Tish Stringer, a lecturer in the Department of Visual and Dramatic Arts at Rice University, hopes to revive an art form that has almost, while no one was looking, almost disappeared.
“I attended a workshop at The Eastman Museum,” Stringer said, “in which we made 35mm motion picture film by hand. I thought it was amazing and wanted to try to replicate it so Rice students could make their own film, shoot it and process it themselves.”
Stringer acknowledges her engineering skills are modest, so she turned to a handy pool of talent: Rice engineering students. “I don’t have, can’t get and have no idea where to start to make the machines needed to coat film with light-sensitive emulsion,” she said. “I can make the emulsion, but not coat or perforate the film stock.”
The design team Reel Film came to the rescue. “Analog film making is artistically valuable but almost impossible to duplicate the way it used to be. We approached the problem as engineers trying to solve a problem,” said Annabel Chang, a freshman in mechanical engineering (MECH) and a member of Reel Film.
Her teammates are Mathias Adamu and John Keogh, freshmen in MECH; Hope Fa-Kaji, freshman in materials science and nanoengineering; and Tammita Phongmekhin, sophomore in electrical and computer engineering. Their assignment: to design and build a machine to coat strips of perforated nylon with photographic emulsion to create 16mm analog film stock.
The components, nylon strips and emulsion, are commercially available. The team’s final prototype consists of a wooden frame, two film reels, a hand crank, a syringe and pressure-applying weight mechanism, a tube and 3D-printed slit connected to the end of the syringe, a bumper, a platform supporting the film as it moves through the process, a gutter for holding the emulsion and a fan.
“We learned that it takes four and a half minutes for the emulsion to dry on the film strip. We had to incorporate that information into the design,” Keogh said.
Each component is the result of months of trial-and-error experimentation. The emulsion must be heated to 50-55°C and loaded into the syringe. Weights on the wooden block above apply constant downward pressure, permitting the emulsion to flow at a constant rate.
The uncoated nylon strip is mounted on a wooden dowel holding the first reel. A foam stopper provides resistance to keep the film strip taut as the crank advances it. The reel of coated film is held in place by a metal rod connected to the hand crank. After the strip is coated, the fan dries it.
“It still needs work. We know that. We’ll pass along what we’ve done to another team that’s interested in it,” Adamu said.
Stringer is pleased with their progress. For her, movies made on 16mm or 35mm are more than an exercise in nostalgia.
“Is film-on-film production still viable?” she asked. “It very much is and I would argue it’s even on a dramatic upswing. Kodak opened three new film processing labs this year. We’ve started using the one in Atlanta. Georgia is a hub for film and television production. `Walking Dead’ is shot and processed there on 16mm film. Rice Media Center is proud to still teach film-on-film making and we still project 35mm and 16mm film at Rice Cinema.”