The Organic Film
An Interview With Ken Paul Rosenthal
by Melanie Ansley, Editor of Scopofile, For The
Love of Film
You’ve spent half your savings on buying 10
minutes of Super 8mm film. What do you do with it? You could run
it through a camera and shoot a short film with it. Or you could
soak it in a jar of urine and leave it on the patio in full sunlight
for a few weeks and see what happens.
A few months ago I met an experimental filmmaker
who had done just that. Ken Paul Rosenthal’s films have screened
on both coasts of the US as well as abroad in the Museu do Chiado
National Museum of Contemporary Art in Lisbon, the Poetry International
Festival in Rotterdam, and the Chinese Taipei Film Archive, to name
a few. In December he visited Melbourne to screen some of his films
with the Super 8 Group. I’d agreed to meet Ken for a coffee
in a Brunswick Street cafe. Over the phone he had described himself
as “blatantly Jewish—all in black, very orthodox”—so
I sat huddled over my coffee expecting to meet a rabbi from a Woody
Allen flick. When he turned up wearing a T-shirt and jeans, I realised
that he had a very unusual sense of humour.
Ken Paul Rosenthal was a filmmaker on his way to
Hollywood when he stopped in San Francisco, and never left. The
would-be director went to a screening of Stan Brakhage’s Dog
Star Man and, in his own words, “saw the colour of his soul
on screen.” From then on he said goodbye to Hollywood and
began to “embrace film as a fine art form...the medium became
a palette” on which to “paint with light”. How?
Well, by some pretty imaginative means.
“I’ve stuffed film into a mason
jar with cooked wild berries and set it before a southern facing
window for an entire year so that it would get sun most of the day.
The heating and cooling of the mixture stained, cracked and solarized
the emulsion. Delicious! I’ve left film to rot in a compost
pile of seaweed to the point where white maggots were crawling in
and out of the sprocket holes. To the dismay of my new roommates,
I had a jar of film and urine on the porch for several months that
made the emulsion bubble up.”
Ken’s methods of filmmaking, although left
of centre, have several advantages. First, he’s completely
cut out the need for a production crew, even the lab—most
of his films are hand processed in his bathtub. Second, his more
tactile relationship with the medium also encourages a more intimate
relationship to the environment he’s working in. “Whether
producing alternative or conventional images, traditional film technology
asks more of you and thus encourages a more critical relationship
to the image-making process. Taking the time to measure the light,
set the aperture and focus, AND be conscious of how much costly
film stock is rolling by is going to make one far more focused while
In this respect Ken is unique in that he has not
jumped on the digital revolution bandwagon. He insists that accessibility
does not automatically generate creative options, and that the internet
is not the godsend to filmmakers everyone claims it is. “I’m
not a Luddite,” Ken constantly insists. “But I am a
purist. I may not always like the limitations of my ‘low-to-no-tech’
methods, but I certainly appreciate them because obstacles always
create new ways of seeing. There's room for video and traditional
film technologies to exist side by side. However, technology fetishizes
choice. I’ve dabbled a bit with Pro-Tools. But I find the
ability to endlessly investigate the possibilities makes me quite
literally lose focus.”
“The problem is that video is replacing
film in terms of the availability of equipment and services, and
by extension a certain way of seeing. Working with video circumvents
a more intimate frame-by-frame relationship to the medium, as well
as oneself. The nature of one’s tools invariably affects the
character of one’s images—images that are ultimately
a reflection of you. So for me the issue is not simply image quality,
but quality of life.”
Is it difficult getting funding bodies to support
such experimental work? “Any medium used in an alternative
manner is going to marginalize the maker’s chances of support.
But I truly believe that a key ingredient for obtaining funds to
produce work is passion. If you trust yourself to make the films
you have to make, the money will come.” While not exactly
grateful for the scarcity of funding for his films, Ken has discovered
that “the poverty of (his) monetary resources has led to a
wealth of creative possibilities that I could not have otherwise
Meeting Ken in Melbourne made me curious about what
he thought of the Melbourne film scene: did it compare to San Francisco?
Did he find it inspiring or supportive? “There appears to
be no one comprehensive film organization to engender and sustain
a truly viable culture of a filmmakers’ community. In San
Francisco, we have an organization called Film Arts Foundation,
which is perhaps the United States largest non-profit organization
for independents...Melbourne clearly has a lot of passionate, active
filmmakers. But you guys need to mobilize your resources into an
organization that has all your interests at its very core.”
And the weirdest thing he’s heard people do
to film? “Some scientists at MIT of all places researched
coffee as a film developer. And then there’s a friend of mine
who coated his film in his own blood and semen.”
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Dreams of the Absolute
By Brian Fry
I have no idea what "media arts" are, but
I do know what a film is. And I know that if the cinema is to have
a future worth remarking on, it had better reconcile itself to a
heresy it has resisted since before it existed: the notion that
its true ground is the image alone. Unlike any other art form, the
cinema remains inexplicably unwilling to be judged on its own terms.
