An Emulsion in the Wilderness: the making of "from lightning agnes"
as told by Robert Schaller

Three of us set out on the 2014 Wilderness Film Expedition: Curt Heiner, Robert Schaller, and Armand Tufenkian. We carried the usual filmmaking and processing equipment and chemistry, a weeks worth of food, etc., but at Armand's urging we carried something new this year: the necessities for making our own emulsion in the field.

It took several days of climbing and adjusting to life in an alpine environment, but on a Thursday afternoon the weather seemed unlikely to bring rain soon and we decided that this was the day.

We laid out our coating surface -- a plastic table cloth -- on one of the outcroppings of glacier-scoured granite that surrounded our campsite, and rolled out about 60 feet of clear 16mm film to coat. This we did as a single continuous length, weighting it down with rocks every time it doubled back. Because of previous jamming problems had with running homemade emulsion through a camera, we had previously masked one row of sprocket holes with 1/8" paper tape (folded in half to cover both sides) so as to keep emulsion from clogging the holes. The tape would be removed after the emulsion dried, and this row of holes would be engaged by the camera's pull-down claw and sprockets. We had timed our trip to coincide with a new moon so that it would be dark for processing, and this meant that it would be dark for drying, too -- provided someone rolled up the film before first light!

We had decided to make a one quarter recipe of a simple unwashed emulsion, recipe #5 from Silver Gelatine by , and had weighed out the ingredients for solution A and solution B in plastic bags before we left town. We had a one-reel stainless steel 35mm still film processing tank in which to do the emulsion mixing. This container offered two great features that we made use of: one, being stainless steel with a tight fitting lid, it was totally light proof by design. Two -- and this allowed us to make the emulsion in full daylight -- it had a light-proof opening in the lid through which chemistry could be added without allowing light to leak in. I have used these containers for years to make emulsion, but this was the first time that I had taken advantage of that light-proof pouring hole in order to make emulsion in daylight. We weren't sure how well it would work, but we were willing to give it a try!

Emulsion recipes always specify the use of distilled water. This is to prevent uncalled for and unknown metal ions from getting into the emulsion while crystals are forming, which might effect changes (probably undesirable ones) in the emulsion's properties. We did not have distilled water, but we figured that we had the next best thing: extremely clean water that had just been part of a snowfield mere minutes before. This water was very unlikely to have any metal ions at all, and our experience on this and on previous visits to the same area with wildlife licking anything that might have residues of salts from processing chemistry or bodily waste suggested that not only did the water lack minerals, but that the entire area was poor in salts and minerals. Using stream water thus seemed reasonable.

We also had to find a way to measure the right volume of water. We had meant to bring a graduated syringe (and indeed, this would have worked well without weighing much), but it was forgotten in packing. We had, however, brought a good quality plastic spoon specifically for chemistry, and we had a cup that was graduated down to 100ml, so by a process of trial and error it was determined that one spoonful of water, with surface tension and all, was 8.3ml. We needed 31.25ml of water for each solution. Four spoonfuls amounted to 33.2ml, which was judged to be close enough, particularly if one of the spoonfuls was only about 3/4 full.

We prepared solution A in the stainless steel container with the lid off, as it is not sensitive to light until you mix in solution B. Using the admittedly approximate measuring technique described above, we added cold water from the stream and then our pre-measured Potassium Bromide and gelatin. We swirled this until the Potassium Bromide was dissolved, put the lid on, and set it aside.

We then prepared solution B. Before we had left the trail on our way in, we had encountered a very friendly couple on horseback who had given us some smoked salmon, crackers, and a jalapeno dip they had made. We had eaten these things, and worried that the plastic wrapper from the salmon, which we couldn't throw out but had to keep with us, would attract bears -- one more reason that vegan food is the way to go for backpacking! The plastic tub that had contained the dip made a perfect container in which to mix solution B.

We measured in the water, then added the pre-measured Silver Nitrate, swirled until dissolved, and set it too aside.

