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David Bendiksen

Saving film at UMass Amherst -- our 16mm processing lab + we need some help!

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Hi everyone -- long time reader, first time posting. I'm extremely grateful for the vibrant and helpful community here on the forum and am looking forward to contributing what I can. I've taught Film Studies and production courses for the past 9 years at the University of Massachusetts Amherst while finishing a PhD in Comparative Literature and am a very vocal advocate for reviving and maintaining 16mm filmmaking on our campus and across the Five Colleges in our area. Sometimes keeping the silver and celluloid alive at the collegiate level feels like a herculean labor since funding and support are nearly non-existent. Try to explain to a dean, provost, or chancellor why film is important in words of four letters or less.

I have two questions to raise for the forum here:

1. Can anyone chime in with current schools and programs that teach 16mm across the country? A recent list would be phenomenal.

I ask because I want to gauge interest in and make contact with schools and programs that send out their student film for reversal processing that might want to send it here to the University of Massachusetts for a very competitive rate instead. Since 1966 UMass has had its own dedicated 16mm black-and-white reversal lab complete with a massive old Filmline processor, contact printers, etc up and running on campus, which as a capital good among general university campuses is rather unique as far as I know. The lab's technician has worked here for decades and is a real Willy Wonka style genius when it comes to making Tri-X and Plus-X sparkle. But in the past few years the lab fell into disrepair after accidental water damage to its building and they canceled his contract on short notice, so as film sees a revival nationwide I'm trying to convince the moneybags in administration that this unique resource is worth restoring and keeping, not so much for the financial support it would garner our lab to receive and process film but more to demonstrate that this a prestigious endeavor worth maintaining.

2. If there are any generous souls out there, our Film Studies program is in dire need of acquiring some cameras, consumables, and dirt cheap film stock to help get our 16mm program off the ground. This coming Fall I've convinced UMass to let me offer one full-fledged section of 16mm filmmaking, which they haven't offered in at least 15 years. Boy am I enthused -- I've pulled a ton of great 16mm feature film prints from across the college libraries and am organizing public screenings to help make the course's "comeback" as exciting as possible (screened a gorgeous copy of Chris Marker's Sans Soleil last semester for my students and did proper reel changes on a pair of my own Kodak Pageants I lugged up to campus).

But I'm also charged with taking care of the course's equipment logistics in advance, and as you might have guessed, after a gap this long in offering 16mm there's a lot we need to acquire before the Fall with next to zero budget to do so (welcome to the humanities...). Through an accident and a subsequent clerical error that felt like something straight out of Catch-22 or a Vonnegut novel, all of our university's Arriflexes and Bolexes were literally shredded for scrap metal by mistake when the Film Studies program moved buildings five years ago. It was a traumatic experience to say the least -- I've never forgiven the new building! I'm meeting with a dean next week to beg some one-time funding to remedy this situation... we'll see how that goes.

Single-perf Bolex H16s (reflex or non) would be preferred, but I've taught with Arris and Eyemos as well, and I'm pretty handy at maintaining things (Dom Jaeger, if you're out there, your Cinetinker blog is inspirational!). For film stock, even egregiously expired is fine (anti-fog chemistry is my best friend), even old remjetless Ektachrome VNF or other odd intermediate/duplicating stocks that can be hand-processed as black and white are all fine -- we've got a great darkroom space available from Studio Art that we can use as needed. Cost is certainly one of the hardest parts of this course on the students, especially given the exorbitant price of fresh Kodak stock. Post here or send me a message if you can lend a hand!

Back to grading these International Science Fiction Cinema course midterms for the evening...

 

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1) I'm unaware of any program in the country that is entirely film, like it was when I was going to school. There are a few colleges and high schools for that matter, who offer credit for classes related to film. The program I ran at LACHSA was one of two in So Cal and I was told, there were three others country wide, but not sure where. Most of the colleges have switched to digital as their mainstay and have shelved the film cameras, if they still have them at all. I know some of the recent students who have moved from other places to Los Angeles, talk about their recent experiences at college and how it was difficult to get knowledge AND working equipment from many of the film schools in the US. Thus, the moment they get the money together, they find someone like me, who can train them up and get them ready to shoot film.

