Anatomy of a single cartridge film

Anatomy of a single cartridge film


With so many people entering various single cartridge Super 8mm competitions the world over, we thought we’d give you an insight into how we made ‘buttoned’ and a frank account of what we learnt.

The idea and planning the shoot

We’d had the idea for ‘buttoned’, which is based on a real life phobia about buttons, for some time. The trick was to articulate this pretty random concept into 3 minutes of film without it being overly indulgent and dull. The answer was to make a sort of confessional documentary, led by dialogue, illustrated with moving images. So, with the idea finalised, we set about planning.

The soundtrack

Many films suffer from poor quality soundtracks, be it quality of dialogue recordings or through the inappropriate use of music. With ‘buttoned’ planned to be dialogue heavy we knew that sound was key to making the film work. The plan was to complete the soundtrack before any shooting was undertaken, effectively taking our visual cues from the appropriate points in the script.

After numerous drafting versions, the script was complete. Using Garageband on the Mac we roughed out our music (all free from any copyright issues) to ensure that the dialogue would match with the rhythm of the soundtrack and mesh with the foley sounds which would be incorporated later.

We’d decided that we’d have to spend some money on recording the dialogue to get the quality we wanted. We hunted around on the internet for a local recording studio who’d sell us just one hour of time with an engineer – figuring that a single hour would more than cover our three minute segment.

One Sunday afternoon we found ourselves in converted industrial unit a few miles from home. After explaining what the project was and showing a few other examples to the engineer, we were fortunate that he ‘got it’ straight away. He suggested using a (very expensive) valve microphone in the deadened vocal booth to give an intimate feel. One hour and just £30 later we came out with our dialogue on CD ready to cut and drop onto our soundtrack.

The final element was a few foley sounds recorded with the props we were going to use in the film plus a few effects found from the brilliant freesound project.

After a few hours editing the soundtrack was complete – we were ready to go!

Shot list, logging and timing

On previous single cartridge shoots we’d used a simple shot list comprising dialogue cues, timing points and thumbnail hand-drawn sketches of the shots required. We used the same approach again, taking dialogue from our completed script and transcribing it onto our log sheets taking timing points (to the nearest full second) from the soundtrack along the way. Sketches then illustrated the shots we required supplemented by a few cryptic notes.

To ensure that we hit key points in the soundtrack we needed a way of ensuring that our timing was in the right ball park. The solution was simple, a piece of masking tape was stuck to the camera’s film indicator window and using some simple maths we calculated where our key cues were (in feet) from the 50 foot available on the cartridge. Marks were drawn at the appropriate places along the tape so we knew if we were on/behind or ahead of our planned shooting schedule.

To time the shots, which were numerous, we’d already built a relay timer that allowed us to key in the shot length and the box of tricks would start and stop the camera for us automatically. So with a shot list taken from the soundtrack, with accurately timed shots along the way, nothing could go wrong – or so we thought!

Locations and lighting

We knew that keeping all the locations in close proximity would make the shoot easier, but the film required a number of interior shots, always difficult for Super 8mm unless lit correctly. We decided that we’d do a mix of interior and exterior shots, at home (with the exception of one later shot) which also had the advantage of being close to the computer which we’d need for the titles and inter-titles (see below).

The fact that we were shooting on Black and White Tri-X film stock meant we didn’t have to worry about balancing tungsten interior shots with exterior daylight shots. We just had to make sure that everything was lit properly.

As we were determined to do everything on the cheap we didn’t hire in professional lighting for the interiors (perhaps we should have?). We utilised an array of cheap Ikea handlamps which could be clamped onto furniture, doors etc. and positioned close to the action just out of shot (Note: at 01:05 you will see one in the bottom right hand corner of the shot!) Although each was only 40 Watts the array of 5 lamps would give us enough light for the almost noir-ish look we wanted.


We’d struggled with working out how to get high quality titles into the film in a quick and easy manner. So many times we’ve seen titles let single cartridge films down and with our plan to have integral inter-titles it was important that ours were good.

We hit upon the idea of using the LCD monitor of our Mac to display the titles and then film the screen. This had the advantage that the set up would be quick, each would look the same as the previous and it would be easier (when shooting in order) to incorporate the titles on the hoof.

Titles were created and displayed full size on the Mac screen. The distance from the monitor to the film plane of the camera (where the film window of the cartridge sits – not the front of the camera) was carefully measured so that the distance could be set on the camera accurately. We also decided to go with black on white rather than the usual white on black to give the best exposure.

On the day

With everything planned, checked and double check we got up early, had a good breakfast (essential) and began the process of filming ‘buttoned’.

Inital filming went well with the first few shots going to plan with the timing box controlling everything, lighting seemed adequate and we hit the first timing cue pretty much spot on. But then the troubles began.

Our reliance upon the timing box quickly became our undoing. Little did we know that the thing was very power hungry and soon the batteries stopped supplying the required 12 volts – resulting in sporadic operation. So, we dropped the box and went back to the traditional method of counting down seconds for each shot, we knew we’d made some mistakes and with tensions and tempers rising, we pushed on – determined not to abandon.

By the time we’d run out of patience on day one we’d shot as far as the animated clothes sequence, we had hoped to complete in just a single day but took the decision to stop rather than fall out!

Day two came and with more energy and the chance to reflect, the film was completed and sent back to straight 8 for processing and judging.

What we learnt

‘buttoned’ didn’t make the hallowed 13 films that were screened by straight 8 at Cannes but did make the 75 screened in London. The sheer terror of seeing your film for the fist time on the big screen in front of a nearly full house is not to be underestimated.

Whilst we knew that the film was full of (in our eyes) errors, it went down really well and certainly generated some interest. Hindsight being what it is, allows us to reflect on what we’d do differently…

Damn timing box – the box is brilliant when it works, next time we’ll be sorting the power supply out to make sure it can last longer than the 2 hours it did!

Soft focus – our lighting was a bit off in places resulting in a few depth of field issues and “soft” shots, need to pay more attention in future!

Hairs in the gate – watch the hairs and other crud march up the right hand side of the screen through the film – oops we forgot to check the gate before we started!

Wonky titles – the computer titles worked well, but weren’t quite level – we should have used a spirit level to check the camera!

The ending – we got totally hacked off by the end and the film just peters out – we should have faded to black!

‘buttoned’ wasn’t an easy shoot for us and didn’t go as nearly a smoothly as our Flicker LA Attack film ‘cannonball’ that we shot last year, but we’re always eager to learn from our mistakes!


Credit: Taken from