At this point, it was getting near dinner time, so we built a fire that served the triple purpose of 1) being pleasant to sit by as the night came on, 2) keeping the dusk mosquitos away, and 3) providing a heat source in which to boil water for the upcoming process. We had dinner, and once the fire was hot, heated water. We created a water bath in the cooking pot, by mixing hot and cold water, and were able to make it exactly 50 degrees C, as called for by the recipe. We let solution A in the stainless steel container reach the bath's temperature, made sure the lid was taped on as it was not yet dark, and proceeded to add half, or two spoonfuls, of solution B through the light-proof hole. We swirled the container for about one minute, then let it sit for fifteen minutes in the water bath. We monitored the temperature of the water bath, keeping it between 45 degrees C and 52 degrees C the whole time.

The bath was in a stainless steel pot on a rock that was well below 50 degrees C, and so frequent additions on boiling water were required to keep the temperature up. We realized later that had we put the water bath pot on a scrap of closed cell foam (a sleeping pad or backpack padding -- we had lots!) it would have kept its temperature much more steadily! As it was, vigilance sufficed at least to keep it in a reasonable range.

We repeated this agitation and rest pattern three more times, so that the emulsion ripened for about one hour. This extended ripening time had previously worked well to produce a high maximum density and high contrast in this very simple unwashed food gelatin emulsion, so it seemed worth the wait, particularly as we read aloud a Gary Snyder essay from "The Practice of the Wild" to pass the time.

After the hour, the rest of solution B was added through the pour hole over the course of about five minutes, during which time the container was swirled constantly by hand. This swirling was performed primarily in the air (~15 degrees C by now) and occasionally in the water bath, to bring the temperature back up.

After all of solution B had been added, we put the emulsion aside, washed all the dishes and made ready for bed, so that after coating we could retire immediately and not risk accidentally turning on a light and flashing the vulnerable film that was about to be spread out on a rock, in open air!

When we were ready, we brought the emulsion container over to the waiting film, switched our headlamps to red, and opened it up. The emulsion had cooled a bit but not set, and was just right for coating. We all took turns using a soft bristle brush to coat the long straight lengths of film as evenly as we could, as thick as seemed reasonable. We finally stopped applying coats when the emulsion in the container started setting up and was no longer liquid enough to coat. With that, we went to bed.

Armand had volunteered to roll the film up once dry, and at 3 am, well before first light, his alarm went off and he left the tent to put the film on a daylight spool. He had been at it for about fifteen minutes when he heard drops of water hitting the coating table cloth, and these were quickly followed be an intense flash of lightning: it was starting to rain! Thinking quickly lest all our work be lost, he knocked off all the rocks, grabbed the coated film as a bundle, and ran to the tent. As wind and rain built into a furious storm, we found a changing bag and stuffed the unrolled film into it to try to protect it from the increasingly bright and frequent lightning flashes that were now all around, and the film was slowly liberated from its sprocket tape and rolled onto the reel. It had gotten a little wet, had gotten flashed by lightning, and had been handled much more roughly than any film ought to be; we had no idea if it would work. But if the alarm had gone off 15 minutes later, or the rain started fifteen minutes earlier, we would have lost it all!

The next day was sunny, but we decided that rather than go ahead and shoot the damp film, we would wait until dark and, if it wasn't raining, unroll it and hang it up to thoroughly dry. So it was, and after hanging for an hour or so in the dark after dinner, we rolled it up again, confident that we had done everything we could do to make it work.

Our last full day, Saturday, dawned clear, and after breakfast we set out to climb the mountain on whose flanks we were camped, Big Agnes. The homemade emulsion was loaded in the camera and ready to shoot. We decided to take numerous ten second shots documenting our progress up the mountain, filming at such locations as seemed to show the character of the journey and the terrain, and to take turns doing it. Up we climbed, and up, having at one point to abandon our chosen route when a snow couloir we had planned to cross proved too steep to do so safely without ice axes (which we were not carrying). The camera saw fit to jam several times, but by opening it in a changing bag we were always able to dislodge whatever had made it stick without flashing any film. When we finally got to the crest of the ridge, in view of the summit, clouds had rolled in and lightning threatened, so we retreated from the crest and made our way along below it. The weather never actually stormed, and the route proved both beautiful and at times hair-raisingly exposed. We were granted a little more sun, and rolled the film out at our lunch spot in the sky, looking towards the summit and one of the ridge's many jagged gendarmes.

