Far From the Apple Tree – Shooting Film Developing in Darkness.

sorcha groundsell far from the apple tree grant mcphee

My two favourite shots in the film only last for a couple of seconds each but are possibly the most complicated of the entire shoot. They go by unnoticed without drawing much attention to themselves – mainly because they don’t comprise of any fancy choreographed action and probably more so because they can easily be created with a very simple VFX tweak. To me their purpose is what is at the heart of the film and what it stands for so I thought I’d share how we created them – or really how the clever folk involved with the film did.

I don’t normally like to spend too much time setting anything up as I prefer a much more organic ‘let’s see what happens approach’ but these were two shots I was determined to have.

The inspiration for them came from a failed home processing experiment I did around 13 years ago. I developed some super8 film – my first ever attempt which ended badly. When I took the processed film out of the the developing tank I was awed by what had been created – an image that had been made chemically and all by myself. It was of someones face and I thought, unlike video tape or the new digital files, which were starting to be then used it was something which would last forever. Unfortunately I’d been too keen and had forgotten a step in the process and the face slowly vanished before my eyes. There was nothing I could do to save it and much like deleting a modern ephemeral file it was gone forever, with me being the only person who ever saw it.

I wanted to subtly reflect this feeling in the movie and illustrate some of the other themes in it more literally. Maddy, the lost girl of the house is present only in her mothers film archive. At first her presence is felt very strongly but as the movie progresses and Judith’s skills become stronger we start to incorporate more faded and degraded footage of Maddy until eventually we see a negative of her disappear before her mothers eyes.

For the other shot we created, conversely as Judith becomes more visible to Roberta and we catch glimpses of her in different formats we see an image of her literally developing and appearing on film as Roberta watches.

I thought the disappearance would be simple enough to achieve so concentrated our main efforts onto the developing shot. I’d seen plenty of movies – such as Blow Up and The Omen (both influences on this film)– where you see a paper print being developed in moody red light but I wanted to see an actual negative being developed in complete darkness. I don’t think it’s ever been seen before in a movie before, unless in some obscure scientific test. Because we shot a large amount of the movie on film – mostly processing it ourselves because of the look this gave I wanted everything we did to be practical so went for the difficult option.

 

My initial idea was to shoot both Judith and Maddy on 35mm movie film with the film loaded with the emulsion reversed, and also because this would give us enough stills to be able to experiment with easily. This would mean the red layer would be exposed more prominently and allow us to use an infrared camera and IR light to film the processing. Unfortunately this didn’t work due to the film being slightly fogged and the wavelength either further fogging the film or not visible to the IR Camera (a cheap HD hunters camera). I was running out of time and starting to get worried so turned to the chemistry genius of Mihail Ursu.

I’d worked with Mihail a few times and knew he shared my love of film experimenting. We were very lucky that we had, other than Simon our wonderful DP, 3 other film alchemists – Lucas Kao, Sarahjane Swan and Roger Simian.

Mihail loves chemistry more than anyone I know and has an amazing knowledge of how film works so I knew that he would be the person who could make this work (and keep him out of trouble). It did, though the disappearance effect proved much harder to achieve.

 

Below is an extended version of the two shots.

 

This is how Mihail and Lucas did it:

The initial idea for filming the appearing image came from Grant supplying an infrared camera, but after a first attempt it became obvious that either the illumination of the infrared LED’s wasn’t sufficient or the camera didn’t focus close enough to get a usable image. After a bit of thinking I remembered that silver is likely to be a blocker of infrared radiation so the only way to obtain an image would be during the fixing period. To capture the image i asked for one of the older ccd cameras (Sony PD100) that was being used as I knew it had a high sensitivity to infrared, and also an Infrared torch used for security cameras was ordered, with an output bandwidth that was outside of the sensitivity curve of the film

The images were captured by Lucas and the film was split into several strips. I developed the strip and then put it into a stop bath.The fixer bath had a bit of diffusion paper and the infrared light underneath. This was in a transparent container with a camera set above it so when the film was introduced into the fixer bath – which I had at a higher than normal temperature and agitated, the image appeared as the exposed silver was being removed creating the image normally associated with developing.

The image disappearing was created using a very warm ( about 40degrees) solution of fixer and bleach that I took from the C41 developing kit

The result was the complete, though somewhat slow removal of the image so the image had to be left in a somewhat static place so that the final footage could be accelerated.

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Dr Mihail



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