It really was a magic time. When we would be sitting around on a weekend afternoon, trying to come up with something that a group of eight to twelve-year-old boys could do. My father owned a Super-8 movie camera. After a few short minutes of story pitches, we rode our bikes down to K-Mart and bought a roll of film. The next few hours were spent making a film.
In those days, it was all about what would fit on that one roll of film. That gave us three minutes and twenty seconds to tell our tale. Initially, we were all stars in my older brother's productions. He was fond of the classics: a western, The Hunchback, Bonnie and Clyde. In his version of Dracula, the title character wore a paste of flour and water, and after a good deal of coercion, a thin line of red on his lips. I played the werewolf assistant, and though I was relieved not to have to wear lipstick, I had handfuls of fur stuck to my face and hands with Elmer's glue. As the day's shooting wore on, my comfort level decreased, and I believed this enabled my performance.
When my older brother moved on from behind the camera, I took his place. We knew very little about splicing, so all of our editing had to take place in the camera. That meant we had to film everything in sequence, which made our stories incredibly linear. When we made our "Tank Movie" with many of my friend's army of miniature soldiers, artillery and armored vehicles, we had to save our explosions for the climactic battle, since we needed all our pieces intact until then. The rest of the effects were achieved by finger-deep trenches in the sand, filled with lighter fluid. At the end of the day, we had piles of molten slag that had once been toys. The sacrifice, we decided, was worth the spectacle, or so we believed.
Back in those days, there was a week's turnaround time for film processing. After we shot a roll, I would hand it over to my father, who would drop it off at Look Photo for us, and we would wait patiently for the return of the magic yellow envelope that would contain our finished reel. Then I would call everyone up to my house for a screening in my basement. The first showing was always straight through, with plenty of critical appraisal for our efforts. Then there were plenty of additional projections, this time dwelling on the fast, slow, freeze-frame abilities of our projector. The favorite was always the reverse viewing. Many of our films were spared from ignominy because they were so highly amusing to watch backward.
Eventually we became more independent, in that we used K-Mart's drop-off processing service. I made "The Six-Million Dollar Mistake" as a timely bit of parody of Lee Majors' main contribution to our cultural lexicon. I even went "on location" in the hills around our mountain cabin to make "The Rock Monster". The title character's makeup consisted of half of his face being painted red, and the other green, topped off with my Campagnolo bike hat. My mother even had a cameo in that one.
By the end of the sixth grade, I made my own Dracula film, "Drac Comes Back", stepping outside my neighborhood comfort zone, using my classmates for actors and crew. I even had a soundtrack for that one: Elton John's "Funeral For A Friend." After that, I found new ways to fill my time. Junior high was a much more social time for many, but for me it was more isolating. I didn't pick up the camera again until I was in college. By that time, I had a head full of ideas, access to a movieola, and a mild talent for cutting tiny pieces of film together in the order I desired. This period had its own charm, but in some ways the magic was gone. It wasn't happening in the camera, I was manipulating it with my hands. Many of the results were just as pleasing, but the secret was known.
I was watching my son strap our video camera to the top of his remote control car last week. Good for him.