Thursday, 31 October 2013

Star Wars comes home: the Super 8 releases from Ken Films

The 200ft black and white silent Star Wars on Super 8 from Ken Films

The story of Star Wars on home video really begins with its release on VHS and Betamax in May 1982. But long before then, there were some lucky people who were able to relive the Star Wars experience at home.  They were the people with Super 8 movie projectors.

In fact, according to this piece on the excellent website Saving Star Wars, the very first version of Star Wars to be viewable at home was the one released in late 1977 via the Kenner Movie Viewer.  These toys came with a cassette containing 200ft of 8mm film which you viewed by looking through a viewfinder while cranking the movie by hand.

However, the first version of Star Wars you could project onto a wall was from Ken Films, which initially released 200ft of the film – around eight minutes – available in three versions: black and white silent, colour silent or colour with sound.  When these proved successful, the company released a 400ft selection of scenes from the film, and then another 400ft reel.  If you were handy with a splicer, you could have edited these two 400ft compilations into a pretty decent half-hour version of the film, as this person has done on YouTube.  The second 400ft reel was also released in an anamorphic widescreen version for those who had the necessary lens for their projector.

It has to be said that projecting Super 8 films was a fairly expensive hobby.  Witness this advert placed by the company Leisuremail in the first edition of the British Star Wars Weekly in February 1978:

Star Wars Weekly  advertises the Super 8 film and the projectors to show it with

Prices here ranged from £6.25 for the eight-minute silent movie to £32.95 for a 400ft colour sound version.  A silent projector would cost you £19.95 and a sound one an enormous £165.  You'd have to multiply those prices by at least a factor of four to get a rough equivalent in today's money.  So not very many of us would have been in a position to send off the slip at the bottom of the ad that began "I would like to see Star Wars in my own home. Please send me the following at the speed of light".

(Incidentally, I love the way the author of that advertising copy was pitching it at the parent who would have to shell out for the movie.  And there's a certain poignancy in the sentence:  “Star Wars is a film will delight the whole family – the young will marvel at its colour, action and fantasy, those a little older will enjoy remembering their childhood dreams of personal adventure”.  They might as well have added:    "... which were destined never to come true.")

I did eventually get hold of a Super 8 print of the movie – the black and white silent version seen here on YouTube, which was passed on to me by a relative in the early 1980s, when I had finally acquired a silent projector but most people had already abandoned Super 8 for home video.  That 200ft film consisted of two scenes: Obi-Wan in his home telling Luke about the Force; and the Millennium Falcon's escape from the Death Star.  I could never understand why Ken Films had devoted half their precious running time to the talkiest scene in the film, but I loved owning the space battle in the second half of the reel, and I played it endlessly, hoping that I would somehow unlock the secrets of film-making by analysing every shot and every cut in that Death Star escape scene.

You might think – as I did for many years – that the story of Star Wars on Super 8 ended there.  But in 1989, as the Saving Star Wars article records, the British company Derann Films Services released the entire movie on Super 8 in anamorphic widescreen.   A print cost around £300, which made it a pretty exclusive item in a world which by now had VHS and laserdisc, but watching it must have been quite magical.


johnnyivan said...

Like me Darren, you probably lay awake at night and walked around all day long thinking of the possibility of watching Star Wars at home any time you wanted - after seeing that ad in Star Wars Weekly!

I remember asking my mum and dad if there was any slight possibility..?

Star Wars fandom really was a mixture of joy and torture.

Anonymous said...

Is this worth any serious money? I have this and another super 8, selected scenes version of the empire strikes back. The front cover on this other version seems painted (not hand painted) but the illustrations of Harrison Ford, c3p0 and what not. Just curious to know if there's any financial interests in these. Cheers for any info you can provide.

Darren Slade said...

As far as I know, it's not worth serious money. You don't say whether you have a version with sound and colour, but this post at suggests they can be bought fairly cheaply:
Don't take my word for it, though. I've been enjoying Star Wars since 1978 without managing to collect very much of value.

Unknown said...

What a great article and the link is very interesting. I've done a lot of research into the history of Star Wars in the U.K and have found some interesting stuff about the Super 8 releases. British Super 8 dealerships had no restrictions on importing copies of Star Wars from Ken Films in America in 1977, even though the film had yet to come out at the cinema. The highest profile dealer was Mountain Films and they produced an A4 B & W leaflet to promote the release of Star Wars. At some stage they released a poster too. When the official list of licensee companies was released by 20th Century Fox, Mountain Films was listed as the supplier of Super 8 reels. Mountain Films was the official licensee for The Empire Strikes back too.

I'm lucky enough to have abridged copies of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes back in their entirety and also the full-length widescreen copies. All I need now is some decent equipment to project them with!

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