Despite valiant efforts to the contrary, the most putatively modern
of arts remains mired in its classical period, and shows little
intention of proceeding onward. Are we truly willing to allow this
most perfect of arts to wither when its promise seems so nearly
For the cinema is next to a metaphor itself; one could
hardly ask for a closer analog to consciousness than an art which
exists only in virtue of the act of its perception. And so I propose
that this most metaphysical of arts demands a future envisioned
in similarly metaphysical terms. If the cinema is to have a future,
it must be by virtue of that spark that distinguishes it from the
purely material, which some few have already discovered, and done
their damnedest to share with us. I contend that the cinema of Dreyer
and Dovzhenko, Sirk and Ozu, Bresson and Godard is in fact the cinema
of Brakhage, Smith, Frampton, Chambers and others as they pose the
same questions, if their means of doing so differ. While every film
moves, only a very few breathe, and until this breath suffices as
the mark of greatness, the cinema itself suffers and slowly dies.
Today's cinema is beholden to self-dubbed "masters
of light" (tm) - artisans rather than artists, whose craft
grows thinner with every generation. Light is to them as is grease
to a careless mechanic: to be spread about as liberally as possible,
and with as little regard. Their mastery is that of the tyrant,
a tragedy long since become farce. The money-lenders do not merely
occupy the sanctuary; they have declared it their own, and agitate
to expel the faithful. But if the cinema appears to suffer a crisis
of faith, remember: only the faithful may so suffer.
And the import of this? That we must learn to judge
the cinema as we do any art; by virtue of its relative approximation
to Truth, because so long as the cinema dreams of the Absolute,
the cinema lives.
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The Birth and Demise of Regular-8 Film and Personal Cinema
By Scott Stark
[inspired by the SFAI Regular 8mm Film Festival, February 5-6, 2000,
When Kodak first introduced regular-8mm film in 1933,
the world witnessed the birth of what later came to be known as
"personal cinema." Although the apparatus for home moviemaking
was available to the general public practically since the dawn of
motion pictures, most home equipment was in the larger, more expensive
16mm format, with its heavy and bulky cameras. With the advent of
inexpensive 8mm cameras, projectors and film, suddenly the average
person could afford to make movies. They could carry the camera
with them and unobtrusively document the events and nuances of their
personal lives. The process no longer required the apparatus of
professional filmmaking, and makers were free, whether they did
so consciously or not, to invent their own cinematic languages,
unencumbered by commercial conventions.
A roll of regular-8mm film is really a roll of 16mm
film, with twice as many perforations to accommodate the smaller
frame size. The camera records images along one side of the film,
and once the entire roll has been shot, the photographer opens the
camera, flips the roll, and shoots again along the other side. After
processing the film, the lab splits the film down the middle, separating
two rows of images into two 8mm strips, and splices them together.
Thus a 25-foot roll yields 50 feet of projectable film.
Arising in this new apparatus was the vocabulary
of a new cinematic language. Unlike today's moviemaking technologies,
the photographer actually handled the film while loading the camera,
and had to run the motor for a few seconds with the camera door
open to make sure it was threaded properly. The first three to five
feet was considered leader, since it became unavoidably exposed
during the loading and threading process.
Thus every roll of 8mm film that came back from the
lab started and ended with fogs and flares. And if everything wasn't
done properly—perhaps there was too much light when the film
was loaded, or maybe it wasn't advanced far enough before shooting
began—the first images were sometimes bathed in a sublime,
The most distinctive feature of regular-8mm filmmaking,
though, was the middle six feet or so, where the filmmaker flipped
over the roll to shoot the second half. It became, inadvertently,
record of human interaction with the technology, right in the middle
of the reel. While shooting, you were supposed watch the footage
counter to know when the first half of the roll was near completion,
knowing that the last few feet would be fogged. Often, though, you
were paying more attention to the action in front of the camera
than to the footage counter, so that the colorful shots of baby's
first birthday or the Golden Gate Bridge would rhythmically dissolve
into a teasing blaze of orange and white light. Or perhaps you were
overly meticulous about the footage counter and stopped well before
the end, resulting in a pause of pure black before the midpoint.
Or maybe you didn't even cover the lens while getting to the end
of the roll, producing a lovely shot of your knee against the colorful
pattern of your linoleum floor.
In any case, 8mm filmmaking invariably included this
momentary interruption midway through the roll, where the tension
between reality and abstraction was at its most volatile. It was
a moment of suspense, reflection, annoyance, boredom, surprise.
It was a moment that you'd edit out in your mind but that persistently
reappeared with each subsequent viewing.
The nature of this momentary midway pause was subject
to many variables that were dependent on the filmmaker's own behavior
and environment, including the quality of the light when the film
was being loaded, and the attentiveness and expertise of the filmmaker.
