. I hope I instill that in my students,” Hoolihan says. He relishes working with young artists and seeing how they approach different ideas. “It challenges me and forces me to think of things in a different way.” He likes to take a hands-on approach in his classes and to get students to pull from their personal passions and curiosities in their lives. “That is a good art practice to develop early on because then it’s a constantly renewing source of inspiration,” he says.
Hoolihan likes to encourage first-time celluloid film students to record a film diary and capture their daily lives in an interesting way. “I find those films can be really beautiful and that they get better and better over time because they become little time capsules,” he says. This was the approach that most of the young women in our Nontoxic Super 8 class took, including myself. Shooting snippets of my everyday helped me become acquainted with the camera and the medium in a way that was low-pressure but still meaningful. I carried the camera around with me for a week, taking it out to shoot when I noticed beautiful lighting, spent time with friends, and visited interesting places. The off-the-wall transfer I have of my film pales in comparison to the real projection, but it is, of course, the most accessible way to share films in the twenty-first century.
Rita Kovtun's Super 8 film diary.
The experience of seeing a film projected is like none other. Each projection is unique because projectors are imperfect. A film might look different based on where the film catches in the projector or how bright the bulb is. And the sound of a projector starting up is still a ubiquitous audial cue of something exciting to come—a film about to start. Watching films on the projector felt like a more intimate experience than watching them on a computer screen; it was a welcome break from modern media.
I carried the camera around with me for a week, taking it out to shoot when I noticed beautiful lighting, spent time with friends, and visited interesting places.
In our class, we hand-processed our films with a mixture of vitamin C, washing soda, and, believe it or not, coffee. This recipe is called Caffenol and was developed in the mid-90s as an alternative to the traditional chemical film developer and works for still image film as well. This developer gives film a less contrasted and more sepia-toned look. We also used a nontoxic bleach made from hydrogen peroxide and lime juice. This mixture causes the highlights of the film to blister slightly, creating the look of animated white dots that appear almost as rain, snow, or sparkles when the film is projected. (This is easy to see in my film.) The nontoxic process is a fun alternative to the standard film processing chemicals, but is also cheaper, safer, and easy to make from grocery store ingredients.
This Continuing Education course was a perfect introduction to the world of Super 8 filmmaking and nontoxic processing. “People take CE classes because they want to get their hands dirty and learn a new skill,” Hoolihan says. And he was glad to be the one to pass on his passion for Super 8 to students from beyond MCAD’s walls: “I love the idea of planting the seeds of these skills, especially for the younger generation. They’re growing up in the digital age so it’s fun getting young students and introducing them to this rich history of image-making and hoping they can incorporate that into their work down the road.”