2) I hate to say it, but the days of free 16mm cameras are over. 10 years ago, if you had a 501c3 charity, you may have been donated a lot of equipment like I did. However, today people are holding onto their film cameras like they're made of gold and one day they'll be worth a fortune. I've spent quite a lot of money building my camera fleet and honestly, I have more rentals/work for those cameras, then I could ever imagine. Last year my rental business shot over 60 rolls of 16mm and over 100 rolls of 35mm on short fillm's. This year alone, my 16mm kit has been out nearly every weekend and it's been on TWO features! Talk about an uptick in the amount of film shot.  

Coming from Boston and doing all my education there, I gotta say Massachusetts does have quite a few resources. There are film cameras for rent, there are film workshop classes for both still and motion picture. The east coast's premier flatbed editing table shop. The country's premier projection provider AND the most comprehensive lab facility on the east coast. Heck, the city even has some very cool theaters that still show film prints. Amherst is not that far away from the city, I spent much of my childhood out there visiting relatives. So you shouldn't have any resource issues. 

I also have taught motion picture film classes on the college level AND spent two years teaching at the high school level full-time. What I have learned is quite interesting and for sure not what I expected. Students these days are not as interested in the 'retro' aspects as you'd think. Showing 16mm prints will probably not get anyone interested in shooting film. What does get everyone's attention is first; showing how good film can be and how easy it is to shoot. This is hard to do with a Bolex, but with my XTR Prod package, you don't even need a light meter. If you bring film to a level where students find it easy to use, then they will be intrigued. Put a monitor on it, shoot modern color film, process and transfer it well. You'll find a lot of eyeballs on that screen getting excited about shooting on film. If you make it look like some "old fashioned" way to make movies, using black and white stock, processing by hand and shooting with old equipment, I'm afraid it will just turn most people off. Sure you'll get the nerds in the class who would like it, but I doubt anyone will consider using it outside of your class. 

I work with a few professors at two of the biggest film schools in LA. They send students to me for camera rentals and we have a pretty good business going on, getting students into packages, film, processing and transfer for WAY less than the competition. Our goal has been to provide a one stop service, like Pro 8mm, but at a cost that's more receptive to the student projects being shot. Sadly due to financial reasons, we've had to put the program on hold, hopefully it will only be a year or two as we re-build our infrastructure. However, what I've learned during the time we were operational was basically what I said above. Most students are into the film look because it differs from digital, but they care greatly about quality. All of the students wanted 4k scans and a crisp/clean image. Where I rarely get to see results, I have scanned some of the students work myself and what they've shot was great and you can see how excited they were pre shooting and post shooting about using film. Cost was always an element, but somehow they made it work out. My cameras are currently booked out 2 months in advance, that's how many students and other filmmakers are wanting/needing film cameras to rent. 

I found the high school students enjoyed editing film a lot. I never tried it with the college level, but at the high school level they were really into holding the film in their hands, seeing the image on the viewer and cutting it. I bought a bunch of splicers and two sets of rewinds/viewing screens from a friend of mine for cheap and that's what I used in the class. We shot negative, got prints made and simply cut the prints up so the negative would stay un-harmed. The goal was to cut the negative, but nobody was willing to work me a deal on the price, so we just used the print as our final. I already had the cameras and projectors, so the cost was simply the editing supplies and film stock/processing. No matter what you will need to have some sort of budget to deal with those things. 

I hope some of this was insightful and not too negative. Please let me know if you have any questions! 

 

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Tyler, thanks so much for your detailed reply. Fabulous website -- I completely agree with what  you write there that "It starts with a lot of passion." I'm impressed both by your commitment to teaching students first-hand just how superb film can still be and by your resolve in making that process a viable business model in the present day and age. Not too negative at all -- most of your reply is just being realistic! 

