Introduction: How to Laser Etch a 16mm Film Strip

Experimental film is a mode of film-making that re-defines cinematic conventions by providing an avant-garde platform for filmmakers to present a media in a nontraditional manner. One way you can make an experimental film is to laser etch a series of sequential frames into a film strip in order to achieve an animated film.

In this instructable, we will be laser etching a series of 48 frames made in Photoshop onto a 16mm film strip.The general concept is that you will take your imagery of choice and animate it slightly frame by frame in Photoshop. Then you will export your frames to an Adobe Illustator template that will serve as your basis for the laser etching procedure. Once prepped according to the steps listed below, your film then can be etched via the aid of a laser cutter/etcher. The resulting film strip can then be played on a film projector to be enjoyed by all. The final result will be an experimental sequence of animated imagery that appears to be burned directly into the film.

Step 1: Gathering Your Materials

Before starting this instructable, you will need the following material and access to the following equipment:

  • A computer with Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator installed
  • A length of 16mm black film with at least 48 frames
  • A small length of plywood 1/8 inch wood
  • A flashdrive
  • Access to a Laser cutter/etcher
  • Tape
  • A film splicer (optional: to prep film for viewing)
  • Film projector (optional: to view your work)

Step 2: Make Sketches And/or Picture Board of Your Design

As with any process, planning and organization are vital steps in achieving the final project. Begin by sketching out your general imagery so that you have a basis for your design. Then sketch out general animation sequences that can later be use as a reference when rendering your animation digitally. The key in this process is to make very gradual changes to each sequence of your main imagery. This is vital so that your animation does not appear jerky or glitching (unless that is the desired effect) once we animate the imagery in Photoshop. Another helpful reminder to keep in mind when sketching, is that each frame will be shown for 1/24th of a second since 48 frames of 16mm film is equivalent to 2 seconds of video animation.

For this particular film strip, I choose to animate a dry-point etching I made awhile back of a skeletal figure. I then mocked up the general movements that I wanted to sequence and went from there.

Step 3: Prep Your Imagery for Animation in Photoshop

Before you begin animating your imagery, it is important to properly prep your image in Photoshop. The key in having as accurate of a laser etched representation of your imagery is to make it as black and white and high contrasted as possible. Start by opening Photoshop and then uploading your imagery of choice. If your image isn't already in black and white, select "Image" from the top tool bar and then hover over "Adjustments". Then select "Black and White" and input every color as "0". Then for contrast, you will select "Image" from the top tool bar, hover over "Adjustments", and select "Brightness/Contrast". Once selected, progressively work to make as contrasted of an image as possible for clarity later on for the laser cutter.

Step 4: Create a Frame by Frame Animation of Your Imagery

Now that your imagery is all ready to go, you can now open a new Photoshop document to work on your frame by frame animation sequence. When you do this, be sure to set the dimensions of your frames to width: 9.253mm and height: 7.039 mm to save time later on. The end goal of this step is to create 48 frames that you can then convert into a video timeline which will serve as the basis for your Adobe Illustrator file that will be laser etched. But before we get that far, select "film and video" from the top of the toolbar in the new document window, then select "NTSC D1 Square Pixel", and then select "Create". Now go to your top tool bar and select "Window", then hover over "Workspace", and select "Motion" so that you can begin to edit. Scroll down to the bottom of your new file and select "Create Frame Animation". Now upload your imagery into your first frame. Once you are satisfied with how your imagery looks, you will then select the three bar icon located on the right portion of screen and select "New Frame". From there you will then alter your imagery until you are satisfied (remember, a little goes a long way in frame by frame animation). Repeat this process until you have made a 48 frame sequence.

Step 5: Convert Your Frame by Frame Animation to a Video Timeline

Now that you have your 48 frames rendered, it is time to convert your frame animation to a video timeline so that you can export your frames into Adobe Illustrator. To begin, hover your cursor over the three bar icon located on the right portion of the screen and select "Convert to Video Timeline". Your frames will then be converted into a video, where you will then go back to the three bar icon and select "Set Timeline Frame Rate". You will then set the frame rate as 24 because our film renders 24 frames per second.

Step 6: Render Your Video Timeline and Export Images Onto Desktop

Now that your video timeline is set accordingly, you can now go back to the three bar icon and select "Render Video". Once the Render Video window opens, name your project as you please and create a sub folder for your images to be uploaded to. This is important because it will confine your 48 frames to just that folder so that they can be easily found later on. Make sure that the settings are the same as the coordinating picture above and select "Render" when you are satisfied that everything is correct.

Step 7: Arrange Your Individual Frames on Illustrator

Attached to the bottom of this step is an Illustrator file that will serve as the template for when you go to laser etch your film. Download this file and then open it up using Illustrator. Next you are going to want to turn off all of the layers except the sound, sprockets, and outline layers. Now you are going to want to open the folder that you saved your Photoshopped frames into and open the JPG that coordinates with your first frame in Illustrator. Then rotate the image 90 degrees and paste it into your film strip onto an new layer. You will then align the frame as perfectly as you can in-between the sprockets of the film. Repeat this step for each frame until you have a sequential series on the film strip on Illustrator. Then over the sound track portion of your film strip you can construct a series of blocks. When read through the film projector, these blocks will be read as an experimental soundtrack. After this is complete, make your sprocket layer invisible and then save your file. You are now ready to go onto the laser cutter!

Step 8: Cut the Laser Bed Template

For this step, you will want to laser cut and etch the file attached. This file includes a template made by another peer who worked on the film project, that acts as a base that you can register your film on. Once the film is properly registered by aligning the sprocket holes of the film with the sprocket holes on the laser cut base, you can secure the film to the base with tape and put the base in the top left corner of the laser cutter and prepare to etch your imagery.


Step 9: Laser Etch Your Film Strip

You are now ready to begin laser etching your film strip! First open the bed and position your film strip mounted to the base in the top left most corner. Also remember to turn on the exhaust so that the fumes of the etching process can be dealt with in a safe manner. Then calibrate the head of the laser etcher according to manufacture instructions. Now, you will move your final Illustrator file from your laptop to the flash drive so that you can transfer it to the laser cutter. Open the file on the laser cutter and go to the top tool bar and select "File" and then "Print". Then select "Setup" and enter in the following settings: set your substance as Mylar from the database, then set your speed to 60-70, power to 20-30, and PPI to 1000 for the highest resolution. You will then save the preferences and go back to the Illustrator file to select "Print". Now go to your laser cutter and make sure that all of your preferences are appropriate and then select Print. The laser will then etch your final product onto the film and after it's done you can retrieve your artwork, remove it from the base, and prep it to be viewed!

Step 10: Project Your Film Strip (Optional)

After you are finish etching your final product to the film strip, you can then use the film splicer to splice out the 48 frames that you would like shown and make a film loop to be played in 16mm film projector. Unfortunately, I do not have a personal video of the final product of the film strip manufactured in this Instructable, however, there is a video above of someone else's work so that you can get a general feel for the outcome of your film strip!

I hope this Instructable was helpful and that you all enjoy your new laser etched film strips!