In short, the filmmaker's personal interaction with the technology
was indelibly left on every roll, like fingerprints. The human element
became unalterably fused with the mechanical and the photochemical.
Perhaps the defining moment of the middle six feet was the splice
itself. It was an inescapable link, an apex, a momentary affirmation
that this was indeed only a strip of film running through the projector,
and that those images on the screen were merely imitations of the
real moments that had already slipped into memory. The splice was
also final proof of human interaction: proof that the filmmaker
had correctly (or incorrectly) flipped the roll, and proof that
some anonymous lab technician had split the film and spliced the
two ends together by hand.
That evidence of human interaction -- along with
uneven camera movements, blinding floodlights, best-guess exposures,
and flat focus -- is much of what gave regular-8mm filmmaking its
uniquely personal quality. The person operating the camera was never
In the 1960s, Kodak developed the Super-8mm film cartridge. Suddenly,
the filmmaker no longer had to handle the film. Super-8 was easier
to load and resulted in fewer errors. The only fogging was a few
frames at the very beginning and end of the roll, which the lab
often chopped off after processing. And perhaps most importantly,
the roll didn't have to be flipped midway; 50 feet of Super-8 film
was 50 feet long.
The middle six feet, that most human of moments in
the realm of personal filmmaking, began to disappear. The convenience
of the new super-format was paired with a resultant loss of control,
a severing of the filmmaker's tactile relationship to the medium.
In the 1980s, as video began replacing film as the
home movie medium of choice, movie makers found themselves even
further distanced from the technology they were using to create
images. Video tape couldn't be fogged, and mistakes were easily
corrected. The images were recorded through some mysterious electronic
process that couldn't be seen or touched.
And now, in the year 2000, digital video requires
an even more complex and impersonal apparatus, further distancing
makers from the physical processes involved in creating and recording
images. Sophisticated internal motors reduce camera shakiness. Exposure
and focus are instantaneous, automatic and exact. Sound precludes
a need for visual cues. Images do not exist without the machines
and software required to interpret binary data.
Technology, driven by commerce and a thirst for efficiency,
endlessly attempts to eradicate any lingering traces of humanity
from the craft of cinema. History is rewritten to accommodate the
trend of the moment. Any personal vision in contemporary moviemaking
must now come solely from its content, not its form.
The splice has become invisible. The middle six feet
were never there.
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Toward A Home-Made Cinema
By Robert Schaller
Avant-garde film has a remarkable record of confronting
aesthetic, social, and ethical issues, and in dealing with the basic
existential quandary posted by the advent of “moving pictures”
in a way mainstream cinema could never touch. It is the uneasy,
often unwanted child of an invention that appeared to be a crowning
achievement of several century’s struggle to be incapable
of doing any more than to cast flickering lights onto the wall of
a dark room. Film is thus intrinsically qualified to address that
profound irony lying at the heart of the modern world; that the
more potent and complete our apparent triumph over the natural world,
the more ephemeral becomes our ability to participate with anything
other than ourselves. The more we see but shadows and reflections.
The poet Charles Baudelaire wrote of photography, “our squalid
society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image
on a scrap of metal.” (National Geographic, vol. 176, No.
4, p. 536). What does it matter if society no longer gazes at a
silver plate, but at a silver screen-or at a phosphorescent one?
Heisenberg may as well have bee speaking about film: all that it
touches is rendered an illusion Cinema, born of rationalist ideals
into contradiction, has spawned a conscience in the avant-garde.
It is easy to think that the avant-garde has been defined by the
insistent call of troubling questions which demand, if not answers,
then at least that they be heard and considered. I would like to
draw attention to one matter having to do with the technology of
film, which, I think, in an art so constructed from machinery, has
Let us consider afresh something of the nature of cinema. It derives
from photography: a series of photographs is taken, and then projected
in rapid succession. Filmmakers have devoted much time and attention
to the arrangement of these photographs, to their subject matter,
to the implications of taking them, and to what meanings ma or may
not be found therein, with concerns ranging from purely formal to
radically social and political. On the other hand, comparatively
little energy has been invested in examining the photographic nature
of the medium itself, or the industrial complex on which it depends.
Whatever the filmmaker’s method, film is usually purchased,
shot in the camera, then sent to a lab for processing. The formulation
and handling of the film, even the understanding of how it works,
is left in the hands of experts. Although processing film oneself
is considered unusual, it is becoming more common. Direct manipulation
techniques such as: treating, bleaching, burying, rotting, coating,
spraying, and variously defacing film makes a great aesthetic contribution,
but does little to address film’s photographic nature per
se. Those who have given up the camera, and hence photography—Harry
Smith, Len Lye, Stan Brakhage, et al—are relatively few. For
most filmmakers, the procedure remains; shoot and send to a lab.
