Thog make experimental short: adventures in Neolithic filmmaking

This is just one of many posts that will be coming out in the days and weeks to come, so stay tuned. I just have a moment of render downtime and this is what I’m thinking about right now. It’s somewhat technically involved (I wanted to go into enough detail that someone could do this themselves), but if you don’t care about the technical stuff you can just skim this for the funny bits.

Some time ago I got it into my head that it would be way cool (and totally free) for me to process my own super-8 motion picture film. Hand-processed film isn’t lab-perfect, but it looks nice if you like that sort of thing, and you can achieve some very interesting effects. Here, then, is the story of how I processed my first roll of super-8 movie film—a test roll of Tri-X:

First of all, a deceptively large amount of planning went into this. I did a lot of research online and found that black-and-white reversal movie film can be processed as a negative using normal 35mm still film chemistry. I worked out all the logistics of how I would process and transfer the film, I even spent a good ten minutes walking around outside, looking for an acceptable rock (more on that later).

In the MCAD photo lab, I gathered my equipment:

  • a two-reel 35mm processing tank
  • my exposed super8 cartridge
  • 30 oz. of water
  • 30 oz. of D-76 developer mixed 1:1 with water
  • 30 oz. of stop bath
  • 30 oz. of fixer
  • scissors
  • a hefty rock

The first order of business was to liberate the film from its lightproof, molded plastic enclosure. Hence the rock. I went into one of the changing closets and in complete darkness, I bashed the sucker open (theoretically a hammer would also work for this, but it wouldn’t be nearly as exciting).

Let me tell you, though, that those little carts are stronger than they look. I couldn’t get enough leverage on the counter so I had to put it on the floor and hit it a good 10 or 12 times before it finally popped open.

Now came the really tricky part: I needed to unspool that fifty-foot mess of film (if it’s all neatly rolled up the chemistry can’t get on all the surfaces and the film doesn’t develop). Unspooling was (comparatively) easy: I pulled on the end of the film and soon wound up with a tangled mess sitting on the counter. Now I had to dunk that in water (this helps the chemicals get onto all the surfaces), which, in the dark, is trickier than you think. It took me a while to find the water container, and then I had to run all the film through it.

By far the toughest step, though, was getting the film into the little developing tank. I knew from my calculations that theoretically the film should all fit, but the one thing I forgot to figure in was that fifty feet of film, narrow though it is, is a lot of film, and stuffing it into my tank in the dark was quite a task. It kept wanting to climb out and catch itself in the lid. Eventually, though, I got it to work.

Then it was back out into the light for the actual developing. I basically made a wild guess at processing times, and they seemed to work. Here is what I came up with:

  • Water: 2 minutes constant agitation, tapping every 10 seconds or so to dislodge bubbles.
  • Developer: twice the normal processing time. For me, that was 19 minutes. Agitation 10 seconds every 30 seconds.
  • Stop: 1 minute constant agitation
  • Fix: 5 minutes, agitation 10 seconds every 30 seconds.

Only after that was I able to open up the tank and see if it had worked. I was expecting marginal results at best, so I was surprised when the first thing I saw was crisp, clean frame lines! I pulled out the film, stuffed it in the washer for a couple minutes, swished it around in the PermaWash, a couple more minutes in the washer, and a dunk in the Photo Flo. Then I stuffed it back in the tank and took it back to my apartment, where I taped up a wire in the shower, untangled the film (easier said than done), and hung it to dry.

It dried very quickly (although it picked up a bunch of airborne dust), so in short order I was able to spool it up, splice on a leader, project the negative, transfer it to video, convert it to positive, and post it here for you all to see.

Without further ado, I present you 7266 Hand-Processed Neg Test #1: The Musical (it’s silent, so you’ll just have to make up the music as you go).

4 thoughts on “Thog make experimental short: adventures in Neolithic filmmaking

  1. Couldn’t you have just kept the reversal film the way it was? Or is there some sort of stylistic thing that I haven’t seen yet because I’m writing this before the musical? Or is it just to have practice developing (movie) film? Anyhoo, I’m feeling all smart-like because I partially know what you’re talking about.

    Oh…and Yes, I am handsome.

  2. Alright, I’ve seen the film now.

    Firstly: We have rain down here too. Apparently it’s going o rain today. Yes, I even occaisonaly use an umbrella!

    Secondly: We don’t have a lot of squirrels down here, which I find odd. When we do have squirrels, they’re grey, not the brown kind I’m used to.

    Thirdly: I would assume processing reversal film would work in opposition to processing negative film, and the picture would thus be negative. However, this is not the case. Thus, I return to my original question: Why develop reversal film?

  3. Vgnyxqz:

    First, yes, you are very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very very handsome.

    Second: ‘reversal’ film is film that can be projected directly. Since I processed this film as negative, what I did to get the positive you see here was shoot it with my video camera and invert the tones in Final Cut.

    The reason I processed the film as negative rather than reversal is that reversal processing is more complicated. It requires two developer baths, a bleach bath, and a re-exposure to light mid-process. The real deal-breaker for me was the bleach. It’s a special kind of photographic bleach that I don’t have access to in quantities less than 4 gallons unless I mix it myself, which involves handling sulfuric acid and other nasty chemicals and can kill you if you’re not careful.

    As an added bonus, processing as negative produces a greater tonal range and more detail in highlights than developing reversal. The only downside is that I can’t project it directly.

  4. I impressed myself by actually understanding most of the technical stuff, which was actually very interesting. Good job. Was this your first try at self-developing? If so, bravo sir.

    And the flick itself was quite… odd. I like the ending though. You look like a hoodlum.

    Well, you ARE a hoodlum, so I guess it’s not odd that you look like one.

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