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Concordia researchers want to revolutionize motion picture film processing — using coffee

Film professor Roy Cross and co-applicant Ann English from the Department of Chemistry receive a $187,000 grant to explore safer and more sustainable options
November 29, 2019
Devotees of emulsion Roy Cross, Kevin Teixeira and Erin Weisgerber undertake close inspection of film processed in instant coffee. | Photo by Daisy Woodhams
Devotees of emulsion Roy Cross, Kevin Teixeira and Erin Weisgerber undertake close inspection of film processed in instant coffee. | Photo by Daisy Woodhams

Using only a few household chemicals, pantry staples and a team of interdisciplinary collaborators, Roy Cross wants to revolutionize the way motion picture film is processed. His goal? To create a sustainable future for the analog medium and safer practices for artists.

Cross, professor of film production at Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, has a deep devotion to motion picture film.

"I’m a filmmaker who still works with film," he says.

"My interests lie in working with emulsion. I love a celluloid image projected on a screen. I like the tactile nature of film, of loading the camera, unloading, editing, and the patience involved with image creation."

A non-toxic alternative to commercial film development

Cross has processed his own film for more than 25 years. The idea to reinvent the way motion picture film is developed emerged out of his experience in a DIY-setup in his bathroom.

“I processed film for a couple of days, thinking I was being quite careful. And then, a day or so after, I noticed there was white powder — residue of the liquid chemicals — around places I had touched, like the light switch in my apartment and on the fridge and near the stove.”

Cross then read the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS), a standard resource that explains the hazards and handling practices for chemical substances.

“I saw things like ‘known carcinogen’ and ‘may cause internal organ damage with prolonged use,’” he says. “These are chemicals I was buying in a store not thinking they were this hazardous.”

Cross began to look for healthier and safer alternatives to the heavy-duty commercial chemicals he was so accustomed to using. His research led him to a series of experiments conducted under the guidance of Scott Williams at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York State.

Williams assigned his chemistry class to find alternatives that best mirrored commercial developers, and instant coffee was that ingredient.  A subculture of photographers picked up the research and began to refine the process by adding other ingredients such as vitamin C and sodium carbonate — into a combination that became known as “Caffenol”.

Cross decided to give it a go.

“I shot a few feet of film as a test roll, and I went out and bought some Maxwell House coffee and some vitamin C. I mixed it up in my kitchen and I processed my first roll.  And the results were remarkable,” he recounts.

Processing large amounts of film in a non-toxic way

The next question he faced was how to incorporate this technique into his own practice.

“I decided that I wanted to do research that would permit me to build a lab that could process large amounts of film in a completely non-toxic, benign way,” he says.

“A photographer processes about four feet of film from a roll in their camera. I needed to find a way to process thousands of feet of film.”

Cross put together a research proposal with co-applicant Ann English, distinguished professor emerita and Honorary Concordia University Research Chair in Bioinorganic Chemistry, Chemistry and Biochemistry.

English shares Cross’s interest in the photochemical process.

“As a chemist, I have always been fascinated by the interaction of light with matter and the information it provides or the chemical changes that it can trigger,” she says.

Once the funding was allocated in spring 2018, the interdisciplinary research project Labcaf was born.

The three-year project is now in its first trimester. The team recruited students across various disciplines, including Kevin Andres-Teixeria (BFA 17), MFA candidate in sculpture, Monse Muro (BFA 17), MFA candidate in photography, Erin Weisgerber (GrDip 09, BFA 14), research associate and Mel Hoppenheim graduate, and one of English’s chemistry students.

Together, with English, they have successfully opened up an ongoing dialogue between art and science.

“I think that creates a really interesting dynamic,” Cross says. “To work with a scientist is a learning experience for me and it is inspiring. The questions that they ask make me think in a different way.”

‘I don’t want to be part of a generation of artists that says goodbye to emulsion’

English is leading the research into alternative chemical development processes for motion picture film using instant coffee.

“Following a number of meetings between our groups, we are ready to have a chemistry student look at possible ways of optimizing film development and fixing on a small scale — this will be our main contribution to the project,” she explains.

On the design side of the project, Cross is working with Andres-Teixeria to develop prototypes for a lightproof developing apparatus in which to move thousands of feet of film through the chemical baths over long periods of immersion time.

Their research into sustainability is driven by a desire to keep the medium alive —   making it safer will encourage current and new artists to explore and work with it, who will then pass along their knowledge.

“In part there’s a bit of self-preservation in there. I don’t want to be part of a generation of artists that says goodbye to emulsion and lets it disappear,” says Cross.

The team’s second crucial consideration is the toll commercial chemicals take on the natural environment when disposed of incorrectly.

“People don’t realize what they’re pouring down the drain after they process their film. There’s heavy metal in there,” he says. These chemicals end up in the cocktail of household waste that enters the sewer system and can harm the natural environment.

Support for chemists and filmmakers working together

Concordia has been a positive environment for the research project, Cross says, both for its wealth of expertise and also for its ongoing commitment to interdisciplinary innovation.

“The university is very supportive. In particular, Patrick Leroux is very enthusiastic about chemists and filmmakers working together on a project,” English adds, referring to the associate dean of research for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

The next stage of Labcaf brings Cross back to his roots as a filmmaker. He is collecting images and writing a movie that will be shot on 35mm film and processed using the techniques and apparatus his team develops.

“It will be a testament to the process,” he says. “Here’s this film that’s made in essentially grocery store chemicals.”

Cross is not striving for the “perfect image,” in a technical sense, but rather one that reflects the spirit of experimentation and the “happy accidents or controlled chaos” that unfold throughout the research and development process.

“I’m really enjoying the process. Where I end up is nice too, but the stories I collect along the way and the people I get to work with are such a privilege for me as a faculty member.”

Learn more about Labcaf.

Find out more about Concordia’s Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema.


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