While this certainly leaves much for the filmmaker to do, it bears
a disturbing resemblance to any other consumer act. Only the labor
intensiveness of filmmaking elevates it from the world of fast food
and headache medication. I point this out not to blame the film
community—collectively, it can hardly be called complacent—but
merely to ask whether it has to e this way. If the film medium is
to be photographic, then what about the light-sensitive strip itself?
In an art so manifestly questioning and irreverent, we must not
be content to acquire the very material foundation of our work from
a company who proclaimed from its outset in 1889, “You push
the button, we do the rest”? Since then, photography has the
dubious distinction of having been among the very first instances
of high-tech consumerism. Indeed, it may have been the very first.
George Eastman’s clever slogan has an unpleasant resonance
today; it sounds like a capitulation to a commercial machine that
casts a shadow over the integrity of all that passes through it.
I propose that we make our own film stock. With the aesthetic advances
established by those who treat film, and the precedent of developing
it our selves, this is but a modest step towards a materially liberated
art, and increasingly diverse imagery. Different films using different
processes would have very different properties.
Consider this idea’s precedent for the home-made cinema movement
in the world of still photography. Before Kodak camera’s dramatic
entrance (the watershed referred to above) all photography was hand-made.
From 1839, when Daguerre described his famous process, until the
beginnings of the twentieth century, when gelatin-silver films effectively
took over, there was a great profusion of photographic processes.
Photographers had to start by choosing a technique, then assemble
or fabricate the necessary materials. It was 80 years later, dissatisfaction
with off-the-shelf photo materials, with their single-minded philosophy
of what a photograph should and could look like, led to a resurrection
of these other approaches. Processes such as; Cyanotype, Van Dyke
Brown, Gum Printing, Collotype, among others, were all newly employed
with stunning results. Although they entailed much more work, today’s
standardized photographic materials and techniques could never achieve
the images they yielded. Todd Walker is one of the leaders of the
renaissance in alternative processes. His work demonstrates that
progress is never more than movement in a certain direction. Indeed,
we must not lose sight of alternate paths.
There is no reason to reinvent sophisticated gelatin-silver film
when the photo industry already manufactures it. In keeping with
a more anarchic spirit—and with the primitive technical skills
and facilities most of us have—we must begin to embrace the
uneven funkiness of the homemade processes outside of the industry’s.
Following the lead of the still photographers, the first place to
look appears to be in the world of silver photography; of which
the very term itself would suggest a world of possibilities. A good
resource book that surveys such processes is Keepers of the Light
by William Crawford, 1979. This book contains the necessary formulae
and instructions for those who wish to attempt alternatives to conventional
photo processes. University libraries carry it, or it can be borrowed
via inter-library loan.
Applying historical processes from still photography to motion picture
filmmaking leaves at least two big issues wholly or partially unaddressed.
First, it doesn’t provide an immediate and total release from
participation in the photo industry. Each hand-made film, if it
is to be distributed, will most likely be printed in a lab onto
standard materials. The process I will outline uses some of them,
for reasons I will describe. Secondly, and more importantly, these
historical processes come from the same mindset as the photography
we know and love. After all, photography is a nineteenth century
invention. Philosophically, it was going to provide objective representation.
Chemically, it is toxic as hell. It was an age of boundless confidence
in the efficacy of industry, and a lack of awareness and concerns
for poisons. However much it has been refined, photography remains
firmly rooted in the toxic soup of heavy industry. These historical
processes provide no meaningful alternative on that score. Systems
based on iron and dichromate use substances every bit as unpleasant
as conventional silver processes. One wonders why late twentieth
century thinking hasn’t come up with a non-toxic film. This
is an area where the avant-garde can take the lead. Experimental
filmmakers are free to experiment with formulations that “do
not show things as they are,” an approach that is not unfamiliar
to avant-garde cinema. So while standardized processes might amount
to a commercial failure in one sense, creating non-toxic film is
an aesthetic and environmental opportunity.
For the moment, however, we can start by applying some old techniques
to cinema. The easiest processes seem to be Cyanotype (Blue Printing)
and Van Dyke Brown (Brown Printing), both based on the light sensitivity
of iron compounds. You’ll have to find a source for chemicals.
Most cities have a chemical supply store, and there are mail order
sources such as the Photographer’s Formulary in Missoula,
MT, (800) 922-5255. I will briefly describe the outline of a method
I have developed.
It turns out that light sensitive materials other than silver tend
to be much less sensitive than silver, and tend to be sensitive
only to blue and ultra violent light. Emulsions made from them,
like those base on dichromate of iron, usually require long exposure
times under bright light, up to the tens of minutes, rendering them
time consuming, to say the least, for use in a camera. Contact printing,
the method of choice in alternative process still photography seems
advantageous here as well. In essence, you use a commercial B&W
film that is fast enough for a camera, to shoot your original, aiming
for fairly high contrast. You then process this normally to get
a B&W negative, place strips of it in contact with strips of
your home-made formulation, then shine a light through the negative
for as long as is required, leaving a positive image on the home-made
film. The sun is an acceptable UV light source, as are artificial
lamps designed to emit UV light. Leaving it for ten or more minutes
poses no difficulties. Even though this method falls short of the
completely home-made, it is effective, and the results will have
the unique qualities of the process you used.
