Potamkin (2017) - Surface Treatments

In my last post, I talked about gathering the sources of Potamkin--Harry Alan Potamkin's poetry, and the films that he reviewed--but more often the questions I get about this work ask after the chemical processes that were used in making it.

I don't have a proprietary attitude about techniques, so I'm always happy to answer questions about how a particular effect was achieved, but I need to give the caveat that this film is about much more than this. The spirit of the work is not rooted in its chemistry, that's just one scale on which it is occurring.

For Potamkin, the techniques used were a mix of analogue chemical processes (bleach etching, the use of resists with full bleach immersion, reticulation) and digital animation techniques (keyframe repositioning, digital superimposition). The bulk of the film was subjected to bleach etching, which I learned through the notes of Kevin Rice of Process Reversal, and this and other techniques were enhanced by the example of films by Jürgen Reble, Phil Solomon, Richard Kerr, Carl Brown, and others. My partner in working through these techniques is Eva Kolcze, who has used such processes masterfully in her films Badlands (2013), All That is Solid (2014), and By the Time We Got to Expo (2015), and I credit her enthusiasm and generosity with keeping me going with these strategies. I note that especially in this case because I find the atmosphere created by one particular chemical (mordançage solution) to be strangling; as I was making Potamkin, I kept thinking of Jack Chambers and his silver paintings, and what atmosphere must have been created in his studio by those toxic aluminum pigments (I also thought of Morris Louis's lungs, turned by the vapours of his long-drying canvases...).

Jack Chambers,  Plus Nine  (1966)

Jack Chambers, Plus Nine (1966)

My use of these so-called 'alchemical' techniques was decidedly unromantic: I was first inspired toward hand-processed filmmaking by R. Bruce Elder's Eros and Wonder (2003), which I presented at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2009; and Eros and Wonder is a film that uses the idea of alchemy not as transmutation of base metals (a movie) into gold (a good movie), but as a transformation between states of being, from the image as reality's-shadow to the image as plastic (malleable) expression. Such a sensibility was my guide in earlier hand-processed films (the Landform series, Jenny HaniverGulls at Gibraltar), but in working on Potamkin, I turned to another of Elder's films, Crack, Brutal Grief (2000), in which Elder takes on the troubling banality of our experiences of arousal, disgust, and terror. It struck me that these transformative gestures could also be set to the task of outrage. Potamkin, like Crack, Brutal Grief, is a film that begins from a position of outrage at a society that kills its poets.

R. Bruce Elder,  Crack, Brutal Grief  (2000)

R. Bruce Elder, Crack, Brutal Grief (2000)

The primary chemical used after initial image processing is mordançage solution (for bleach etching). This solution is mixed by combining high-volume hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride, and glacial acetic acid. The resulting solution looks like blue Koolaid (don't drink it). It causes the emulsion to separate from the plastic film in veils, in areas where emulsion lies in great concentration - so, darker images, preferably with strong contrast, can be run through this and the resulting image will look as if it is being eaten away at, peeling up to give sharp, geometric shape to the contents. Almost all of the footage used in Potamkin was run through this solution to varying degrees. One of the major effects of it is an illusion of shallow depth, a bas-relief, which contradictorily makes the image look more flat than it would otherwise appear (by annihilating the traditional focal-length distortions of cinema, making all images an extreme variation on squished, telephotographic distortion).

The second technique used in making this film was reticulation, which allows the bean-like structures of the emulsion to become pronounced within the image, traditionally achieved by alternating between boiling and freezing baths of water. While making Jenny Haniver, I began to boil only, getting the emulsion so loose that it would continue to drip off as it hung to dry. I call these emulsion melts, and I achieve them with less of a sense of precision than most darkroom workers would be comfortable with; but for me, this process is about generating material for digital manipulation. I don't use these results without further enhancement because those bean-like patterns so readily achieve a lazy op-art effect, like a modern print on a carpet or a cross-hatched elevator door.

The third of the techniques that I used in making this film was the use of resists to selectively bleach away portions of the image. What this means is, a 'resist' of some sort is applied to the emulsion side of the image, so that when a corrosive bath is used (for example, household bleach), it will prevent those portions of the film from being erased. I know that others have used particular 'resists' to achieve specific effects - for example, the use of oil, applied by paintbrush, will allow the image to be preserved in brushstrokes. In my case, I use tape, just standard paper tape, which allows for clean, geometric blocks, but which I often tear and fray into other forms, to varying degrees of success. I first started doing this after taking a workshop at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto with visiting artists Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie of nano lab in Victoria, Australia, who practice a technique called chromoflex, in which resists are laid down on an unprocessed negative, a colour image is processed as a positive, and then the resists are peeled off in the dark, and it is processed again as a negative. I used this technique in Jenny Haniver, in sections that feature a coexisting negative and positive image. In Potamkin, there is occasional coexistence of negative and positive imagery, but it is done through digital compositing. My use of resists in this project was restricted to blotting out (to 'save') portions of image.

While much of this work was primarily done solitarily (albeit, with occasional help from Eva Kolcze and Emmalyne Laurin), the first process that all of these images were subjected to was bucket-processing, which was performed by a darkroom crew of Eva, Emmalyne, Cameron Moneo, and Martha Cabral. The reels were alternately developed as positive or negative, and the image would occasionally be solarized during processing, by flashing the film with light during the first minute of its development.