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Celluloid Film: Burn It. Bleach It. Scratch It. How Destruction Can Result in Glorious Creation
Post Production
Slough, UK
Film isn’t just manipulated in post production, sometimes the most hypnotic effects are created physically. Frank Lebon, Joe Ridout, Paul Bush, TJ O’Grady-Peyton and Adrian Bull explain how
Do you remember the time before digital film when movies were as rich and perfectly-grained as Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and slightly sticky disposable cameras littered sleepovers and wedding tables alike? Now, we overlay film filters to our Instagram stories, add in grain, and overlay the whirring sound of a film camera to our holiday videos. For most of us, actually holding a physical roll of film is about as rare as our sneakers still having wheels in them - but of course, we remember it. We can recall its delicate quality and the care we took not to touch the actual frame, afraid our clumsy fingerprints would ruin the strip. But, imagine if that was the point? If filmmakers and artists deliberately man-handled raw film, stuck objects to its surface and scratched and burned and bleached it until it was totally unrecognisable - in a good way?

For certain filmmakers, that’s exactly what they do. Commonly referred to as ‘manual’ or ‘analogue’ effects, artists and filmmakers discovered the beauty and craft in manipulating film in the early 20th century - with creatives such as Man Ray leading the charge. Now, a frequent feature of short and long format films and commercials, manual film effects are finding their groove once more. 

To further our understanding of how these effects are brought to life we chatted with filmmakers and directors Frank Lebon, Paul Bush, Joe Ridout and TJ O’Grady-Peyton as well as Cinelab London co-founder and CEO Adrian Bull, about the evolution of their creative process, how manually manipulating film has become de rigueur, and what exactly drew them to the fastidious medium in the first place… 

For many filmmakers, the first tugs of creativity are felt as they step into young adulthood, but their financial situations often require creative and experimental workarounds. For a young Joe Ridout, filmmaker and director, the key came in learning to process film at home; developing his work in tubs on his bathroom floor filled with chemicals bought from the local photography shop - as the nearest film developing lab was in Germany. Similarly, a fresh-faced Frank Lebon would traipse around London with his roll of film, searching for the places that would scan it into reality for him. Picking up one of the cameras scattered around his creative house, Frank began by capturing stills before moving into manually manipulating the film itself. “At that time, I didn’t know how to animate on a program, but I knew how to animate physically - it just made more sense to me. My rough outlook on film and stills and video is that it’s all just a series of images, whether they’re animated or not. It’s only ever a series of images sequenced together.” 

A$AP ROCKY - 'SUNDRESS' from Frank Lebon on Vimeo.

However, working with manual effects on film is a time-consuming endeavour; one that requires true dedication to the craft and acceptance that irreversible mistakes will inevitably be made. Raw and negative film strip will by its very nature pick up errors, something Frank finds refreshing: “It represents something very important that’s not possible in the world of digital animation - embracing mistakes. The reason I’m so attracted to it, and actually why my whole family are so attracted to it, is that it allows for more human error and these human errors in turn make the edit feel more human. Once you’ve animated onto the film you can't take it back, so the process forces you to work with these mistakes instead of correcting them. A digital animator or a digital camera doesn't as easily allow for those beautiful, organic mistakes you get on film.”

Alternatively, Paul Bush - the creative mastermind behind definitive analogue animation work, His Comedy and The Albatross, was inspired by students whilst teaching an evening art class. Handing out clear 16mm film, Paul instructed the class to bring back their creations the next week; they were free to paint, stick, burn, bleach, and glue anything to the film’s surface so long as they kept the sprocket holes intact and didn’t make the film too thick. Finding this sparked his interest, Paul mused on what else he could do to alter film stock. 

“I had the idea of scratching directly onto film, similarly to an engraving. Conceptually, it would be doing the same thing on film as craftsmen did on wooden blocks centuries ago. I was purely interested to see if it would work and if it was possible to tell a story that way.” 

The Albatross from Paul Bush on Vimeo.

“One challenge was finding out about different film materials,” Paul continues. “I was very keen to use the film itself, rather than add colour, so I scratched through the three-layer colour of the film strip itself. The first layer is yellow, below that is red, and then below that is cyan - scratching to various depths in different parts can create the illusion of a wide range of colours. In reality, there’s actually very few.” 

However, scratching the film surface is not the only way of manually altering the eventual product. “Typically artists are either marking the film with some form of permanent marker, a sharpie perhaps and then colouring in parts of the film, animating an image that will move around from frame to frame,” co-founder and CEO of Cinelab London, Adrian Bull explains. “But they could do anything; scratching, marking, cutting the film up and moving it around, splicing another film over the top, burning, bleaching, or sticking things to the surface. So long as when they give the film back to us, we’re able to pass it through the scanner without any debris getting stuck, we’re good to go.” 

Adidas "Recode running" from Joe Ridout on Vimeo.

But how does it work exactly?

“Firstly, it doesn’t matter if the project has been originally shot on film or digital. If it’s been shot on film, it’ll become a digital file anyways when we scan it in,” Adrian explains. “Once we’re given the digital footage, we record it back to 35mm negative film, using the genius Ari laser. We then develop that negative and end up with pictures on a 35mm negative film again. We print it, make a copy of the negative on a positive print and make multiple copies for artists and teams to try multiple ideas across the same version. It allows for a lot of creative freedom.” 

This freedom to experiment allows filmmakers to indulge their creative passions, creating totally new films with any manual alteration they care to make. Joe Ridout, originally a fine art student at university, meshes his love of painting, drawing and photography to create work for brands such as Reebok, Adidas and Chloé. But, he makes sure to assert, film is a tool - suitable for certain uses, as much as digital is appropriate for others. “To me, film is non-binary. Digital is 1s and 0s. Film is alive. It can be manipulated and played with, in a way that digital just doesn’t allow. But, as with any medium, it’s an appropriate tool the same way digital is and often they can occur in the same film.” 

Ambitious to provide a space for handmade animation and visual effects to flourish, Joe and business partner Jack Greely-Ward are opening the doors to their new studio, Ana, this autumn. “It’ll be a studio to create not just film-based handmade animation but a variety of effects for the industry,” Joe describes.

Lilla Vargen: Why Wait from TJ O'Grady-Peyton on Vimeo.

As for the future, Irish filmmaker and director TJ O’Grady-Peyton believes the frequency of manual effects in brand work is still set to grow. “There are so many up and coming filmmakers looking to experiment within the medium. The creative space within commercials is constantly evolving; various trends emerge, become popular and then the next cool new thing arises and takes over. I hope we continue to see a rise in productions shooting on film as it's such a beautiful age-old approach to filmmaking. Animating on film could definitely be a technique that we see people experiment with as it's such a unique effect. Obviously it needs to be used on the right project though. Being a film geek, I'm delighted to have had a chance to play around with this style recently and was seriously impressed with the results." he says. 

TJ’s recent Cinelab-project collaborator and fellow director, Joe agrees: “Cinelab has given a whole generation of filmmakers the ability and space to create with film - its opened up the craft to an entirely new group of people. It’s great.”

For more information about Cinelab and the services they offer, please click here

For more on Joe Ridout, Frank Lebon, Paul Bush, and TJ O’Grady-Peyton please click-through on their names.

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