AFTER, A Beginner’s Guide to Alchemy
A text by Carl E. Brown (1989)

I have been working extensively with the optical printer, using this as the vehicle for compression and expansion of images. By taking a “real” image and looping it, I can then begin to compress the image by the use of the spring-wound motor of the Bolex camera. I disengage the automatic motor and then begin to re-photograph the image, with both the camera and the projector running simultaneously.

I became interested in this process of making films because it has an interesting paradox. I begin with a “realistic” or representational image, either originally shot by myself, or from compilation footage. I take either the form of the original image, the movement, or the emotional quality, as the impetus for selection, and then begin to take apart (deconstruct) the realism inherent in the image. This leaves me with an abstraction of form and movement, and I leave the emotional quality of the image intact.

From stage one, I then move on to get the pulsing loop, which seems appropriate for the image in question, and as it fits into the scheme of the whole film. A shot may undergo as many as seven or eight transformations before it is ready to be used. The beauty of this elongated process, is that essentially, every stage becomes a new shot within itself, and can therefore be incorporated into a film structure, i.e. one can cut from reversal to negative, and through this create the continuity needed for the film to be coherent. This is an important point to consider, because the film is so abstract in its form that one must insert something in order for the audience to properly follow the film. That something can work on the level of the subconscious, so, as a filmmaker you are able to structure the film in whatever way necessary to bring forth the level of perception the audience can use to see properly what is beyond the surface of the celluloid structure. This takes film from the seats of the audience, into their minds. By using this as my logic for the structure of the film, I can make the length of the shot as long as required in order for the rhythm of the shot to be embedded in the minds of the audience. As I have merely only begun to tap the potential of this process, I see this technique as limitless in its application to film.

As a person who is lyrical and poetic in my work, I believe that sound in film is as important as image. As I show my films to more and more audiences, I have come to realize that as a viewing audience, the sound is something they can fall back on. As they do, the images pass in front and thru them, in an eye bang or psychedelic effect. Through this music, the images begin to work on the mind more effectively. Through this music, the images begin to work on the mind more effectively. The obvious contradiction here may seem to be that, as a whole the film may be unbalanced because the music is more accessible for the audience. I do not believe that this is the case though, because, as an art form, music has been around for a much longer period of time. Therefore, as an audience, they are more educated to experiments of sound composition. An example outside this discussion is that of the harlequin romance novels. Generally, people nowadays treat that form of literature as trash, and would sooner read something with more substance. This is because, as an art form, literature as music, has been around much longer and is more developed as an art form than film. Therefore, we get back to the original point, that being, the music for the audience is a vehicle for them to see, and feel more through the images. This I have found is very successful. Of course, as I more fully mature as an artist, I may find that this is not the case, but my hope is that this marriage of sound and image will even have a fuller range of possibilities. Right now, I believe the sound, used in this way, makes the film more accessible to the audience.

Getting back to technique, as I began to experiment with this looping process (cycle imaging) more fully, it led me to another field of motion picture film. In particular, two processes: Sabattier Effect (a form of solarization) and Reticulation. I first encountered these terms through my instructor at Sheridan College, Jeffery Paull, who introduced me to the book ‘Darkroom Dynamics’ by Jim Stone. This is a book designed to take you beyond shooting images into a world of many possibilities, if applied to film. As this book was designed for 35mm photographers, I took the essence of what he said and illustrated and began to apply it to 16mm motion picture. I became aware almost immediately that the results could invariably seduce you into the process as the all, rather than an element of filmmaking. I found this to be case for quite a few of the filmmakers who had previously been involved with material art. This was something I felt that I should be wary of as I became more involved in the process. Looking back on my infant stages of this process, I realize that the most important thing I have gotten from this, is a closer understanding of film as art, (physical and mental), from many hours in the darkroom developing thousands of feet in my clear jug. I saw it happen right there bathed in red light, as the film spoke to me in a language I could understand. I think this is why I continued in my studies of hand-developing.

I began to enter a world that to date has merely been touched upon.

To get back to the two processes I focused on, I wish to discuss the whys for choosing them, and how they fit into the whole structure of filmmaking I am working with. As I gained more experience with the sabattier effect, it became apparent that the pulsing halo, which was a result of exposing the film for short periods of time while it, was in the developer, could be worked into the looping process. It became a way to firstly create a depth of field beyond what had been the case for the original footage. This depth of field could become visible after the original motion had been slowed down, and the halo or glow became something that would gradually work its way across those parts of the image which were highlights. This was a way for me to create my own depth of field, therefore making the abstract shot more and more my vision, rather than just something decorative or just pleasing. I could put my feeling and my meaning into what I was doing. This was an avenue for me to paint my image from something that was realistic. I converted what I saw to what I felt. This was a very important point for me to reach, for now I had found a foundation to work from and express myself…give myself a voice, rather than just merely floating.