Contact Printing Frame
Contact printing will happen in strips, and you will
need to devise some way to hold one strip on top of another so that
all the frame lines and film edges line up—if that is what
you want. You can tape the strips on top of each other onto a smooth
surface such as glass or plexi-glass, or you can devise something
more complex with grooves or pins to keep the strips lined up side-to-side
and end-to-end. Play around with different strategies to find something
that works for you. Bare in mind that the longer the strips are,
the less you have to cut your film up to print on it. However each
step will also become more unwieldy. I work with strips of about
Acquire some clear leader. This can be purchased
as such (another compromise), or made by clearing some unexposed
B&W in a non-hardening fixer like Kodak Rapid Fix Part A. The
gelatin coating is important her, as this is what the emulsion will
stick to. Cleared film has a thicker coating than leader, though
leader has some. Cut the leader into lengths appropriate to your
printing ‘apparatus’. Mix the emulsion chemicals directed
in Keepers of the Light or a similar book, and coat it on the gelatin
side of the leader, which has been softened by soaking in water.
For Blue or Brown printing, the strips of leader can soaked directly
in the solutions, permeating the gelatin. The film is not light
sensitive until it is dry (for most historical non-silver processes)
so it can be prepared in normal light. but it must be dried in the
dark, and once dry should be kept in the dark. Apparently, they
may not keep long, so use them promptly.
Cut the B&W negative (or positive, be as it may)
into strips of the proper length.
Place the original and the unexposed stock in contact
however you have chosen to do this. This can be accomplished in
indoor light, which typically contains little UV light, but keep
in mind that as soon as you bring the dry stock into any light,
its ‘clock is ticking’, so be prompt.
Put the assembly under a UV light source, so that the light passes
through the original and onto the dry stock. How long an exposure
is required depends on the quality and intensity of the light source
and the emulsion. You will have to determine this empirically.
Develop the exposed print according to the process
used. Usually this is a soaking in water, and Blue and Brown printing,
as described above, present the advantage that they don’t
wash off, since they are soaked into the gelatin. Non-silver compounds
don’t generally ‘develop’ in the way that silver
does, wherein a latent image is amplified chemically. This capability
is primarily why silver is so sensitive and successful, and these
other substances not. But the other techniques have unique virtues,
and warrant our attention.
Next, edit the strips together and show the original,
or make an inter-negative and print to normal film. I offer this
only as a starting point. These processes are quite labor intensive,
and not for the timid. However there is much promising new territory
here for the adventurous, if not courageous spirit. The avant-garde
long ago cast off strict allegiance to the notion of objective representation.
Home-made film might free us a little more from that dominion. It
may lead us a little further down paths of our own imagining, adding
perhaps a small convolution to our thought and creation that might
make the world—at least infinitesimally—a more interesting
place. Film is a technological art in a technological world, which
puts the filmmaker in a special position: employ technology to address
a world overrun by it. Let us own up to, and have an ever-greater
hand in determining the shape of the technology we use.
I encourage anyone interested to contact me:
1124 Ridge Road
Ward, Colorado 80481
Two more scientific references may be useful:
Light Sensitive Systems by J. Kogar, 1965, and
Neblett’s Handbook of Photography and Rephotography 7th Ed.,
edited by John M. Sturge, 1977
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Shot of Solitude: Hand (and Heart) Processing
On The Film Farm
Ken Paul Rosenthal
I am flying on Air Canada to Phil Hoffman’s
Independent Imaging/Filmmaking Retreat on a farm northwest of Toronto,
where I will spend five days shooting, processing and editing 16mm
film, learning tinting and toning, and viewing contemporary experimental
films. It’s been 11 years since I was first introduced to
the tactile universe of hand processing movie film at the San Francisco
Art Institute. Watching the beautiful mess of images tumble from
a stainless steel womb for the first time entirely changed the way
I make films. Hand processing is a practice where serendipity is
the rule rather than the exception, and I found it an antidote to
conventional methods of filmmaking that emphasized image control.
Whereas new technologies moved me away from the medium, I could
use my own hands to embrace the film material more directly and
intimately. Over the years I have hand-processed hundreds of rolls
of film and shared my experiences in dozens of workshops. Now I’d
have an opportunity to learn recipes and techniques from other passionate
practitioners and work in 16mm for the first time.
The stewardess offers me headphones for the onboard
movie, but I decline and turn my attention instead to the film unraveling
outside the cabin window. The changing contours of the clouds allow
me to reflect on the ways hand-processing movie film can be like
playing in a celluloid sandbox. It can also be quite terrifying.
You discover your heart isn’t as malleable as the medium,
and you start scraping away at it until only the most precious cell
is left. That frame, that naked grain, is your silver soul.
