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Ken Paul Rosenthal img
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KPR washing film on the farm

Antidote for a Virtual World: Hand Processing Reversal Motion Picture Film

by Ken Paul Rosenthal © 1998


The look of hand-processed movie film is pure shake and bake. This process is not for those who prefer the film surface with a smooth polished complexion. Instead, oozing mounds of crusty chemical infections will bleach, bleed and belch all over your perfect Kodak moments. Sometimes the film will become a crumbling arctic ice flow: image chunks will skate and reposition themselves like bad buoys or Pollackesque life preservers. Or it will resemble a fly strip stuck with half-buzzed guts draining and staining the length of the film. The colors remind me of smashing gypsy moth caterpillars with a hammer as a child in New Jersey. I never knew what color innards would spill out. I'd expect chocolate, and out came lime green. Hand processing is just like that. It’s the flavor of the moment.

Hand-processing grants you a womb with a view. With the sacred sovereignty of God you are Alchemist, Mod Hatter, and Mad Scientist all in one; transforming sun to silver, opening the can of peanuts which unleashes a celluloid snake, then screaming, “It’s alive!!! IT’S ALIVE!!! Dr. Frankenstein should have it so good. We get to bury the goods and dig’em out! You’ll be the proud parent of a perfectly imperfect creature whose patchwork quilt features will put Boris Karloff’s creature to shame. Nothing beats the first view of a newborn image damp with birth bath cradled in a frame line crib. You’ll be maniacally giddy and passing out cigars.

Whereas commercial film labs are chemical chameleons yielding consistently inconsistent color and contaminated costs, hand processing is a mercurial and serendipitous mixture of control and non-control. Plus it’s remarkably economical. I’ve processed up to 15 rolls of Super 8, or 6 rolls of 16mm with one $45 home developing kit, ignoring the instructions about the number of rolls per run and “exhausted” chemicals. Expired chemicals do not mean beat results, rather, beatific ones. The idea is to get what we didn’t pay for. Hand processing grants you soul control. It inspires an attitude of non-, if not anti-intention; an embracing of the gesture rather than a prescribed result. THAT is the throbbing heart of this pulsing push and pull process that breathes and breeds between inspiration and form. So disgard expectation, expect the unexpected, and learn to appreciate it!

The following recipe should prove how simple it is to get a taste (by heart, not tongue) of hand processing by using store bought kits. Such kits are ideal because they provide chemistry in easy to mix concentrates for producing “accurate...high quality” images. Here’s all you knead to make delicious images:

1 E6 Slide Kit
4 1-liter brown photochemical containers
1 Fuji Hunt Chrome 6X Processing Kit
7 5-Liter brown photochemical containers

1 Kodak TMAX Direct Positive Slide Kit
1 Gallon Fix
1 Liter Hypoclear
6 1-liter brown photochemical containers

Super 8:
35mm 2 or 4-reel stainless steel developing tank
8” x 10” x 4” inch deep plastic tray

1 35mm 10-plus reel stainless steel tank, or large plastic photo tank (the lids tend to stick)
1 11” x 14” tray if you’re using the Fuji Hunt Kit

For both gauges:
1 Flat-top thermometer
1 Measuring graduate
1 Pair rubber gloves
1 Pair scissors
1 Hammer
1 Apron
1 Free range egg (for a shiny coat)
1 Length string
1 Blow-dryer
1 Pair Goggles
1 NIOSH/MSHA certified respirator (if you’re not working in a well-ventilated space)
1 Pinch of sea salt (to taste)

I generally use the Tetenal kit by Jobo because it is widely available, but any E6 process kit will work. These kits were manufactured for home processing Ektachrome color reversal 35mm slides, but are perfectly suitable for developing ANY Super 8 (or 16mm) Ektachrome color reversal motion picture film stocks, whether they are 50D, 64T, 100D, even the discontinued 125T, 160A/G, or ‘VNF’ stocks. The TMAX kit was designed for Plus-X and Tri-X black and white reversal stocks, but includes neither fix nor hypoclear, which you must purchase seperately. Follow fix with a water wash, and then hypoclear. This will cut your final wash time from 20 minutes down to 4 (for a total of 6 steps when processing with the TMAX kit). I recommend using the Tetenal kit for Super 8 since it makes only 1 liter of each solution. The Fuji kit supplies 5 liters of each solution so it is more appropriate for processing larger amounts of 16mm. So are you hungry yet? Here’s the basic methodology:

1. Follow the kit’s instructions for mixing chemicals. Use the trays to make a water bath
for bringing the chemistry up (or down) to the desired processing temperature.

