Art News

Become a Chemical-Splashing, Projector-Hacking Film Wizard on the Cheap

Margaret Bennett Rorison
Alex Mackenzie will present an expanded cinema performance at the Sie FilmCenter.
Millions of people carry portable filmmaking devices in their pockets: With a smartphone, they can shoot, edit, color-correct and distribute a film with a few finger taps. Thinking about the old days — when people shot on film, sent their footage by mail to be developed, and cut and spliced their footage together — it's hard to imagine why anybody would want to go back to that process.

The filmmaking collective Process Reversal will show you why this weekend. The group is part of an international movement of cineastes devoted to processing their own film footage; these artists do so in makeshift darkrooms, often with film gear scraped from now-defunct post-production houses that shuttered their doors as digital moviemaking became status quo.

Students and professors in the film program at the University of Colorado Boulder, which has a long tradition of hand-processed filmmaking, founded Process Reversal several years ago; itt became a nonprofit in 2016. The organization has been screening hand-processed films in DIY venues and amassing an enormous amount of equipment from the dying film industry — some in good condition, some broken down — and storing it in the hope that one day the group can open a hand-processing laboratory that anyone can use.
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Alex Mackenzie
"As a lot of those major facilities have been closing down, they have been giving away all of this equipment," says Curt Heiner, one of the collective's members. "We've been picking up equipment from all over the U.S. We've acquired these massive hunks of metal. Some of them are in better working shape than others, but we've been trying to get them in working order and distribute them to artist-run labs across the country."

When artists process their own films, the final imagery has a less refined look than footage processed at a professional lab. But for filmmakers like Heiner, that's part of the joy.

In its five years of existence, the collective has leaned on DIY spaces like Rhinoceropolis and Glob to screen films, but those venues were shut down by the city for fire-code violations, at least temporarily, in the aftermath of Oakland's Ghost Ship fire.

Ever tenacious, Process Reversal has now partnered with the Sie FilmCenter, where Heiner works as a projectionist, for a screening series that will include how-to workshops for audiences.

"We've mainly just done screenings with the DIY community," says Heiner. "You draw a certain type of crowd, a lot of the Rhino community and the hipster community. A lot of those people are interested in film processes, but there's this whole larger audience that the [Denver] Film Society has."

His hope is to tap into that crowd to help fund the group's film lab.

This weekend, filmmaker Alex Mackenzie will be bringing two projectors to the FilmCenter and offering up an expanded-cinema projector performance. He will physically manipulate the running film projectors, overlapping and separating the images thrown onto the wall. He will loop films that have been toned, tinted and manipulated in the dark room. He may slow down or speed up the frame rate, obstruct the projectors' lenses with objects and even other lenses, and possibly allow the light from the projector to burn the film. The effect: magical, haunting.
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Alex Mackenzie
The work of experimental filmmakers like Mackenzie is often relegated to academic institutions and galleries. Process Reversal hopes to disrupt that.

"Pulling it away from academia is a big thing for us, and bringing it into the general public's eye and having your everyday, average person be able to see this film that you would only associate with an art gallery or a film class," says Heiner.

The group also wants to break down the divide between the audience and the filmmakers, by teaching people how to hand-process films of their own, experimenting with chemicals and other modes of developing film. Mackenzie will lead a workshop, teaching people how to hack old projectors and filmmaking equipment. As audiences become familiar with the way films are made, Heiner believes that people will become more invested in the experimental-film community.

"I'm into experimental film because of the process," he says. "If it was just a viewing experience, maybe my perspective would be completely different."

MacKenzie will present his performance, Apparitions, and a workshop March 18 and March 19, at the Sie FilmCenter, 2510 Colfax Avenue. For more information about these events, go to the FilmCenter website.