Article for "Splice Magazine", Fall 2002
The Long and The Tall of It: Hand Processing

Over this past year, I have read dozens of articles on hand processing film. There has been a proliferation of them over the past couple of years, and even though they have been in publications which rarely reach Regina, they eventually find their way into my hands. Many of them were collected together in Helen Hill’s amazing Canada Council funded publication “Recipes for Disaster” as well as a special hand processing issue of the LIFT Newsletter in March, 2002. Some of these articles were written by filmmakers who have dedicated extensive time into this field and offer their readers some instruction and guidance. Other articles seem to be anecdotal tales of first time encounters with hand processing, it’s joys and pitfalls. Faced now with writing my own article, I have a bit of a quandary as to what approach will be both original and relevant. Consequently, what I am going to tell you may meander during my search for a way to clarify my thoughts on this most chaotic of art practices.
Hand processing, within the context of 16mm filmmaking, refers to the act of developing ones own film without the use of commercial, automated developing machines. In most cases, this is limited to black and white film due to the critical temperature requirements of colour film. For photographers who shoot black and white stills, this is a common practice. In fact, hand processing black and white motion picture film can, and is, done by using chemicals which are marketed for use with still photography such as Kodak D-76, Kodak Dektol or Ilford ID-11.
Instructional articles on this process are often clearly and concisely written. Gary Popovich’s oft reprinted “Bathtub Film Processing & Toning” is a good example. To summarize, the process can be done in one of two ways, with buckets (dunk) or tank devices.
The most common of the processing tanks is the G3 (not a Macintosh) which would be familiar to many people who have studied film at the University in Regina. The Filmpool also own a G3. It is a light-tight tank which has an opening in the top and a cork in the bottom so that chemicals can be pored in and out. With this tank, the film remains wound up tightly inside. Therefore, the user must wind the film back and forth using handles on the top of the device until the development is complete. Due to the fact that the chemistry is only touching a small portion of the film at any one time, the development time using this method is about four times that of other systems. G3 tanks are still manufactured and cost about $75. The second tank method is the less common, Soviet made developing tank has a greater similarity to the coiled 35 mm still tanks than the G3. This round tank contains a holder onto which you feed a roll of film. Once loaded, the holder is submerged into the tank and closed with the rest of the developing being done with the lights on. These tanks require less chemicals to be used and less labour to complete. The results are even and reliable. These tanks are difficult to find and are likely a few hundred dollars on sources such as E-Bay.
Bucket processing is far more hands-on than the two systems I described above. With this method, no specialized equipment is needed but rather a series of rubber containers are used. Phil Hoffman uses rectangular, eight inch deep rubbermaid bins. I use much larger containers from commercial ice cream. Chemicals are pored into the buckets. The lights are turned off. Film is removed from its protective can and unwound from its spool into the chemicals. The film is agitated by hand (it is suggested that rubber gloves always be worn) until all the processes are complete. This system probably uses more chemicals than the tanks but is generally a more physically satisfying experience.
In each of the systems, the chemicals remain the same. To develop film as negative, immerse the film first in developer, then wash it and immerse it in fix. Wash again and then dry by hanging. What happens when you do this is that the silver halide particles which are suspended evenly across the original film, suspended in a gelatin which acts to affix it to the acetate (or estar) base, are altered by the developer. The particles which have been struck by light through the lens of the camera will group together into clusters. The particles which were not struck by light will simply remain on the film, loose. In the fixing stage, the loose silver halides will be washed away and the halide clusters will remain intact. Therefore the areas where light struck will be black, where light did not strike would be clear (white) and thus a negative is created. The clusters of particles become the grain of the film.
Developing times vary depending upon a number of factors. The warmer the chemicals are, the faster the process is. Some chemicals work faster than others. D-76 and ID-11 are similar and are what I most commonly use. At room temperature, developing times would be approximately 10 minutes. At 32 degrees, the processing time would drop to about five minutes. Heavy agitation will also speed up the process slightly, and will also affect the grain of the film to create a higher contrast image. Chemical strength is also important. As the developer is used, it weakens and may require longer development times before it is replaced. I use chemicals in dry form and mix them up with water when I need them. Since water qualities are also important, tests must be made to determine base times in each particular dark room. Softness and hardness of water has extreme and often unpredictable effects on the film’s contrast. Dektol, which is a Kodak paper developer rather than a film developer, is used by some filmmakers for hand processing. It requires less development time than the other solutions mentioned.
It is useful to know that, generally speaking, all film can be developed either as a negative (as described above) or as a positive. In photography, we refer to positive film as transparencies or slides. In motion picture film, it is called reversal film. Manufacturers do create some differences in the emulsions of these films (positive versus negative) but this does not stop someone from processing one as the other, or “cross processing”. Many filmmakers who work in hand processing are drawn to reversal processing. This allows you to show originals in a normal, positive way to an audience immediately after the process is complete. The process includes an additional two steps and another chemical, reversing bleach. This bleach, the most toxic of the chemicals we’ve touched so far, is composed of diluted sulfuric acid and potassium dichromate and is no longer readily available at photography stores.
The method of developing film as reversal begins the same as the negative. The film is immersed into the developer for such time that the light activated silver halide particles are bonded. After a wash, the film is put into the bleach for one or two minutes. After another very thorough wash, the lights are turned on. The film will look pale and you will see a white ghost-like image of your film. What has happened is that the bleach has removed the particles of silver halide which have been bonded together but has left all the loose particles alone. In the light, the remaining particles are exposed. I like to insure that the film is all heavily exposed to light so at this point I take it outside and perform the sacred film dance. The film is then placed back into the developer where the areas which in the negative would have been washed clear will now turn black. The areas which would have been black in the negative have been washed away and are now clear. The image is a positive. After a wash, the film is ready to hang to dry. As there is no more emulsion to be washed away by the fix, that step can be skipped.
