This three-part series explores motion picture film for use in still camera and covers the theory behind motion picture film, currently available film stocks, the importance of correct development and the development process itself. (Read part 2 here, and part 3 here).
Through this article and the two which follow, I’ll be giving you the tools you need to not only understand this medium, but also specific details on how to mix your own development chemistry and start developing motion picture film using the ECN-2 process yourself.
Let’s jump in with a quick bit of recent motion picture film history, starting with the rise of digital…
In 1999 George Lucas announced that in partnership with a camera created by Sony and Panavision; he was filming the first full-length major motion picture to be filmed in a digital-only format. Twelve years later, in 2011, Panavision, Arri, and Aaton all announced they would cease production of analog cameras for good.
2007 was a year that changed motion picture history forever. RED Digital Cinema shipped its first camera, the RED ONE, to its first official customer. This was also the year that Peter Jackson was presented with an opportunity by RED to use some of their first cameras for a series of camera tests. Instead, he opted to shoot his short “Crossing the Line” in New Zealand, thus solidifying this camera in Hollywood with directors like Steven Soderbergh and others starting following suit.
RED brought a camera to the world that had roughly the same 4K resolution and sensor size as 35mm film. It was one of the very first examples of a truly digital cinema camera. Before this most digital cinema cameras were 2K and under in resolution. They still shared parts with analog film cameras and were astronomically expensive. The Arri D-20 that was announced in 2005 was a good example. It had a mechanical shutter, optical viewfinder and mostly the same body of an Arri 435ES, but with a 2K CMOS sensor inside instead of hundreds of feet of film running through it. A digital camera retrofitted inside an analog body.
Right around 2008, Arri released the Arri D-21 and Sony released the F35 which are two of my favorite digital motion picture cameras, though somewhat obscure and relatively outdated by today’s standards. They had a film-like quality that couldn’t be ignored (similar to Red’s early cameras). From my perspective, all of these early cameras have a very organic, film-like quality. They tried to emulate film in a digital format. Something, in my opinion, digital cameras have begun to move away from.
While digital cinema cameras certainly have made their mark on this world, film has not been forgotten. Not only are a large number of major motion pictures still shot on film but many television series such as West World and True Detective have opted to use this format as well. As much as we have moved away from the use of film as an everyday medium, many directors and DP’s continue to use film as a creative and stylistic choice often for their entire their career.
Motion picture film for still photography: why I started
My business partner and fellow filmmaker/cinematographer Duncan O’Bryan and I lived through an interesting time in film. We came from analog backgrounds in our youth and experienced the rise of digital formats. We grew up with tactile film in our hands. Then we saw what everyone thought was the end of film.
The writing had been on the wall for years before everyone started jumping ship and now, incredibly enough, we are living through the revival of film. It is clear that film has made a comeback but from my perspective, it is just as relevant now as it always has been.
In my personal work, I noticed the lenses and digital cameras I chose always had that film-like quality to them. I realized that within the confines of a digital format I was trying to create an analog feeling, an aesthetic that was the way that I perceived the world, the way I grew up.
After spending six months on location filming my first feature-length documentary with a RED EPIC, I started once again to make the transition back to analog.
Outside of budgeted projects, 35mm processing for motion pictures can be very expensive compared to shooting on a digital format. Wanting to know film better but lacking the ability to lug around a 35mm motion picture camera (plus processing and scanning thousands of feet of film) I started to load motion picture film into 35mm cassettes by hand for my Nikon F3.
The one thing that is great about film, is that you have to be specific with what you shoot. The one bad thing about film is that you have to be specific about what you shoot. By running motion stock in a still camera I found a middle ground.
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I had the ability to take as many photos as I wanted, process them, and if I saw something I liked, go back with a motion picture camera.
I haven’t picked up a digital camera for personal projects since. It has been one of the greatest ways for me to further explore not only film but the relationship between motion and still photography.
I started this endeavor a few years ago to better understand the technical aspects of motion film. I was exploring the limit of film by pushing and pulling chemically and shooting a wide range of exposures sometimes to such an extreme that I began to see reciprocity failure in the individual dye layers.
Through all this, I learned just how impressive the dynamic range of film is by pushing it to its limits.
After shooting and processing several thousand feet of Kodak VISION3 500T (5219) through a still camera, I quickly began to see the potential for storyboards and location scouting, as Duncan and I were able to achieve the same aesthetic of a motion picture shot on film.
We now had the ability to go to areas and basically do a location scout to look at available lighting and environment. Then we could take still photos and develop them almost immediately. We could share this with each other to visualize and plan.
Ultimately this is what we started to use motion stock in a still camera for: stories.
The development elephant
Admittedly there was one big problem. Very early it was apparent that there was an issue with cross processing this stock in C-41 chemicals. Initially, when self-developing and scanning, everything had a blue and cyan tint. Because of that, we stopped cross processing with C-41.
We were trying to get the right colors, the right lighting. This stock was sought out for its technical abilities but due to the incorrect chemical process, everything was shifted towards blue. You can’t learn everything there is to know about a film stock if you’re not processing it correctly.
The problem is that no one really develops in ECN-2 chemistry and most labs that say they do now just cross-process in C-41 but remove Rem-Jet (more on this later).
That is how I ended up spending over a year perfecting ECN-2 development, personally processing what might be considering an absurd amount of film stock and eventually opening up a small lab named Quiet We’re Dreaming that processes ECN-2 for other other photographers, cinematographers and directors.
In the next article, I will be talking about what motion picture film stocks are available by Kodak, their differences, some film theory regarding ECN-2 developments and the effects of cross processing before covering how to process ECN-2 on a small scale at home — read part 2 here, and part 3 here.
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