Mount Forest, Canada
I am standing alone in an open barn door. In front of me a tree
traces the grass with tender brushstrokes. I turn and enter the
barn, where pillars of light ring the space like a motionless Zoetrope.
It is the morning after film camp has ended, and I’m still
nursing my last shot of solitude.
Although the 11 other campers have departed, the after-effects of
five days of nonstop filmmaking are evident everywhere. Glistening
strips of hand-processed film drip-dry and flutter from a 15-foot
clothesline inside the barn. My own footage wraps around the line
in impossible tangles. Short, crazy-colored pieces of film swim
in bowls of toning solution. Half-eaten bits are stuck to the fridge
like a proud child’s schoolwork. Sheets of opaque plastic
cordon off the darkrooms. Just yesterday those same plastic curtains
barely dampened the giddiness of fellow campers, who emerged from
the darkrooms like proud parents, shouting, “Oh my God, look
at this!” and people scurried over to see their newborn images,
launching into a chorus of “Oohs,” “Ahhs”
The film farm was a carnival of creativity, and the
barn was the funhouse. At least it was for most of the participants.
Looking back, I can’t help thinking, What was I doing in the
farmhouse cellar futzing with my Bolex’s rex-o-fader for two
hours while the resident sparrows were pooping on my head? How did
I expose an entire day’s shoot to a 100-watt light bulb before
it hit the first developer? And why the hell did I go ahead and
process it anyway?! Instead of producing images, I made a series
of increasingly catastrophic mistakes. Why was it so difficult to
practice what I’d long been preaching to my hand-processing
students: dissolve prescribed ideas and embrace the process from
which the most elegant visions arise?
When I arrived six days earlier, I was prepared to
make a dance film. That ambition quickly dissolved when I took on
a Bolex Rex-4 as my shooting partner. Having only shot with highly
mobile Super-8 cameras for the past 15 years, I found the 16mm Bolex
a beast to handle. Using a Sekonic to read the light, stopping down
the aperture and then recomposing before shooting didn’t feel
spontaneous. Instead of embracing the Bolex’s noble weight
and its economy of functions, I kept wrestling with it. The camera
didn’t fight back, it just sort of went away, piece by piece.
the next two days I lost the backwind key, the filter slide (thus
fogging an entire day’s shoot) and a 24-inch cable release,
and I stripped the threading in the crankshaft. With each additional
piece of equipment lost or broken, I was forced to peel back another
layer of intention. I let go my idea of making a dance film, and
I let go my desire to leave camp with a finished film. After all,
I was always reminding my students that film is less about making
a film than it is about experiencing the making. And that the texture
of the gesture becomes the film. Now I needed to take my own advice.
However, abandoning the images and ideas I had developed in my mind
filled me with a kind of loneliness. Without a script or a preconceived
vision to guide me, I felt crippled and blind. I did not know on
which side of the camera to put my attention, and I collapsed to
the ground. It was at that moment that an image came to me—my
hand reaching through the lens and fondling the sun. I thought about
my little focus-free 35mm still camera (which had slipped out of
my pocket into a bucket of water that morning) and how liberating
it felt to point it and just shoot whatever I found beautiful.
I stood up and immediately began filming in the same
way I had made still pictures, without any camera movement, simply
framing my subjects for their texture and the way they embodied
the light. I shot burlap riding the wind. I shot barbed wire choking
wild straw. I shot a newborn calf’s placenta until an irate
bull chased me headlong through the electric sting of a charged
fence. As the Bolex and I moved arm in crank through pastures and
forests, I realized I was making a dance film after all. Only the
dance wasn’t taking place in front of the lens, but in the
space between the camera body and my own. And I realized that my
struggles had not been about making mistakes or knowing what to
shoot, but about how to compose my self. Now I had taken a shot
of my solitude, and it was a good fix.
On the fifth and final day on the farm, the activity
became ever more feverish, since the day was to be topped off by
a screening of everyone’s work. Campers darted from pasture
to darkroom to flatbed in frenetic circles, with pit stops at the
tinting table, optical printer or homemade animation stand. The
camp’s Steenbeck had a wonderful malfunction, which caused
the plates to clang like a locomotive pulling into a station. That
clanging also served as a sort of dinner bell, calling everyone
to our celluloid feast.
An hour before showtime I chose my selects, drew
up a paper edit and assembled a rough-cut. As I hastily sifted through
800 feet of misfortune, a few silver jewels began to emerge. After
my piece screened, a warm shivering welled up in my chest as I shared
the details of my innumerable mishaps. Although everyone applauded
my work’s photography, for me, the images of my solemn, distended
shadow hugging an endless road, of rotting barn shingles and a lonely
leaf framed against a setting ball of sun were documents of my solitude.
