Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Paper to Pixel to Paper Again, part 13: The Dark, Dark World of Production Negatives

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

A guide to creating the best looking line art in print in the new digital print world

Part 13
The Dark, Dark World of Production Negatives


This is the thirteenth installment of Paper to Pixel to Paper Again, a series that explains (in an overly thorough manner) the how-to's of preparing line art (and later in the series, color art!) for print.

And as always, if you have any questions, please let me know in the comments!

The three months of writing this series have so far mirrored my experience with the restoration itself pretty closely. Some anxiety at the start, worried about getting it right, fussing about efficiency versus accuracy and every little detail being perfect.

And then relief when I get to working with the negatives.

First off, what is a production negative?

For the majority of the twentieth century, if you wanted to print line art using industrial print technologies, that artwork was subjected to a process called NTP, or negative to plate, technology. A large stat camera with powerful lenses and loaded with orthochromatic film was used to shoot large negative images that were the same size as the resulting print would be. These were then ganged up on flats and vaccuum-fitted to the printing plates, which were covered with a photosensitive chemical and then exposed to light, which passed through the negative, leaving the dark areas of the negative unexposed on the plate.

Operating a stat camera was a very technical job, and these camera operators worked very closely with the pressmen to get the desired results on page, and, given the inherent limitations of resolving power of lenses and physical limits of emulsion on paper, to try to capture as much of the original artwork as possible in the negative. 

A very good camera operator with a well-maintained stat camera and high-quality film could create results that are very close to indistinguishable from what the best scanners could do today.

A poorly-set-up, poorly operated camera could spell disaster for detailed artwork.

We'll take a look at both types of negatives, and how to work with them digitally to wring as much juice from them as possible.

Absent the original artwork, working with production negatives is far and away, the best way forward for historic print projects. It's possible to bring up details that have never been seen in print before, lurking in the black: to correct long-standing image problems, to print much larger than the original size of the negatives...

But first, you need to scan the damn things!

First, they need to be cut off the flats they're mounted to, and the mounting tape gently removed.

Here's a look at a production negative from High Society. This one is in pretty good shape. as it's already been cleaned before being scanned. But they're not always looking this pretty.

Here's another production neg, this one from Church & State. In this case, the stripping (which originally masked off the "chop" of the page and issue number) has also been removed. And if you look closely on the left-hand side, you'll see some kind of undesirable schmutz.

This is some kind of milky-white, semi-transparent fluid dried on the production neg. Is it some stray developer fluid? Something used in the pressroom that spilled onto the negative? I'm not sure. But it can be cleaned prior to scanning, and if it's covering an area of mechanical tone, must be cleaned to ensure good reproduction.

Kodak recommends cleaning with 98 percent pure isopropyl alcohol. If you use a lesser purity, you can expect streaking as it dries. So knock it off, already!

Also from Kodak—

"It is available in small volumes at a reasonable price; it has been successful in cleaning tar, streaks, processing scum, and opaque from photographic products; and it had no detrimental effect on the image stability of the emulsions we tested."

However, anytime you're working with irreplacable film elements, make sure you test your cleaning solution on a page or section of the negative that doesn't have any image on it. 

In this case, isopropyl alcohol did the trick pretty well.

Because these are transparent materials, we need a special transparency scanner (with a really large transparency area!) to scan them. The only two parameters that really matter are sharpness and D Max, i.e. dynamic range of the capture. The previously mentioned Epson 10000XL or 11000XL has an optional transparency adapter/lid replacement that will work just fine. The Epson V700 is a very affordable, dedicated transparency scanner that also works great for these purposes, and it's what was used for scanning all of the Cerebus negatives so far. We're going to scan these at-size negatives at 1200 pixels per inch, and 24-bit depth, and upscale them later in our work flow. If you have a really big production going, you might consider purchasing a few of these scanners and having them run in tandem, as 1200 ppi scans at this size will eat up 5 or 6 minutes per scan.

Lay the negative on the scanner and fire up your scan software. 

Because of the mounting requirements of many different transparency types, transparency scanners have, by definition, a variable focus, being capable of focusing on either objects placed flush with the platen, and objects mounted above the platen. Before you do any scanning, you need to figure out where the focus control is in your piece of software and get a sharp looking scan.

Also relevant—if there's any amount of curling or lifting of the negative, place a heavy but small object (quarters work) on the corners of the negative.

The Epson V700 has a "transparency negative" setting that works perfectly for these purposes. What you're looking for is a scan that has no "halo"ing on it, which can happen if the focus is off. Here's an example.

I'm not positive exactly what causes this effect, only that I've only seen it happen in EpsonScan, and it really mucks with the process.

Below you'll find another example of developer-fluid-spattered negatives. So go ahead and cut your negatives off their flats, and get to cleaning, and I'll see you next week!

Sean Michael Robinson is a writer, artist, and musician. See more at


Jeff Seiler said...

Very interesting, as always, Sean. I'm curious; are you going to do an installment about how you fix typos and such in the word balloons? I know you said you could do it, but I have little to zero understanding of *how* you can do it.

Travis Pelkie said...

At least with one track, we always know what's on Jeff's mind ;)

Who else wants the Negative Cerebus, now? Huh? How neat looking would that be?!

In college, I used a microfilm machine to look up some article about Ian Curtis of Joy Division (just...cuz), and when I printed it out, it printed negative-reversed, which was very cool. I hope I still have that around somewhere.

Sean R said...

Hey Jeff--
Good to hear from you.
Here's the closest I've done to that yet.
As for "adding" letters etc, I'll add a post on that later on. Essentially, you steal from other portions of the adjacent pages and then resize, rotate etc until you have a match, moving the surrounding areas to maintain the spacing. The last panel in this example, as you know, had a heavy comma injection thanks to the two of us ;)

Travis--it's a real trip, that's for sure! The lighter the touch of the original page, the weirder the result looks...

Jeff Seiler said...

Thanks, Sean!