Developing motion picture film in your own darkroom by Mr. D Cow Esquire
Snatched from the streets of San Diego in late March 2016 by a group of masked assailants, Diz has been spending some time at EMULSIVE HQ (voluntarily) working on a guest post covering his process for developing motion picture film at home.
If you’ve ever thought about shooting and developing your own motion picture stock (such as the wonderful Kodak Vision3 250D), this is your chance to not only learn how but to see how simple the process is.
Busting myths and soon to be busting out of EMULSIVE HQ, it’s over to Diz for his how-to.
Here we go!
Developing motion picture film in your own darkroom
Spurred on by the “encouragement” of EMULSIVE, I have finally written up my version of how to develop movie film stock at home. It isn’t very different from developing other color films at home except for the removal of a layer of material on the film.
Most color motion picture stocks have a protective layer called remjet. This remjet layer exists primarily for two reasons I am aware of — combating anti-static discharge as the film passes through the cinema camera at speed, and preventing halation effects. It is dealing with this layer in development that puts off most people from developing motion picture film stock at home, but really, it isn’t that bad.
NOTE: You have to realize, that if I can do this, then pretty much anyone else can do it — probably even better.
Other than that, be warned: there isn’t a large amount of new information to be had here, but you will hopefully get an insight into my thought process as I walk you through my steps.
Here are a few examples to when your appetite before we jump in:
Have I got your attention?
Let’s get stuck in.
First and foremost, I am already assuming the following:
- That you already know how to develop color film at home with home kits and how to mix them.
- That you already know how to bulk roll 35mm film. NOTE: If you want to be a big boy, see EMULSIVE’s latest article on how to bulk roll 120/220 film here!!! Once you wrap your head around that, the following steps are the same.
Preparing the film
You can buy bulk loaded movie file in 35mm format from various dark corners of the Internet. If you’re like me and want to roll your own, the first thing will be for you to order yourself up a massive roll of movie film stock in whatever format size you want.
You can find offerings out there from 100ft, 400ft, to up to 1000ft reels. For 35mm film, most bulk loaders have a maximum capacity of 100ft, so you’ll have to find a way to break up the larger reels into workable lengths.
I do this in a light tight room that offers a large workspace, though it is possible to do this in a dark bag. How do you know when you’ve reached 100ft? One hint is to find a take up reel that fits into your bulk loader. At least that will get you in the right neighborhood without over shooting the maximum length and finding out later that it won’t fit into your loader.
Yes, you can get carried away as your mind zones out during this portion. I have rigged up a platform with two Lazy Susans to help with my productivity for this step.
Got your film ready? Great. Now go ahead and re-spool them into cartridges and go out into the wild and shoot a roll, or two, or however many will satisfy your hunger.
Back already? Got the film loaded into your portable developing tank?
Ok, now the fun begins, but before we start, I will mention this: I have tried several methods that others have recommended on how and when to remove the remjet layer during the developing process. All of them work, but here is what I have found to work out best for me.
I’ll be going through the following five main steps belowe:
- Alkaline pre-bath
- Remjet removal
Here we go:
Preparation – Pre-soak and alkaline pre-bath
- Bring a large, half-filled pot of water to the boil and then turn off your stove. I’ll come back to this in later steps.
- Pre-soak the film in ~100F water for as long as it takes you to mix up the alkaline pre-bath as follows:
- Take 500mL of water and heat up to about 140F. I do this in a microwave. It takes 1min and 20 secs for mine.
- Mix in four heaped teaspoons of washing soda and two teaspoons of baking soda in that specific order and stir until fully dissolved. If you have these steps reversed, the baking soda will clump and become harder to dissolve. I deduced this recipe from what I read on Kodak’s published ECN-2 document (easily found on the web).
- Pour out the pre-soak bath from the tank and pour in the alkaline pre-bath. I pass it through a fine wire mesh medical strainer, but a coffee filter should work fine. This is to prevent unwanted solids entering the bath and embedding themselves into the emulsion side of the film.
- Set a timer and let this soak for 7 minutes. (Well, I use 7 minutes)
- Take the bottles of your developer, bleach, fix, stopper, etc. and place them into that once boiled pot I told you to prepare at the top of the previous section. Don’t forget to partially open the lids to prevent pressure build up.