Now it’s the morning after film camp has ended,
and I am standing alone in the barn wondering what to do with my
film, with myself. Should I return to the fields and re-shoot all
my fuck-ups? Should I bury my film in front of the barn, where we
dumped all our used chemicals? Or should I just chuck the whole
mess into a vat of blue toner? The answer gently materializes when
I stop asking questions: continue filming what I find beautiful—the
film material and the process of making film. I shoot film images
rising out of a chemical bath, film stock spilling into a discarded
porcelain sink, film strewn across a long row of bushes and negative
film reversing to positive under a light bulb.
With only two hours before my departure, I find the
courage to pull off my fantasy shot with the help of Christine Harrison,
a camp assistant. We leave the farm and head toward an enormous
field of daisies, where I plan to have Christine film me in slo-mo
prancing naked with an armload of film. We arrive and knock on the
door of a private residence neighboring the field to ask permission,
but no one answers, so we get right to it. I strip down, then leap
and roll about, trampling daisies with blissful abandon. Each time
a car approaches on the road, I duck down into my robe of blossoms.
As a comic counterpoint, I decide to stand center-frame with a ball
of film covering my genitals while I peer about timidly. We are
setting up the shot when Christine alerts me to an approaching truck.
I figure an 18-wheeler will consider my daisy cheeks worth no more
than a toot of his horn. Instead he slams on the brakes and screams
bloody murder. This draws out the woman from the nearby residence,
who we thought wasn’t at home. She begins to scream about
there being children in the house and threatens to call the police.
(Could it be they don’t appreciate dance?)
We gather up clothing and equipment in such haste
that my glasses get left behind. When we dash back to retrieve them,
we find nothing among the yards of smashed blossoms. Christine seems
particularly unnerved. I’m not sure if it’s because
our equipment might be confiscated by the authorities, or because
the reputation of the film camp could be irreparably damaged. Regardless,
she promises to return that night to search some more, and I drive
off to Toronto with the entire world looking like a four-laned fishbowl.
So went my experience on the film farm. I danced
with my dark side, my light side and all the other gradations of
my silver soul. I lost my eyesight in one sense and gained insight
in another, as corny as that sounds. I know deeply and intimately
that film is (for me) fundamentally not about recording a picture.
It is a process even broader than the developing of images. It is
about dancing with stillness and manipulating a novel posture for
my heart. Phil Hoffman, the compassionate angel who manages the
farm, says that film is about the moment of transformation, and
that making love for your self is a reason to make film. Words to
shoot by indeed.
I have yet to process the film I shot on my last
day at the farm, but that’s OK. I only exposed it as a means
to a beginning.
return to top
Antidote for a Virtual World:
Hand Processing Motion Picture Film
by Ken Paul Rosenthal
The Unbearable Tightness of Seeing
When and where TV puts me in a perpetually pixilated pinch, hand-processing
motion picture film serves as an antidote for a virtual world. A
500-channel cable subscription subscribes us to the illusion that
more choices permit more control over what and how we see. That
illusion is betrayed by the culture cum cult of W A T C H I N G
T V. The TV se(c)t dictates resigning the retina to a boob tubular
wave of images which neither crest nor crash but continuously roll
into our living rooms. We drown in the see of TV because we passively
absorb it rather than actively participate with it. Instead of remote
control we must emote control. TV will consume our vision unless
we exercise insight. What’ll it be: sink or sink? Or create
a swim swim situation? Are you ready to turn the tide?!
The Texture of the Gesture
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 floe: 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. YES!!! 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. Even black
and white can look like Walt Disney puking.
Womb with a View
Though many claim that giving birth to a child in this daze and
rage is a decidedly selfish act, my own sleeping dreams of giving
birth leave me profoundly pro-creation. Ahh, to bare a tiny ray
of sunshine projected in one’s own image. Hand processing
gives you a womb of your own. 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 to shame. And nothing, I mean NOTHING, beats the first view
of a newborn image damp with birth bath cradled in a frameline crib.
You’ll be maniacally giddy and passin’ out cigars.
Getting a Grip (sort of...)
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
10 rolls of Super 8 with one $30 home developing kit, ignoring the
instructions about the number of rolls per run and “exhausted”
chemicals. IMPORTANT: Expired chemicals do not mean beat results,
rather, beatific ones. The idea is to get what we didn’t pay
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. It requests disregard for expectation.
THAT is the throbbing heart of this pulsing push and pull PROCESS
which breathes and breeds between inspiration and form. To be specific,
expect the unexpected and learn to appreciate it!
