In June 2015 I was lucky enough to source a fresh 300ft short-end of Kodak’s 250D (Vision 3 5207) motion picture stock in 65mm format. You probably already know, I really, really like shooting this film in 35mm and it’s become my go-to color negative film stock in lieu of nearly everything else – my 250D review can be found here. I’d been looking for some for a while, so when the chance came to buy some, I jumped at the chance to give 120 bulk loading a try.
For those of you not familiar with buying motion picture film in bulk, short-ends are reels of film left at the end of a movie production. Sometimes they’ve been used for testing different lighting situations prior to committing to a shoot, sometimes they’re simply lengths of film from 400ft or 1000ft reels which were partially shot. There are also “re-cans”, which are reels which were loaded into a camera, or cassettes but were never used.
Readers with good memories should remember seeing a few shots from the various rolls I’ve bulk loaded in the past, as well as the various promises I’ve made that an article dealing with bulk loading this film is coming. Well, here it is.
Bulk loading 120 film – the premise
This article deals with preparing and bulk loading 65mm film as 120 rollfilm capable of being shot in any medium format camera, film back, or 120 rollfilm holder. It is intended to provide a starting point for those of you with an interest in trying your hand at rolling and shooting 65mm motion picture film for yourselves.
The process described here is equally applicable to bulk loading 70mm film as 120 or 220. Simply change the measurements to suit.
Speaking of 220, I’ve been asked a couple of times if it’s possible to bulk load 220 film using this method. The simple answer is “yes” but naturally, backing paper and film length measurements will be different. That said, it’s a simpler process and you’ll find a short overview at the foot of this page.
It should be noted that there are always better, or different ways to achieve what I have described below, so don’t take this as gospel and remember that your results will probably vary. Illustrations have been provided where possible but please reach out in the comments for further help, or clarification if needed.
Speaking of results here’s what we’re after:
You’ll notice that I haven’t cropped the perforations from my scans. I think they add character but each to their own.
Here we go.
Why would you want to do this?
Why not? This project stemmed from the idea of shooting medium format motion picture film. As there was no such publicly available product in mid-2015, this conversion/bulk load was the only reasonable option open to me to satisfy that particular craving.
Whilst it may well have been possible to use an adapted 70mm film back on my preferred camera in order to achieve the same goal without the mess you see below, details on the hardware I needed were and are scarce. So, to save myself the couple of hundred dollars I would have needed to spend on buying a complete 70mm film back setup, and in the name of learning something new, I decided to put on my thinking cap and give it my best shot.
Considerations for bulk loading 120 film
The measurements provided below are based current 120 format Fuji Velvia 50 (RVP50) and assume the use of a 6×6 film back. I’ve added notes where variations in vendor materials and standards are relevant and it goes without saying that you should double check your own materials before you begin.
Here’s what you’ll need to think about before beginning your bulk load but a word of warning, there are a lot of numbers here:
- 120 backing paper is ~1490mm long and 63mm wide. It varies minimally in length and weight from vendor to vendor.
- 120 film is ~780mm long and 61mm wide. 120 film can be up to ~830mm long but generally varies in length by -10mm and +30mm from vendor to vendor.
- Assuming a 57mm wide image and an average 6mm spacing between frames, we will need a minimum film length of 750mm.
- When bulk loading 120 film, the film should be rolled in such a way as to leave a 1mm “gutter” of backing paper on each side of the film in order to prevent light leaks and ensure even shots.
- Our 65mm film has perforations running on each side of the film and the perforations start ~2.5mm from each edge. in order to fit on our 120 spools and leave the gutter mentioned above, we need to trim 2mm from each edge of the film.
- Assuming our 6×6 film back winds vertically (top the bottom), this leaves us with a ~53mm wide useable image width from a ~57mm wide frame (after cropping). If your intended camera winds horizontally, this means a useable image height of ~53mm.
- Using a film length of 780mm for Fuji slide film, the film’s “leader” needs to be taped down ~430mm from the start end of the backing paper.
