Thursday, August 8, 2013

The allure of hand-processed b&w film

Back when I was shooting at the Edison laboratory someone asked me about the 16mm Bolex camera I was using.  And in answering why I was shooting on film, I thought aloud to myself: "Just imagine a film where you interview all these people who are talking about analog sound and the beauty of the analog medium, and the whole thing was shot on digital video?  Perhaps a bit unintentionally ironic?"

And it was just this sort of thought guiding the decision to shoot the project on black and white ORWO 16mm film with HD interviews in between.  The confluence of analog image and analog sound.  The stock itself has the lush look of classic black and white film, with high silver content and a robustness of the image that results from this.  And as far as the HD interview sequences were concerned, rather than try to meld together digital and analog media, there seemed to be an aesthetic purpose to highlight contrast between the ultra-perfect, antiseptic beauty of HD with the more earthy, material beauty of analog film.

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Of course, there's also a certain charm in being able to say, "I made a feature-length project and hand-developed the whole thing."  To that extent it's also something of a dare.  The Morse tanks hold only 100 feet of film, and cranking the reels through the chemistry takes time, but I realized using two tanks at the same time doubled the speed of processing.

Hand-developing isn't really a replacement for the film lab.  The results can be pretty grungy and inconsistent, with every roll coming out a little bit different the others, with all sorts of water stains, developing inconsistencies, and maybe a little random solarization on the ends of the roll too.  But the point of hand-processing is to embrace these hand-hewn qualities as the expression of the film as tactile media.  This acceptance of the imperfect as part of the experience is not too different than the sonic experience of the murmur of surface noise from an old 78 record.

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Hand-processing film has a distinct look to it -- a "patina" might be the appropriate term -- but it also connotes an aesthetic philosophy of filmmaking, the  do-it-yourself school of production, as practiced by artists like Helen Hill, whose book "Recipes for Disaster" chronicles a myriad of techniques used by artists hand-crafting their films.  Sometimes it's a question of affordability in a medium often unforgiving to the independent filmmaker.  And at other times the necessity is more than simply monetary considerations:  Filmmaker Greta Snider made a hand-processed film as an act of artistic protest over a film lab refusing to print images it deemed too erotic.

In the 1960s the London Film-Makers' Co-op built their own hand-made processing machine, motivated by a desire to provide artists with the whole means of production, independent of the commercial film industry: "...Malcolm LeGrice and his students from St. Martin's School of Art began in 1967 to build the Co-op's first film developing and printing machinery, and only later thought to acquire film equipment...(the Rube Goldbergian wooden film developer leaked light and threatened to dissolve in its own chemical baths)..."*

And this desire is flourishing today in a number of artist-run film labs across the world, many of which can be found at

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The act of hand-developing film also has a poetic resonance to it; as if the transmutation sought by the alchemists is to be found in the blank emulsion of silver halides transforming into images.  There's something magical about seeing these little pictures emerge by your own effort.  And if a developing tank isn't accessible, all you need is a bucket!

"That's all."

*David Curtis, "A Tale of Two Co-ops" To Free the Cinema, David E. James ed. Princeton University Press, 1992. p 258-9

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