From this point, I began to chip away at the iceberg with a more experienced and knowledgeable eye, and approach. I began to reticulate the surface of the film, in hopes that I could create an added dimension to the screen. At first, I followed the instructions in the book, but found no success. I was given all kinds of methods from other articles that were involved in this endeavor. One person suggested putting the film in the freezer and eventually the surface of the film would crack. As it so happened, I stumbled on the right combination after reading various documents on the subject, one being “The Dignan Papers on Alkalinity”. The first thing was to use a fixer for black and white film which had a separate hardener with it. During the mixing of the chemicals, there is a thirty two ounce solution A, which is fixer concentrate to be mixed and solution B which is usually four ounces of hardener concentrate, you simple exclude the solution B. This is stage one. Without the hardener, the surface of the film becomes more pliable to work with. The second thing necessary is taken directly from the Stone book, that being, the use of a high developing temperature. I found for the contrast results that I wanted; developer D-19 gave me the best results. The developing time of D-19 is approximately five minutes in sixty-four ounces of developer at 24˚C. The book recommends 60 – 65˚ C, but I found that all the black and white stocks I was using would usually peel at that temperature leaving many emulsion flecks and pieces. So, I lowered the temperature until I reached what I found to be a workable temperature. (The temperature is even lower for colour film.)

The final stage in this process is that of adding sodium carbonate to boiling water and submerging the already developed film into this solution for any where from twenty minutes to a week, depending on how radically reticulated you want your image to be. The only draw back of this system is that in order for the reticulation to be evenly distributed across the film’s surface, you must attach the film to whatever surface you intend to pour the solution into. For me, this is a bathtub, so the lengths of my film are no longer than about four feet. The image that I would use, I could originally loop on the printer, then shoot off about fifty feet and then process it in this nature, then somewhere along the way get an original new strand together for the next stage, which would be the extension of the length of the shot. One of the problems I encountered during this process at first I thought a drawback, which I now view as a blessing, that being lost footage.(extreme processes to the film’s surface tend to create this problem) Through the year of experimenting, I must have lost at least two thousand feet of film, original and re-printed shots. By losing the footage, it forced me to re-shape my philosophical approach to film. I could not get as attached with the subject matter knowing that at any moment during my new processes I could lose any or all of my footage. To say the least, my relationship with my film could be fleeting. Through this uncertainty, I gained a new flexibility that I think is important for the make-up of any independent filmmaker’s personality. (Chance and change)

The film stocks that I primarily worked with during this time were printer stocks: 7302, 7362, and 7361.
Before I used them in camera, I did tests and found that on a sunny day approximately one hundred and fifty foot candles with the high slide in could get you an f/stop of 5.6. I found the ASA to be six. I used the printer stock in camera to achieve the high contrast effect I wanted for the look of this film. Another reason I used these stocks is that they are not panchromatic; therefore I could develop them under red safelight in the clear plastic jug and watch the progression of the image. It was also advantageous when I was sabattiering my film because I could watch what was happening and after awhile I could match up one hundred foot rolls of sabattiered materials that I had done weeks apart, just because I could eyeball the process. The end result was matching shots, something very helpful in the editing process. I also found that the clear plastic one gallon jug was the best way for me to develop. By the end of it, I had my agitation down (no tangling of the film) so that I could develop one hundred feet in the jug and the image would come out in good shape. The most important thing the clear jug offers is visibility. Through this visibility, you are able to be more spontaneous, and less dogmatic towards notes you have sketched out from testing.(to be more pro-active in the moment) What I mean is that, as an artist, you are able through your vision, carve out what you really want on the surface. If it looks good at two minutes developing time, go for it!

I would like to close on the reticulation process by stating that what I found out in the long run was that through the cracking of the image, I could work with minimal motion, long take shots and get celluloid motion through the process added onto the 24 frames per second camera motion. This added motion I would like to call “mind motion”. The reticulation becomes the surface interpretation of the channels that the mind goes through in order for you to stare at any inanimate object for any long period of time. The mind adds the motion in order to capture your inner attention. This motion does not have to be related with the image you are staring at directly, but could be a subconscious link-up between you and what is there, or it could have no relationship whatsoever with the image, perhaps past memories. The reticulation on film translates this into something visible for the audience, and we actually see it, the subject, and it, in action.

My end result of this work is a fourteen minute, fifty-six second sound film titled URBAN FIRE. This incorporates what I believe is the first sustained reticulated footage in motion picture film, along with the sabattier effect, and all the elements I have previously mentioned.

*This was my beginning
Carl E. Brown

“Brown’s most important statement on his work is an unpublished letter to another filmmaker, Michael Snow. In it Brown explains his experimental methods of developing film stocks. He discusses a critical issue of radical concern among independent film artists – how chemistry of the film stock deeply affects their art. Brown’s letter is a remarkable personal manifesto on this topic since the chemical base material is really the focus of his filmmaking.”

Bart Testa 1989

*this article has been published in the past in several catalogues including*
Image Forum, Tokyo, Japan 1991
“La Part Du Visuel Films Experimentaux Canadiens Recents”, Archives du Film Expérimental d’Avignon, France 1991
“Poétique de la Couleur, Une Histoire Du Cinéma Expérimental, Anthologie”, Louvre Institut de l’Image, Paris, France 1995
Media Art Catalogue, Osnabrück, Germany 2000
Filmprint, Toronto, Ontario, Canada 2006