- As its end point, the film should leave ~280mm of bare backing paper. In all cameras, this tail needs to be wound and sealed off after the roll has been shot.
- The start and finish points of the film on the backing paper need to be identifiable in total darkness.
- The roll end-seal must be replaced when reusing discarded backing paper.
Some illustrations to describe these measurements and considerations:
Numbers aside, the most important factor is that — and this is a kicker — we need to start rolling from what I’ll be calling the SEAL end of the roll and tape it at the START end. In short, we’ll be rolling it backwards onto a spool and only taping the film down when we reach the beginning of the roll.
If you’ve ever developed your own 120 film, you’ll know that the film is taped to only one end of the backing paper, near the start of the roll. Why only one end and not both? The reason is the spooling effect, which can be best demonstrated if you take two strips of paper of equal length, lay them one on top of the other so they line up and tape one end together. Now place the taped end of your two strips on a cylindrical object and spool it on. With each rotation, the action of spooling the two overlapping strips will cause the upper strip to take a longer path, thus making it shorter on the spool. By the time you’ve reached the end, you’ll be left with the bottom strip sticking out.
At shorter lengths, this isn’t a huge issue but when we’re talking about ~850mm of film on ~1490mm of backing paper, things can get troublesome. Paper can fold, film can buckle and light leaks can be created – especially when we’re doing it all by hand in the dark.
Now that we’re aware of this and are willing to proceed, it’s time to get our materials (and a stiff drink).
Naturally, we should start with the film either uncut in an original canister or already cut down to 850mm strips.
Hang on. Why 850mm when I just told you normal 120 film length was ~800mm? I’m not a machine, neither are you. I make mistakes and the extra length gives me a fudge factor, as you’ll see below. On a 400ft reel, those extra few centimetres will result in a loss of 12 rolls of film from a 400ft reel. 141 rolls vs. 153. Big deal.
Assuming that we’re starting with an uncut reel, we’ll also need the following :
Preparation materials (per roll)
- One 120 spool and backing paper scavenged from your last self-developed roll or begged from your local lab. If you plan on loading more than one roll, make sure they’re from the same stock, or vendor. More on that later.
- A good ruler, around 600mm long.
- Low to middling-adhesion masking tape/painters tape about 20-30mm wide, cut into to two 50mm lengths. One strip should have one end folded over to create a tab.
- An elastic band.
- A strip of self-adhesive paper approximately 15mm wide and 100mm long to use as roll seals. The adhesive side should be water/moisture activated (like an envelope, or postage stamp), or covered by a guard strip. Cut printer labels work quite well.
- I recommend you use Fuji backing paper, as you can substitute the above seal with double sided tape on an existing tag of paper.
- Two self-adhesive labels no bigger than 60mm on a side to label your newly bulk loaded film.
- A strip of 65mm film cut to 61mm wide and 850mm long for testing.
Bulk loading materials
- A (big) dark bag, dark box, dark tent or dark room…anything, as long as it’s dark.
- A film slicer capable of slicing the edges off the 65mm film and cutting it down to 61mm wide – you can buy these from eBay, or make them yourself with a couple of razors.
- Optional: a tray to help guide the film and backing paper while loading.
- An 850mm long, thin strip of leather, or non-abrasive string (not elastic), to be used to measure strips of film before cutting.
Got that? Take a deep breath and read on.
First of all, we need to prepare our 120 spool and backing paper. I consider bulk loading less than five rolls in one sitting to be a waste of time. Especially considering that one roll will probably be wasted due to ineptitude, impatience or other factors. You should factor 10 minutes for each roll.
Take your 15mm x 100mm seal strip and stick it to the SEAL end of the roll (the end with the seal you make on a finished roll). Fold the newly made seal over onto itself, so it doesn’t extend past the lip of the backing paper. If you went with spent Fuji rolls, you can simply unfold the existing seal tab and stick your double-sided tape (guard strip intact), to the inside. As above, you should also fold this back when done.
Next, apply one self-adhesive label to the SEAL end of the roll, making sure that it doesn’t interfere with the seal you just made/resurrected. The label should have notes for your lab about the film stock and development process (C-41 or ECN). A second label should be applied to the start end of the roll. You can also make and apply the seal end label once the roll has been shot; your choice.