2. Super 8mm: In total darkness, hold the cartridge at a slight angle on its edge against a hard surface. Strike with a hammer from above on the opposite edge. After one good crack, peel the cartridge open by hand. You’ll manage with no more than 3 decent blows once you get the bang of it. Remove and completely unravel (important!) the ‘platter’ of film from the cartridge and its core. Bunch up and stuff the entire mess into the most appropriate tank, then cover securely. Hand processors in Milan refer to this as ‘the spaghetti method’.

3. 16mm: In total darkness, simply pull the film off the 100-foot daylight spool. Spool off only as much as you feel is appropriate for the tank you’re using, then return the rest to a light-tight box or can. You can keep track of how much you’ve processed by estimating 3 feet of film per arm’s length as you unspool it. Be careful with 400-foot loads because they have nothing more than one small plastic core to support them.

4. Follow the kit’s instructions for processing. Be sure to remove excess air from the containers by squeezing them from the sides. This slows down oxidation of the chemicals. I don’t recommend collapsible containers, as they don’t stand up well when compressed.

5. After the final wash, remove and dangle your tangles over a length of string, blow-dry (not too hot, or the film will curl into an unfashionable ‘do), and gossip with it about Hollywood celebrities. Get sassy!

6. When just dry, find the tail end, which will read “exposed” on Super 8. Attach the tail leader and begin spooling onto the reel by hand. Note that the image should be upside down, and the sprocket holes closest to you when spooling from underneath the reel from left to right. 16mm reversal film is double-sprocketed, so simply flip the tail image upside down and backwards before spooling onto the reel from underneath, left to right.

Attach head leader and project.

Now wasn’t that yummy?

Photographic chemicals will stain your tub yellow, and make your brain mellow. It is of paramount importance to maintain and sustain the universe within and without. Plenty of health and safety information can be found online at:

Click on ‘Support’, then click on ‘Health, Safety and Environment.’


“Chance favors the prepared mind” – Louis Pasteur

Now you’re ready to explore the possibilities, starting with tank size. Cramming a 50-foot roll of Super 8 film into a 2-reel tank like stuffing fraternity boys into a phone booth; watch out for those loose limbs sticking out from under the cover! A larger tank allows more room for the chemicals to flow around the film, encouraging a (relatively) clean image and surface. If the outline of sprocket holes dancing across your projected image doesn’t thrill you, (I love the way they recklessly and rhythmically punctuate and sweep through the frame) you may use open tubs rather than a closed container. Keep in mind that Ektachrome, Plus-X, and Tri-X are panchromatic films, and are sensitive to the entire spectrum of visible light. Even a red light will fog your film! Thus the critical first step must be undertaken in TOTAL darkness for color, and through the fix for black and white. Consult the kit’s instructions for more details here. As long as the chemistry completely covers the film, the open tub method should provide you with a comparatively spotless image, though bits of loosened emulsion and rem-jet backing will settle on the surface. I strongly suggest wearing elbow length gloves when processing chemistry in an open tub. You might also try filling a spray bottle with the first developer to ‘mist-ify’ your expectations still further!

While most kits only suggest one, uniform processing temperature, you can experiment with temperature affects on color by consulting the First Developer (for Step 1) and Color Developer (for Step 2) tables following this article. Cooler temperatures tend to yield ‘warmer’, blue tones while warmer temps usually produce ‘cooler’, yellow and green tones. Kit instructions often include push/pull charts to compensate for over/under exposure while shooting. Over-agitation increases grain and contrast, while under-agitation decreases grain and contrast.

Bless your mess by solarizing it. Half-way through the first developer, while in complete darkness, remove the tank lid, lift out your film or leave it in the can, and very briefly flash it with a 100-watt bulb from about three feet away, or a 2-second splash of mini-mag light from a few inches distance. Presto! Instant funky! Return your first trimester babe to the tank and continue gestating, er, processing where you left off.