After finishing the climb with no more filming -- it was getting late -- we returned to camp, exhausted but hopeful. We set up the chemistry on the rocky protuberance we had designated as our "darkroom" (you just had to be careful not to back off the cliff in the dark!). Practically holding our breaths, we submerged the film in cold developer, D19 @15 degrees C, in hopes that the cold temperature would not make the emulsion fall off. After a few minutes, we saw what we hoped for but did not expect to see: image that changed every frame! The emulsion was not falling off, either, so we let it go a full 7 minutes, which was the "official" time at that temperature (assuming that it behaves like 7363 and 7302, which are also blue-sensitive but not pan-chromatic films). We fixed it, and rinsed it briefly, then hung it up to dry. Our standard procedure with commercial films was to do a final archival wash by putting the film in a slow moving stream over night, but we figured that this would not work well for the handmade emulsion, soft as it is, so we skipped it!

Alas, we had to leave the next day, and had no opportunity to print the film in the field. We brought it home and printed it, and the result is as it appears here.

One conclusion from this is technical: a simple emulsion is indeed simple, and can be made with an absolute minimum of equipment and even only approximations of water quality, volume, and temperature in extremely primitive conditions!

The next conclusion is more subtle and more profound. By the standards of the commercial film world -- and really the standards of anyone whose goal was simply to take pictures -- the film we made didn't work well at all. A company that tried to sell such an inconsistent and unreliable product would quickly go out of business! We got some images, but many of our shots didn't come out at all. This was a perfect example of a situation in which the image would have been much more reliably and accurately registered with a commercial emulsion, or even a digital device. As it is, probably due to the lightning, only a few shots actually produced an image. Even if one likes the editorial "choices" made by the world in all it's capriciousness, surely those same choices could have been made intentionally in an editing room, those same distortions added in post. Why extol the virtues of a process that barely "worked" at all and which was fraught with the accidental and unintended?

But consider what it meant, in this case, for the film to "work." Did we really need a faithful representation of a non-technical climb of a minor Rocky Mountain summit that had been climbed many times before?

The answer to that question is clearly "no," emphatically not! This was not our intention. As it was, we worked through a process that required improvisation, reasoning, effort, dedication, knowledge, and perseverance in the face of what seemed to be certain failure -- this in every step of making the film: the preparation of the film stock, the shooting, and the processing of the film! It was a process that involved our whole bodies, one that lasted not just minutes or hours, but days; one in which the act of documentation was as important (or perhaps more so) as the climb itself. That was just a part of the event, and maybe a minor one. The real event was the whole experience: the week in the wilderness with all the climbing and strenuousness involved, and the struggle to make and shoot the film. That was really the point, and the film now stands as a record of a transformative experience that we, the makers, are unlikely ever to forget. Kodak's memorable modern slogan was "you push the button, we do the rest." They might have developed accurate photographs of a fairly trivial climb, but they could not have begun to "do the rest" of what actually took place.

And if it seems grandiose or artificial to have created a challenge for ourselves and then met it, consider that as each of us makes our way through the world, it is not the things we buy that we remember: it is the time spent with others, what we labored on, what we went out of our way to bring to pass, what we didn't expect. A perceptive insight comes from one of the comedy troupe Monty Python's best known sketches, "The Spanish Inquisition," which contains a scene in which an old woman shows a young one an endless series of very dull pictures, which the younger woman tears up one by one as the older one describes them and hands them to her. The characters do not become enlivened until the older woman hands the younger a photo she describes as "The Spanish Inquisition," and the younger one responds "Oh! I didn't expect the Spanish Inquisition!" at which point they appear, to everyone's surprise.

Just so, we set ourselves to encounter something that we couldn't predict, in an environment in which it was likely both that we would encounter the unexpected and that whatever would be offered would be well worth encountering: we sought not to take boring photos, but to encounter both ourselves and the world, in a context that was unusual for both. We made filmmaking an active, participatory part of our lives, about as far from passive consumerism as it is possible to get. And that was exactly the point.