At least from my experience across the Five Colleges, I would say that running 16mm courses in black-and-white and offering hand processing as a creative tool in addition to lab sendout hasn't hampered student interest at all. Sure, if we had the money and resources, we'd show them just what "4k scans and a crisp/clean image" can look like too, but we've got to work with what we have, and enrollment is through the roof even with just the rudimentary options. They've been running 16mm production courses at Hampshire and Amherst College this way for years and student interest also continues to be strong.

I know nearly nowhere runs "all film" programs anymore, but I'm still interested in what colleges/universities are still offering 16mm production of some sort. From applying to jobs in the past year I'm fairly certain that Ithaca College, Keene State, Grinnell, and Denison are active.

Can anyone else chime in with more?

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David, at this point, 16mm film is an antique/alternative process for making films.  I think you are on to something here, but I wouldn't spend too much money on it.

In the olden days, when I was in university, we had only one filmmaking course.  And, we used Bell and Howell 16mm eyemo cameras and had only a simple set of rewinds and a moviescope to view the hand cranked footage for editing.  We shot and edited 16mm b&w reversal camera original , cement spliced, and projected the result, splices and all.

I think you should consider this approach.  Firstly, there was no sync sound, so it was "pure" cinema.  All that dialog gets in the way of beginning filmmakers!  And it was "affordable" by limiting the number of 100ft rolls shot.  Maybe 5 rolls maximum!

I wouldn't revive the laboratory, but there is Cine Lab in Fall River not so far away.  It will be far easier to pay for "lab runs" than to build a lab 🙂  http://www.cinelab.com/

I like the idea of the Eyemo cameras more than Bolex as they are more reliable.  The viewfinders of the Bolex are so bad as to be almost worthless.  And the spring wound motors that limit takes to 20 seconds are a feature, not a bug.  You would need to teach some basic photography to get usable images from your students. Lightmeter, exposure, frame rates, focus, iris.  Expect some disasters and some very creative focus!

And, unless you have no other choice, I would avoid scanning the film and digital editing for this course.  Kind of takes the "magic" out of it. I would also insist on B&W reversal so color temperature issues don't get in the way.  Cine Lab seems to still process b&w reversal and it just looks great projecting the camera original images!

Best of luck David!!!!

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Thanks for the encouragement, Bruce -- Cine Lab is indeed who we'd be sending out to. Never had a problem or delay with them except a couple years back (maybe 2014) when they were overhauling a bunch of equipment. And yes, shooting silent is pretty much the only way we can run it (I'm not quite crazy enough to hand out Nagras in 2019...). You've also guessed correctly that having students get their camera original processed reversal is the most cost-effective way to do things if far from optimal -- I know that's how Hampshire College has been doing it for years since Cinelab will do this at their student rate of .22c/ft. Combined with Kodak's current 30% student discount for 100ft of fresh Tri-X, that adds up to $50+ per roll, which by the end of the semester probably costs each student around what textbooks for any other 400-level course would cost anyway.

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My first student film used 3 rolls of film and the budget was $40.  Not cheap in those days.  The second one cost me $90 and I thought that this filmmaking thing is crazy expensive!!!!

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It is allot of work to run a lab and keep film processors in working order and fed with the right bearings, motors and especially chemistry.

 

It is a full time job and if you do it right people don't necessarily notice but when you mess up they want your blood... 😉

 

 

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Robert, very kind of you to chime in from over at Cinelab! I'm sure you know Abraham's workshop from Hampshire quite well -- I try to keep in touch with him pretty closely, and you guys have been the backbone of black & white 16mm across the Five Colleges for years. I didn't even realize until recently that someone's running a 16mm course over at Amherst College as well (a visiting assistant professor, I believe). Once I get all our ducks in a row in terms of cameras and editing equipment (I have a lot of CLAing to do...) I would really look forward to giving you a call to chat about our future processing needs.

Yes, our Filmline processor has sat for awhile by now and certainly has some frozen bearings as you mention, but I do wish I could see it and our  lab space utilized. It's just sitting there, cemented into the floor in the old power plant building which isn't really a good space for classrooms or anything else. Perhaps we can convince UMass administration into giving you the use of it for Cinelab's Minilab 2.0 😉

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