#Flea-Market Treasure Hunt: Turning Old Film Reels Into Art Objects
Flea-Market Treasure Hunt: Turning Old Film Reels Into Art Objects
Instead of letting old film reels languish and gather dust in warehouses, Jesse Brunt and his wife Michelle Sloey decided to give new life to these films and make art out of them, which in turn gets the film displayed again for the world to see.
The duo, who collaborate under the company name JM Film Resins, have found film from movies like The Wizard of Oz (in technicolor), Pulp Fiction, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, My Cousin Vinny, The Devil Wears Prada, Gladiator, The Graduate … basically any film you love, they’ll have made a film resin art piece out of it.
“Every single film we find is a true treasure,” Brunt tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Every time, it’s like a mini miracle.”
The couple take prints, either up to one second, one second, or two seconds depending on the size of the work, encase them in resin as to prevent the ink from further oxidizing, and sell their pieces of art at local markets.
Brunt and his wife’s background is deeply rooted in film history. Both are from Rochester, New York, a home base for Kodak’s main facilities; Brunt explains that many of their family members ran the assembly lines over the years making the film that came to Hollywood. Being a cinematographer, with an emphasis on helicopter aviation cinematography for Wolfe Air Aviation, Brunt has done contract work for high-end space companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin, also working on very high-profile commercials (such as during the Super Bowl) and music videos for Taylor Swift and Harry Styles.
He’s also worked on films for Netflix as well as independent features, such as American Dresser. Sloey, who is familiar with the art department world, was down in St. Petersburg, Florida, in March 2020, working as a set dresser on a spring break comedy, currently still in pre-production, when she met Brunt, who was the director of photography on the feature. She moved to California later that year, and the two have been “making magic ever since.”
Brunt credits the digital revolution as a big part of how he even became involved in the industry. With the 2007 writers strike and the evolution of digital cameras, he got involved with companies that were spearheading the new production of film with digital cinematography. Due to his background of working with film and having just graduated from film school, he says he understood the craft to shoot movies in a new, revolutionized way.
“Early on in digital, when you think of Hollywood starting to use digital, it was for scanning old movies, because you didn’t need the amount of processing power,” Brunt says. “You were just taking digital still cameras, converting them into these tabletop scanners, and then they would run these old nitrate films through that. Then, they’re all just individual photo files that could be numerically sequenced to recreate motion, and you could assemble them in any current editing software and you were digitizing film. That was really when Hollywood started using digital — then the actual computer part of these cameras got so good, you could bring the scanner to set, and all of a sudden, everything is digital.”
With more digital shooting and processing power, “you could eliminate film altogether. Film was and still is expensive, and actually shooting on it, cost 17 cents a foot to develop it,” continues Brunt.
Conversations turned into shooting on digital or film, and while some famous, prestigious filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg and Christopher Nolan will still shoot on negatives, Brunt says it shows a divide in who has resources to still use film to make their movies. “I think everyone from this point on is unilaterally on the same page that digital is superior, and it’s only going to get better.”
But quickly, Brunt realized as the shift to digital was happening, there was a massive hole forming for film preservation. In Rochester, there’s the Eastman House where George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, set up “bomb shelter-type vaults” to house a lot of the original negatives, like that for The Wizard of Oz, as well as positive prints. “It’s exactly what you think it is: It’s very thin hallways with storing cans, and it’s temperature-controlled and monitored,” he says.
“The rest of the film, mainly theater prints, are worn down and riddled with scratches and splices and are just sitting in cardboard boxes, some as brittle as egg shells,” says Brunt. “Why? It doesn’t make sense to me, other than [for] the contemporary Hollywood business model, it doesn’t make sense for them to invest money into these things, so what Michelle and I are trying to do is turn these films into relics.”
The duo find a lot of their films at estate sales, and some are donation-based and stem from a lot of phone calls and emails with people who might know where prints are all over the world. “Sometimes, we get a call like, ‘Hey, we’re in Wichita, Kansas, we have a print that looks like crap, do you want it?” and we go, ‘Absolutely.’ And we take it because we’re not interested in playing the movie or copying the movie. We’re interested in preserving the architecture of the delivery system which was the work horse of the industry: film.”
Once they have the film, they have to go through it and clean it to make sure it’s even in a condition to preserve. Most of the time, Brunt says, it’s just a lot of dust. “Our biggest thing too, is sometimes prints do come to us severely compromised, meaning the ink on the actual film has already been oxidizing and they go very off-color. We’ll still put it in the castings, but we break things down [into smaller frames]. We also in good consciousness make sure that the content we have has been properly digitized and is already accessible to the public.”
They could use plexiglass, Brunt says, however, resin envelops the film, not only giving it a much more elegant look but also stopping oxygen from getting to the print. That way, the color can’t fade, preserving the print for all of eternity. The casting process starts with the base, then they set the film and then there’s an assembly line of getting the resin attached. It takes about 10 days in their home workshop to make one item, but they don’t just make one at a time. “We treat it like a batch,” says Brunt.
Their prints of Star Wars footage, as well as Tarantino, Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick’s works sell quickly, say the duo, and music films also fly off the shelves. Their works sell between $60 and $120, depending on sizing: a 6 inch by 6 inch square holds up to one second of film (24 frames), while the bigger 17 inch by 6 inch rectangle holds two seconds of film (48 frames). Custom orders can be made, while rare film has pricing availability by appointment. Ultimately, their goal is to make giant resin prints for museums and estates.
“The empathy that comes out of this stuff is super powerful,” Brunt says. “When people come and see what we’ve done with it, people really sit there for a second. We’ve been selling our film resins for just under a year. Typically, the note we get is, ‘these are awesome, I’ve never seen anything like this before.’”
At the end of the day, their mission is to bring a love for film back to the people and to further create a community that understands what they were looking at when they were falling in love with these movies to begin with, by bridging the past to the present using the film itself as the reminder.
JM Film Resins sells their work at local markets such as Los Feliz Flea, Melrose Trading Post, Artists & Fleas in Venice, Topanga Vintage Market, Malibu Farmers Market and more. You can also find them on Instagram.
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