CREATING A TITLE SEQUENCE ON FILM
I love title sequences, especially tactile ones and Hole in the Head would provide a great opportunity for just that. This is the story of how we put the title sequence together.
Above: excerpt from Animal Kingdom (2017) title sequence
The initial plan was to create a title sequence on 35mm film using optical printing techniques at a lab in Europe. Unfortunately, COVID-19 exploded just as designs were firming up and the studio reached out to freeze their pending schedule, indefinitely. I considered finding ways to achieve the same effect myself but the film stock had already shipped to the lab, and therefore could not be received. Thankfully, I did have access to 1000 feet of 16mm stock intended for camera tests. Relief was short-lived since it was March and if you were living in Ireland your movements were restricted to 2km from your place of residence.
I contacted my friend, Leo Kennedy, a furniture designer who was operating a CNC machine at the time, and we hatched plans to burn the titles onto the emulsion using a laser. Alas, his laser was too powerful. I considered different techniques such as scratching, bleaching, and a quasi-chemogram process using photographic materials and whatever could be found under the sink but none of it was appealing. I had 500 feet of film remaining.
As early Spring renewed the flowerbeds and wild grasses, I recalled Karel Doing’s wondrous phytogram films and I began to investigate his recipe, which you can read here. I reached out to our producer, Anja Mahler, to collaborate in creating a strange phytogram title sequence. In addition to co-producing the film, Mahler is an archivist as well as an award-winning visual artist working with 16mm film and expanded cinema. Thankfully, a large woodland and park were well within the 4-kilometre radius and so we could easily harvest specimens. I reached out to Ieva Balode, an artist-filmmaker and founder of Baltic Analog Lab (BAL) in Latvia who, having facilitated workshops on alternative processing techniques, gave us some great tips with regard to chemical substitution. Initially, we only had the contents of the kitchen to work with but, as it turns out, that's all you really need.
"The phytogram title sequence was one of my favourite processes of making this film. Starting with it, due to the pandemic movement restrictions, set the pace for the overall production, and it also reflects elements of the natural world and human nature we were dreaming of capturing" - Anja Mahler
We tested many combinations of plant, card, chemical mix and exposure time until we found the most workable solution. I once again reached out to Leo Kennedy, my friend with the CNC laser, to create a stencil and trial a few different typefaces. Leo designed the stencils and cut them to spec and, since we lived in different counties, the Irish postal service facilitated the exchanges.
While the phytogram process is wonderfully uncomplicated, the rem-jet removal process is the only real mess. Rem-jet is a protective layer on the base of motion picture film that protects from light piping, base scratches, static, and halation of highlights in exposure.
Rem-jet removal using DIY-under-the-sink chemicals proved quite inconsistent (not all of it was detaching) so I reached out to a local laboratory that provides chemistry supplies for secondary schools. Within eight days, my bags of white powders finally arrived (each ruptured with blue-pen stab wounds courtesy of the authorities… if you work with moving image in Ireland then you certainly felt the lockdown dilemma of cutting a film or cutting some coke). After successful tests, we were ready to begin.
Here’s an ideal rem-jet removal recipe:
800ml boiling water
1gm sodium hydroxide (stir)
100gm sodium sulfate
20gm Sodium tetraborate decahydrate ( or borax)
Add 200ml water to make 1 litre
If calcium from the water supply forms a precipitate (i.e.: if you live in Dublin city), add Sodium hexametaphosphate (or limescale remover) or use filtered or ionized water.
After the rem-jet was removed and we proceeded to the next aspect of the process, placing each stencil precisely within each 16mm frame. At this juncture, we really regretted not being able to work on 65mm or, at the very least, a 35mm frame size. We set a handful of frames and began running the test. See the results below.
Since Ireland's weather is notoriously unpredictable and the exposure time required several hours of direct sunlight, the 500 feet of film was processed and fixed in 50-foot batches over the course of 2 months. So, if you are out for a walk, at a socially-distanced party in the woods, or under a bridge somewhere and the sun appears for longer than 20 minutes then you drop what you are doing and run home to process the next batch. In the end, each 50-foot reel was edited and spliced manually then previewed on a Steenbeck to ensure the specific rhythmic quality we wanted. See our very first Steenbeck preview below using only a handful of title frames...
The text seemed to register successfully with different exposure conditions affecting the definition to the text, so a non-overcast day was necessary for the main batch. This next phase involved adding hundreds of title frames with layers of plants providing rhythmic counterpoint. Once we were happy with the edited sequences, the 10 reels were spliced together into a master reel and shipped for scanning.
This process would not have been possible without Anja Mahler, Leo Kennedy, Columb Gilna, Kassandra O'Connell, Manus McManus, Nisan Greenwich, Roy Spence. Special thanks to Ieva Balode and Karel Doing.
Hole in the Head opens at IFI Irish Film Institute on August 12th, this show will be followed with a Q&A.
Thank you for reading this post as part of Hole in the Head: A Filmmaking Blog, charting the production of a low-budget feature film from development through to exhibition.