- Drop a thermometer in the developer bottle so that you can monitor it’s progress up to 102F (for C41 chemistry) or 106F (for ECN2 chemistry).
- At the 7 minute mark (from above), the chemistry temps should still be climbing. This is where you start shaking and rinsing the film in the tank for the next 3 minutes or so. I usually vigorously shake for 20 seconds or so, dump the water, then refill from running warm tap water (~100F). Repeat until the water you are dumping out is clear — no discoloration or suds whatsoever.
- If, by this time, the chemistry still hasn’t reached the proper temps, keep the film soaked in warm water. This is important as you don’t want any possible floating particles to embed itself on the emulsion side. Don’t ever leave the tank dry for too long!
- Once the chemistry has reached the appropriate temps, go ahead and dive right into developing but — this is important — STOP SHORT OF THE STABILIZING / WETTING AGENT STEP!NOTE: I continue to use the strainer when pouring chemicals in and out of their bottles, just in case new particles work themselves loose.
- Ok, are you there yet? Good. This is where I open up the tank to take the negative strip off the reel, and hang it up on clips. It will just be a bit “dingy” as the remjet is still on the film. Take care not to touch the emulsion side when you hang the negs.
- After hanging, take a microfiber cloth soaked in luke warm water, and holding the negative taught, wipe of the remjet using single passes along the full length of the remjet side. Don’t ever touch the emulsion side. Repeat this process with a clean portion of the cloth until you see no more remjet residue being transferred to the cloth. For good measure, I will hang the negative strip from the other end to get rid of the remjet portion that is covered by the clips. This takes no more than one minute once you find your rhythm.
- Now, take a clean dry reel and reload the negative strip, then place into the tank.
- Proceed with your normal stabilizer or wetting agent steps and hang to dry as you’ve always done.
- If reloading onto the reel is too much effort, you could hold both ends of the negative and bathe it in a big enough container tray for the time needed.
That’s it! That’s how I do it. Really simple for me after tweaking my workflow to what I have described above.
Fuji’s remjet comes off much more readily than Kodak’s. It usually doesn’t take me more than one wipe with hardly anything coming off onto the cloth. It also leaves your reels very clean.
For those of us who love Kodak’s movie film, their remjet is a bit more stubborn. You will have to clean off your reels. For this, I use dishwashing liquid and a toothbrush in warm water.
You really don’t need an alkaline bath to remove the remjet, but just be aware that there is more of a mess to clean off the reels, and more wiping necessary with the microfiber cloth. I recommend an alkaline bath to make your life easier.
I’ve tried the remjet removal process after the bleach and fix steps. This works, too, but I prefer to just get it out of the way in the beginning where I can just focus on the rest of the process.
There are many different alkaline bath recipes out there. Some folks just use borax or baking soda. That works fine, too, but I have been getting better results with the mix I described in my steps. Your mileage may vary. Whatever you do, don’t take any shortcuts during the alkaline pre-bath and shake/rinse process. This is the most important phase in my view.
Did I already mention not to leave the tank dry for too long at any time during the entire process to prevent floating particles getting embedded onto the emulsion side? [EMULSIVE: Yes you did, Diz]
Why go to the trouble when you can buy pre-rolled stock on eBay or Cinestill branded products? Well, my primary reason was to figure out a way to save money when I first started shooting film.
It really is very cost effective if you do this all in-house. Costs have come down to about $1.75 – $2.50 per roll for me.
Plus, I’m not such a big fan of the halation effects if you buy this film with the remjet already removed prior to shooting. Sure, it’s good for some projects, but not for everything.
Credits, shout outs and messages of love
Last, but not least, I have to give credit to the crew at the Film Photography Project, Dominic Remane (@Wakingmist on Twitter), Larry (inetjoker on Flickr), and the rest of the forum participants in the I Shoot Kodak Vision Films and I Shoot Movie Films forums on Flickr for all the help during my journey in getting this all figured out.
A wealth of information there folks. I’m sure there are a few more I have forgotten to mention.
Maybe next time I’ll talk about developing this film stock in BW chemistry or talk about my journey in mixing up ECN2 chemistry at home. Speaking of which…
…and with that, his bond has been released and Diz has once again been released into his natural habitat. Hopefully it won’t take another kidnapping to read his thoughts on black and white development of color motion picture film stocks, or homebrew ECN2 chemistry…but you never know.
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