The look of a hand processed film varies tremendously from one to the next. Distinctive characteristics include damaged emulsion, cracked effects within the blacks, scratches, a preponderance of dust or other grime, and fluctuations in the exposures which might even result in solarized effects. These conditions would all be avoided were commercial developers to be employed. These labs have been the backbone of the film industry for a century, and for good reason. They offer motion picture producers reliable (predictable), quality results, quickly and efficiently. Labs certainly make profit, but generally work hard for it so I do not intend to vilify them in any way. Why then would I, or anyone for that matter, choose any other path?
The first reason is time. With your bathroom converted to a darkroom and sitting at the ready, a filmmakers can see camera rolls within hours of having shot the film. Living in Saskatchewan, where the closest labs are in Calgary or Edmonton and the biggest labs situated in Toronto and Vancouver, the word “dailies” has no meaning. I expect to wait five days or more to see footage and for a short film that expects to only shoot for a week, that means that you will be working in the dark. Saskatchewan is not the only isolated place in the world where hand processing is popular. I have heard of numerous filmmakers in Belgium and other European countries who have problems because they do not have commercial film labs in their entire nation! Rolls of film must be mailed over national boarders and may be subject to any number of delays, taxes, and inspections. Given the freedom to develop your own film, spontaneous films can emerge, with shooting and processing taking place just days, or even hours before a public screening of them takes place. The energy behind the making often will build these sorts of events into real happenings.
The second reason one might look to hand processing film is money. Lab costs are always on the rise. A roll of 100 feet of film will cost $12-16 to develop. Shipping to far off cities must also be paid for. While this is not particularly excessive for most people to shoot an occasional roll, once one embarks upon a larger project requiring multiple rolls it will quickly add up and make this avenue of image creation prohibitive for many self financed film artists.
Before I move on to the third reason, I need to contextualize my own work as it relates to the reasons above. Good intentions aside, my rolls of film all too often sit on my shelf for weeks, if not months, before I develop them. I could send them to the lab by pony express and have them back quicker than doing them myself. While the impromptu film “happening” is an attractive idea and one that I compel my students to embrace, it has not been possible for me as of late. Regarding cost, I find myself taking many risks with my footage, attempting to test the limits of the chemistry. I ruin half of my footage and take an average of two hours to develop each successful 100 roll. At a $16 value, I’m barely making minimum wage before I even pay for chemicals. Therefore, neither time nor cost offer compelling reasons why I would engage in this type of endeavor.
The third reason that some filmmakers are drawn to hand processed film is aesthetics. What emerges from a session is often unlike anything the lab would give you. The images shake and shimmer, emulsion dances and plays tricks on the viewer, hiding and only emerging for the final curtain call. The captured image, frozen in time, seems ghostly compared to the vibrant and ever-changing celebration the silver particles are hosting on the celluloid surface. Poetics aside, this prompts the question, is it always desirable for film to predictably reproduce an impression of reality in compliance with established norms? If one chooses to embrace the components of the film which flies in the face of mainstream then the hand processed film, and in particular the hand processed film which was developed in a bucket, offers the most dynamic outlet. The how and the why are intimately connected. The choice to use buckets rather then tank is obvious. Due to the rough handling of film and the lack of consistent chemical coverage, the desired corruption of the film surface is inevitable. When the film is shown, the hand of the creator is self evident. The beauty of the surprise brings me much joy. Some people have suggested that the results of hand processing is dependant upon luck. Those people have not taken the time to view all of the “failed” rolls. We cannot control everything around us. Good luck is an attitude, it is act of appreciating the random events which happen to us, the situations which land in our laps and the beauty of the chaos of life.
The broken, anti-aesthetic nature of the distressed hand processed film can, and is, used in many films to express numerous ideas. On the most obvious level, the image appears old and reminds people that the images they are looking at must have taken place long long ago. Sometimes the images are so transient that death seems exceedingly close. The missing emulsion reminds us that we are never seeing the complete picture or that our memory of this event may have gaps. Colour, which may be added with tints or toners or even paint splatters, show us unexpected visions and remind us of what we should never forget: that the movies we see every day are filled with layers of deceptive artificial colours, that the film surface is a trickster and will always want us to see the world in its way.
Of course, the fourth reason I work in this medium is for the fun. The quiet moments while waiting in the dark, the thrill of being the first person to gaze upon a new strip of film, makes it all worthwhile.
All is not rosy in the magical world of the bucket people. The corporate giants still control the spice of our lives, the film stocks themselves. Lower priced film stocks, those which had traditionally been used for optical sound tracks and therefore only 20% cost of “proper” camera stocks, have been altered in recent years to an overly tough estar (a polyester mylar substance) based film. This means that using this film may result in camera wear or even damage. The only remaining orthochromatic film, that is a film which can be developed under a red darkroom safety light, now exists only on this estar base. Kodak is the only source for black and white film in North America, and they do not seem to support smaller fringe markets such as what I am describing. Chemicals also climb in price. Recipes do exist for them so Kodak might be circumvented at least occasionally. Colour hand development still relies on expensive prepackaged kits if the lab is to be skipped, so the cost of doing it yourself might actually be higher that sending it away.
But in the end, we will find a way to continue making hand processed films. Those who have been drawn to this form will never back completely away. They touch the film because they need to. It helps to make it real.

Gerald Saul 2005