Prepare your backing paper by laying it on a flat surface, inner side facing up and weigh down each end. The instructions here assume the START end of the paper is on your left and the SEAL end is on your right. From the start end of the paper, mark a point at 430mm. From the seal end, mark a point at 280mm. Using Fuji Velvia 50 paper as my template, this gives us a total distance of 780mm between marks. The added bonus of using discarded slide film or color negative backing paper is that vendors should have already made these marks for you with white tape but it’s best to double check.
The first mark you made is where the film will be taped down, the second is where you need to begin rolling both paper and film together. As already stated a few times, these are the START and SEAL marks, respectively.
Let’s look at Figure 02 from earlier in this article again:
Take the two pieces of tape you prepared and place the one without the tab to the right of the SEAL mark that you made. Place the tabbed strip of tape just to the left of the START mark. The illustration above only shows the SEAL end piece of tape.
Now take the seal end of the paper and insert the small tab into the slit of your 120 spool. From here, make sure that that the seal tab you made is secure and begin rolling the paper onto the spool as tightly as possible. You must ensure that the darker (inner) side of the backing paper faces inwards.
Keep going until the paper is fully wound onto the spool and secure with an elastic band. Rinse and repeat until you have as many rolls as you want.
Time to start loading? Not yet.
Assuming that you have a test strip of film ready, you should practice a bit before trying it for real in your dark bag/box/tent/room. Remember I said you need a big dark bag or tent? Here’s why:
That 65mm can (right), is approximately 80mm tall and 288mm in diameter. It’s HUGE and dwarfs the standard 400ft 35mm can to the left. If you’re already used to handling 1000ft reels of 35mm film, it won’t be too much of a surprise but the extra height makes all the difference.
On to practice.
Making sure your pre-prepared roll has been unwound so that the SEAL mark has just come off the spool. Place the film (emulsion side up) over the SEAL mark tape. Your strip of film will be wide enough for you to place the strip well over the left-hand side of the tape (assuming you’re holding the seal in your left hand, that is!)
Speaking of the tape, try not to look at the roll when you place the film onto it. Use the texture of the tape to feel your way to where the film needs to be placed, as this will come in handy when the lights are out. If you want to be extra smart, you can line up the SEAL tape so it’s just about to be drawn into the spool and lightly wedge the film in there before starting your load.
With everything in place, carefully roll the backing paper and film onto the spool, while initially holding the film in place on the paper. Don’t apply too much pressure. As long as the paper is not loose, you’re safe.
Start rolling film and backing paper on, making sure that the film is as centered as possible on the paper. I do this by lightly pinching the edges of the paper and letting physics take care of the rest. Naturally, you don’t want to touch the emulsion side of the film, which should be facing inward toward the spool.
Note: When loading for real, I wear fresh, high thread count cotton gloves. Latex surgical gloves can also work but they don’t absorb any moisture in what can become a rather humid environment when using a dark bag or box.
With any luck, by the time you’ve wound on to the START mark, the film should be at or over the tabbed strip of tape…but not by too much. Lift the tab to peel the tape off and tape the film down. Ensure that half the tape covers the film and finish rolling the paper until you have what looks like an unexposed roll in your hand. If you jumped ahead earlier, then apply your label and secure with an elastic band.
You’re nearly done! Now to see the quality of your work by unravelling it.
With the roll unravelled, check the position of your film relative to the START and SEAL marks. If the film has shifted past the SEAL mark so that it’s further from the edge, then you need to adjust your starting position, re-roll and recheck. Keep repeating until you’re happy that that film will roll consistently tight with no gaps and allow you to comfortably cover both of the marks you made.
This is where a single vendor system works best. If you can, try to make sure your backing paper comes from the same vendor and is for the same stock. Differences between vendors can throw your careful hand rolling off easily, as can film stocks of different vintages.
Bulk loading your first roll of 120 film
In theory, if you have practised your method above, you shouldn’t have too many problems with bulk loading in the dark. Shouldn’t.