Primordial Noodle Soup
The following recipe should prove how simple it is to get a ‘taste’
(I don’t mean this literally!) 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. However, it is beyond the scope of this article
to provide detailed information on processing motion picture film
using separately purchased solutions. So here’s all you ‘knead’
to make delicious images:
1 Tetenal E6 Slide Kit by Jobo
4 1-liter brown photochemical containers
1 Fuji Hunt Chrome 6X Processing Kit
7 5-Liter brown photochemical containers (or equivalent)
1 Kodak TMAX Direct Positive Slide Kit
1 Gallon Fix
1 Liter Hypoclear
6 1-liter brown photochemical containers
1 35mm 2 or 4-reel stainless steel developing tank
1 11 x 14 x 4 inch deep plastic tray
1 35mm 10-plus reel stainless steel tank, or large plastic photo
tank (the lids tend to stick)
2 Large trays 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 Length string
1 Pair Goggles
1 NIOSH/MSHA certified Respirator (a must!)
Other comparable color kits exist, but I’ve
only used the ones manufactured by Jobo and Fuji Hunt. Both kits’
chemistry uses an E6 process intended for Ektachrome color reversal
slides, which is perfectly suitable for developing both Super 8
and 16mm Ektachrome ‘VNF process’ color reversal motion
picture film stocks. However, the Jobo kit uses only 4 steps vs.
7 steps with the Fuji Hunt kit (more on this later). The TMAX kit
was designed for Plus-X and Tri-X black and white reversal stocks,
but includes neither fix nor hypoclear. Hypoclear should follow
fix as it will cut your wash time from 20 minutes down to 4. 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
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 diagonally opposite top 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.
3. 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.
4. 16mm: In total darkness, simply pull the film off the 100-foot
daylight spool. Keep in mind that you only need to spool off as
much as you feel is appropriate for the tank you’re using,
then return the rest to its light-tight box. You can keep track
by estimating an arm’s length of film as equal to about
3 feet. Be careful with 400-foot loads because they have nothing
more than one small plastic core to support them.
5. Follow the kit’s instructions for processing. Be sure
to remove excess air from the collapsible containers by pressing
them down until the solution rises to the lip, then cap. This
slows down oxidation of the chemicals. If you are using standard
containers, just squeeze them from the sides.
6. 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.
7. When just dry, find the tail end, which will read “exposed”
on Super 8. Attach the tail leader and begin spooling onto reel
by hand. REMEMBER: The image should be upside down, and the sprocket
holes closest to you when spooling from underneath the reel from
left to right.
8. Attach head leader and project.
Now wasn’t that yummy? The following
pamphlets are of paramount importance to maintaining and sustaining
the universe within and without:
“Safe Handling of Photographic Chemicals” J-4, $1
“The Prevention of Contact Dermatitis in Photographic Work”
J-4S, 50 cents
“The Environmental Emergency Card” J-2A, 10 cents
One copy of each may be ordered free of charge through Kodak’s
information center 1-800-242-2424 x25, 9am-7pm Eastern Standard
Time. PS: Photographic chemicals will stain your tub yellow, and
make your brain mellow. WEAR PROPER PROTECTION AND ALWAYS PLAY IN
A WELL-VENTILATED SPACE!!!
Manja You Eyes!
“Chance favors the prepared mind” -Bobby McFerrin
Now you’re ready to explore the possibilities.
Let’s start with tank size. Cramming a 50-foot roll of Super
8 film into a 2-reel tank is like having sex with yourself in a
footlocker (and I’ll, uh, leave it at that). 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 sproketholes
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.
However, depending on which kit you’re using, the critical
first and/or second steps must be undertaken in TOTAL darkness to
prevent fogging. 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 the most spotless image. Conversely,
you might try filling a spray bottle with the first developer and
‘mist-ify’ your expectations still further!
Experiment with temperature and agitation. Cooler temperatures tend
to yield ‘warmer’, blue tones while warmer temps usually
produce ‘cooler’, yellow and green tones. Adjust development
times according to the push/pull table in the kits’ instructions.
Over-agitation increases grain and contrast, while under-agitation
decreases grain and contrast.
You can 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.
Return it to the tank and continue processing where you left off.
Presto! Instant funky!
Please note that most reversal kits such as the Tetenal
combine certain steps for expediency and convenience, thereby preventing
you from experimenting during certain stages. However, the Kodak
TMAX B&W kit will permit you to make a negative image when you
skip the steps between the first developer and fixer baths. Leapfrogging
from the first developer to the fixer using the Fuji Hunt kit will
give you a sepia-like negative. The same kit will let you whip up
a tasty color negative when you process normally, but exclude the
reversal bath step. If you’re a daring cook, you may desire
the flexibility (and savings) of purchasing your chemicals in separate,
bulk amounts from either a retail or mail order photo supply company
such as Photographer’s Formulary in Condon, Montana, USA;
Kodachrome cross-processed in B&W turns out sorta
sepia. When shooting you’ll need to overexpose your film 1
stop. 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 the same stock are generally the limit before the solutions become
exhausted. Be aware that cross processing will render your chemistry
incompatible with the stocks it was intended for. So use near-expired
solutions which 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 Super
8 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.
More inspiration appears in the ‘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 may seam too clean. Which reminds me of a few aphorisms
by my musing muse, James Broughton:
“Precise spontaneity is the only way of hitting
“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!!!