Introduction: Laser-Etched 16mm Film Strip

This is a step-by-step walkthrough of how to laser etch an animation on to 16mm black leader film.

Step 1: Animation

The first step is to make your animation! You can do this using Photoshop's animation tool, or by drawing directly onto the file in Photoshop or in Illustrator. Doing this doesn't guarantee the smoothness of the animation, but instead will be a bit more unpredictable in making use of the medium. If you animate in Photoshop, you should transfer your file over to Illustrator before printing it. If you drew your animation on its own layer, it's easy to copy and paste it into Illustrator and just transform it to fit.

Step 2: Registration

Once you're at a computer that's connected with the laser cutter you'll be using, it's time to register your design in order to ensure it prints properly. You'll want to have a base that you can tape your film to as a guide. You can laser cut a piece of wood to about the length of the section of film you're printing to make one easily. It also helps to have a line going across it to ensure that you've lined the film strip up evenly. Once your film strip is on the laser cutter bed, focus the laser to the height of film strip plus whatever is under it. Then, use the pointer tool to check that the file and film strip are properly aligned. You should check at the beginning of the strip and at various other points along it to ensure that the file doesn't trail off the film. If you open up the top of the laser cutter slightly, the laser carriage will project a dot that makes this step much easier. If you need to, you can move the file using the tool on the computer, or you can manually move the film strip on the laser cutter bed.

Step 3: Print Preparation

You need to double check that all of the settings on the laser cutter are correct before you finalize and start the etching process. Under materials, select plastic, then polyester, then mylar film. Set the material thickness to the thinnest setting possible. The default settings for this material should be fine, but if the laser cutter doesn't print the design well, try changing the power to 20 and speed to 75.

Step 4: Print!

Now you're ready to print! Hit the big green play button and watch your design get etched onto the film. If your design is longer than the laser cutter bed, you can roll up the end of the film spool and re-tape it down, then repeat the previous few steps to prepare and etch the next part of your animation on the film.