My advice would be to take your time and test, test, test, your method. Load the test strip and paper/spool in the dark a few times, then unroll and review in the light to see how you did. If your alignment is off, then try again and again until you get it right.
You should also test your dummy roll in a camera of your choice to make sure it goes through ok. If at any point you feel resistance when winding on, it means that you didn’t tape down the film well enough and it has started bunching up. Remove the film carefully, re-roll with a fresh test strip and try again.
So… What about the elephant in the room? How do you get your 65mm film down to 61mm wide and 850mm long?
First of all, the larger the space you have at your disposal for loading, the less chance you have to mess things up. 65mm cans are big and you need space to operate, as you saw in the image above.
This part of the process is entirely up to individual preference. I cut my film down to 850mm inside my dark box, preparing one strip, loading it and then making another. I also use a custom film slicer to slice off an extra millimetre or so from each side of my cut strips. It’s a small block made from pieces of cut plastic with two razor blades spaced at 61mm apart.
I put my film on the block, push a “lid” on to provide some pressure and then carefully pull the film through. It can be troublesome and I am in the process of designing and fabricating a gizmo to do the job automatically.
The guide below assumes you’re using a “pull-through” cutter similar to the one I’ve described:
- If previously cold stored, ensure the film has had a chance to get to room temperature. Remove the reel from its can and dark bag(s) and use the length of leather or string mentioned previously to measure off ~850mm. Cut the film and put the reel back in the bag and can.
- Insert the film into the slicer and pull through. Work slowly and use even pressure. If you don’t, you risk pulling the film through at an angle and wasting the strip.
- Then we follow the steps already outlined above:
- Grabbing the freshly cut film from its edges, place it over the SEAL mark on your backing paper.
- Apply pressure and roll with one hand whilst keeping the film aligned with the backing paper using the “pinch” method described above.
- Using an even pressure to spool the film and paper, make a note of the position of the end of the film strip relative to the START mark on your backing roll.
- If happy, tape into position and roll up, then seal the roll with an elastic band. If not, unroll and re-roll.
With the freshly loaded film sealed up with an elastic band, remove it from the dark environment, apply the label you made, find a camera and drop everything to load and shoot the film.
Now. Do it. Don’t wait.
You should be proud of what you’ve done, so get out and give it a test.
Developing your film
You now have 120 motion picture film that you can either develop at home (there’s an article coming on that cough-cough), or you can take it to any film lab that develops motion picture in either C-41, or ECN2 chemistry.
One point of note is that you can develop Kodak 250D as a black and white film. It’s wonderfully contrasty and has a lovely feel to it. More on that another time.
That’s really all there is to it.
Notes on bulk loading 220 film
220 backing paper comes in two parts. The START end is ~500mm long and the SEAL end is ~330mm long. Film is taped to each piece ~30mm from the square-cut end of each piece of backing paper. The film base is approximately 1680mm long.
One of the advantages of bulk loading 220 film is that we’re able to simply snip 120 backing paper down to size, then tape-spool-tape-spool. There are no huge alignment or film/paper gutter issues to get caught up with, it really is simpler than the 120 bulk loading method I’ve described here. If you have a 220 compatible film back or camera, I’d suggest you give it a shot!
There’s not much more left to say. In my opinion, if you already bulk load 35mm film and want to give this a try, it’s a wonderful challenge and will test your patience and resolve. As an exercise in learning something new and dare I say it, getting closer to the medium you’ll be shooting on, it can’t be beaten unless you happen to be making your own emulsion or wet plates.
The results are absolutely worth the investment in time and resource to pull this off. Whilst there may well be a 120 format motion picture emulsion on the market very soon (I backed the recent Cinestill campaign myself), the difference results between unadulterated motion picture stock with intact remjet and current no-remjet options can be very wide indeed. The remjet isn’t only there to help protect the film as it runs through the motion picture camera, it also acts as an anti-halation layer.
If you’re going to shoot motion picture film, you might as well shoot the real thing.
Thanks for reading.
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