All four-liter color reversal kits combines the Bleach and Fix for expediency and convenience. The downside is that you cannot cross-process certain steps. However, the Kodak TMAX B&W kit has six separate steps. This permits you to make a negative image when you skip from the first developer to the fixer baths (don’t forget to wash in between). Both Kodak and Fuji Hunt make a color reversal 5-liter kit with—count ‘em—seven separate steps!!! That means you can leapfrog from the first developer to the fixer using the Fuji Hunt kit to get a sepia-like negative. Or, you can whip up a tasty color negative when you process normally, but exclude the reversal bath step. Or, with all that chemistry you can process large amounts of 16mm. If you’re a daring cook, you may desire the flexibility (and savings) of purchasing the ingredients to mix your own black and white chemistry in bulk amounts from either a retail or mail order photo supply company such as Photographer’s Formulary in Condon, Montana, USA:
1-800-922-5255 or 1-406-754-2891

Kodachrome cross-processed in B&W turns out sorta sepia, with a cell-like appearance not unlike the skin of the Fantastic Four comic book hero, The Thing. Overexpose your film by 1 stop when shooting. Increase your First and Second Developer times to 12-14 minutes each, and even more if you experiment with Ektachrome. Briefly returning Kodachrome to the bleach and redeveloping baths may bring out some orange tones. Depending on what you consider acceptable, three rolls of Kodachrome are generally the limit before the solutions become exhausted. Processing Vision negative stocks in reversal chemistry will yield you a psychedelic mess of gleefully tortured pastels, but also exhaust the chemistry very quickly. On the other hand, cross-processing black and white film in color chemistry will always completely remove your entire image. So beware! Also note that cross-processing will render your chemistry incompatible with the stocks it was intended for. You may wish to use near-expired solutions that you are prepared to throw out. Please dispose of them at a proper hazardous waste site!

Accessorize! Accessorize! Add materials and debris from aspirin to zippers to the soup to stir up that slop-apocalyptic look. Attack the film itself after removing it from the cartridge. Bounce and pounce on it! Wrestle that doggie to the ground! Then push its plastic puss into the mud! And the fun need not stop after the final wash. I’ve soaked my hand-processed film in dyes derived from cooked berries and seaweed, then set it in the sun to dry. I particularly love to re-photograph my hand-processed film. If hand- processing is like giving birth, then re-photographing successive generations of your own film is pure incest. Such inbreeding bears beautifully malformed and grotesque offspring.

Even more possibilities are listed in the paradoxically named ‘trouble-shooting’ section of any kit’s instructions. It lists ‘problems’ such as “gray streaks or blotches” and “light crescents” beside their possible causes and corrections. However, I must admit that when deliberately shooting for troubling effects, the results often seam too clean. Which reminds me of a few aphorisms by my musing muse, James Broughton:

“Precise spontaneity is the only way of hitting the mark”

“When you know how to be where you are and to do what you
do, you can take any risk”

“By all means, try all means”

And by all means, HAVE FUN!

E6 Color Reversal Time/Temperature Development Table
First Developer Time (minutes:seconds)
°F °C   1st Third 2nd Third 3rd Third
70 21   26 27 28
72 22   24 25 26
74 23   21:30 22:30 23
76 24.5   19:30 20 21
78 25.5   18 18:30 19:30
80 26.5   16:30 17 18
82 28   15 15:30 16
84 29   13:30 14 14:30
86 30   12:30 13 13:30
88 31   11:30 12 12:30
90 32   10:30 11 11:15
92 33.5   9:30 10 10:15
94 34   8:30 8:45 9:15
96 35.5   7:45 8 8:15
98 36.5   7 7:15 7:30
100 38   6:30 6:45 7
102 39   5:45 6 6:15
104 40   5:15 5:30 5:45
106 41   4:45 5 5:15
108 42   4:30 4:45 4:45
110 43.5   4 4:15 4:15


Temperature     Color Developer Time (minutes:seconds)
°F °C    
70 21   9
75 24   8:30
80 26.5   8
85 29.5   7:30
90 32   7
95 35   6:30
100 38   6
105 40.5   5:30
110 43.5   5