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Widget Of The Week

Silma 120m Super Zoom 8mm Projector, 1966

Ever since portable video recorders first appeared in the late seventies several generations have grown up not knowing (or caring) much about what came before, and how good it could be. Photographic film based movie and cine recording has been steadily evolving since at least the late 1880s but it wasn’t until the 1930s, following the introduction of 8mm wide film and lightweight equipment, that home movie making started to take off (though early adopters of the hobby needed to be quite well-heeled). However, it became a proper mass-market product during the 1960s when the technically superior and fuss-free, cassette-based Super 8 format was launched. Within a few years there were scores of inexpensive and easy to use cameras and projectors on the market, some models even had the facility to record sound, but it was the start of the end of an era.

 

In 1966 cine projectors like this Silma 120M Super Zoom were in amongst the first wave of Super 8 products. It has many of the features that helped to popularise the, then, fledgling format. These included a self-threading film loading mechanism. Watching movies on previous generations of projectors involved a lot of faffing about, lacing film around sprocket wheels and rollers, through the gate and onto the take-up reel. With this one all you had to do was fit the reels, switch it on, feed the film leader from the supply reel into a little slot above the lens; a few moments later the film was winding on the take up reel and your latest mini epic was showing on the screen. Other handy options are variable speed replay, forward and reverse playback, pause mode, adjustments for centring the frame, precision focus, and a novel zoom lens. It could take reels up to 17.8mm (7-inches) in diameter -- containing up to 120 metres (400 feet) of film -- lasting around 20 minutes. As an added bonus, on the rear of the projector there’s a handy socket for a room light or table lamp, which switches off whenever the projector is running.

 

Unlike a lot of other entry-level and mid-market projectors made in the mid sixties this one was really well built, mostly of metal. Plastic parts are few and far between, and you can tell, when you pick it up, it weights over 6kg! It’s sleek and elegant, which isn’t too surprising since it comes from the land of style and design. Clearly it’s not in quite the same league as the likes of Ferrari, La Pavoni and Gucci, but alongside rival cine projectors from the rest of Europe and Japan there’s no mistaking the Italian flair for making functional, and at times boring objects, look really smart.

 

I found this one at a Sussex car boot sale. It had clearly only been used a few times; it came in its original box, complete with all the poly packing, a spare bulb and the instructions, all for just £3.00 (haggled down from a fiver)! The stallholder mentioned that it was being sold as a non-runner, but said that the light came on, and it made whirring noises. This didn’t sound too serious, possibly just a broken drive belt, but even if it turned out to be something more serious it was still a great deal and worst case, would make an interesting doorstop or table lamp…

 

It was indeed a drive belt problem. It had probably broken fairly on in its career but it seems that the previous owner just put it straight back in the box. Over a period of several years what remained of the belt turned in an evil gooey slime. More recently it was probably powered up, resulting in said slime being liberally spread around the area of the drive motor and its surroundings. It took the best part of two hours, a dozen or more cotton buds and a fair quantity of isopropyl alcohol to clean up the sticky mess. A new drive belt was fitted some light oil applied to the places recommended by the instruction manual and it was running again like new.

 

Not having played with a decent Super 8 projector for some time image quality of the 120M was a very pleasant surprise. I had forgotten just how good amateur home movies could be, even those shot on fairly basic equipment. Some of the films in my very small collection are more than 40 years old but the pictures are as crisp and colours as bright and vivid as the day the movie was shot. That’s more than you can say about some of my earliest home videos, dating from the late 70s, which are now in an advanced state of decay and almost unwatchable.  

 

What Happened To It?

Although Super 8 was popular for more than a decade, by the early 70s, when Philips launched the first home VCR, it was obvious that the future of home movie making lay with video tape, which offered instant playback, audio recording and long running times. Although Super 8 was very convenient, movies could never last longer than a few minutes, when shot on domestic equipment, and there was the inevitable wait and expense of having films processed. Video didn’t happen overnight, though, in fact it took a good 20 years from the arrival of the first ‘luggable’ portable video outfits until handheld camcorders came even close to matching the quality of cine.

 

The final chapter of Silma’s history was closely linked to the rise of home video. The company was founded in Rivoli in northern Italy in 1951, and initially known as Cirse. The name was changed to Filma in 1959 and it became Silma in 1965, shortly before it was taken over by the German photographic company Bauer. Although moderately successful throughout the 60s and 70s and well known to aficionados, Silma never became a household name. The company finally succumbed to the relentless onslaught of video and ceased trading in 1985. Cine’s days as a home movie format were over several years previously though, and this was in spite of some valiant attempts to keep it going. These included big improvements in camera and projector technology and performance. Even Polaroid had a poke at the demon video with its ill-fated Polavision Instant Movie system in 1977. It tried to challenge the immediacy of video with an ingenious self-developing movie film, but it was seriously flawed and almost certainly contributed to the corporation’s eventual downfall.

 

Like vinyl LPs, 8mm film and Super 8 never completely went away, though and there are still plenty of loyal enthusiasts around the world keeping the formats alive. Film is still being made and is readily available, though at a price. Several companies have processing facilities and hardcore fans can even develop films themselves with a few readily obtainable chemicals. Cine is a very long way from total obsolescence, which means there is a healthy market for cameras and projectors and not just amongst die-hard collectors; a lot of people have reels of old home movies that they enjoy watching, from time to time. A good projector can also be used to make passable cine to video or digital copies, to preserve or share their old movies. It’s fairly easy to do too, just point the video camera directly at the screen, or use a purpose-made cine to video transfer box costing under £20.

 

Top-end projectors, in good condition, can change hands for several hundred pounds on ebay and specialist web sites; lower down the scale middle of the road models like this one can easily fetch £50 or more on a good day. If you don’t mind a spot of tinkering fixer-uppers can be found for considerably less, and because they’re largely mechanical in nature, DIY repairs, with basic skills and a few simple tools, are entirely possible. Some spares can be hard to find though, but commodity items, like replacement drive belts and bulbs are widely available for most models.

 

It is unlikely that cine will ever enjoy the same sort of revival as vinyl recordings and analogue audio but it’s a practical, and still very affordable area of vintage and retro technology, and if you keep your eye out for boxes of old home movies at car boot sales, it can provide an interesting and sometimes comical insight into recent history and the often dramatic changes in society and our surroundings.    


GIZMO GUIDE (Manual)

First seen                 1966

Original Price           £?

Value Today             £25 (0916)

Features                   Super 8 film format, F:1.4 15-27 mm Pallux Zoom lens, forward/reverse/pause projection, variable speed, automatic threading, 120 metre reel capacity, +100 watt/12 volt lamp, room light connector

Power req.                          110- 240VAC 50Hz mains

Dimensions:                         290 x 222 x 160mm

Weight:                                6kg

Made (assembled) in:          Italy

Hen's Teeth (10 rarest):        8


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