A history of film emulsion. By Pauline Rogers.

Kodak Research Laboratories in Rochester, New York, in 1920 / Courtesy of Kodak

Have you ever heard the story about the strip of plastic that changed the world? About the development (pun intended) of a physical and chemical process that brought people into theaters built only for live entertainment, and allowed them to experience worlds as far as their imaginations could take them?

Where does one even begin to re-tell the history-making world of celluloid? Raymond Fielding, editor of A Technological History of Motion Pictures and Television, an anthology for The Journal of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, has more than a few ideas. He cites two 19th century developments – the Zoetrope, the first mechanism that could project images by way of a paper cylinder with equi-spaced axial slits cut through the wall, and the advent of kinematography, which allowed W.K.L. Dickson (the world’s first cinematographer?) to record a sneeze – as possible starting points. There was also the “Black Maria,” a barn-like structure built by Thomas Edison in 1893, which had an open roof encased in black tar paper and a revolving stage that moved to catch the sun, as well as Technicolor’s first-ever laboratory – a railroad car parked at a Boston train yard.

Or maybe, as Fielding suggests, the history of film emulsion really began in 1845, when nitrocellulose was discovered and celluloid was invented. Although highly flammable and dangerous, this new, interesting medium caught the attention of future-thinking inventors like George Eastman, who in 1883 partnered with mechanic William H. Walker. Their idea was to expose a strip of paper that was first coated with soluble gelatin followed by a light-sensitive emulsion. The men squeezed it down onto a glass plate that had been coated with a solution of rubber, which held the film in position while the paper was dissolved with hot water, leaving the image on the plate.

It worked, for the most part. But Walker and Eastman’s next step was an even bigger game-changer: they replaced the glass with transparent celluloid, and treated the cellulose nitrate (actually soluble cotton fibers) with grain alcohol and ether, thus creating the strip of plastic that rocked the world.

One of the first films to be exposed with Eastman’s process was Edwin Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery, shot on orthochromatic film, which was sensitive to blue and green light. In Barry Salt’s definitive history of filmmaking, Film Style and Technology, History and Analysis, Salt explains, “Colors like red and orange were not yet a concern because audiences perceived the world of that time as orthochromatic.”

Salt’s book offers a chronology of film’s rapid ascent in popular culture, noting that Eastman Kodak was the early industry leader, producing 200-foot rolls of negative and positive stock. Between 1907 and 1913, the French-based Lumiére Company released a Blue Label stock that was about half the speed of Kodak and a Violet Label that was the same speed. Belgium-based photographic-paper maker Agfa-Gevaert also got onboard the film-producing bandwagon when the new century began.

George Eastman (L), Thomas Edison (R), circa 1920s / Courtesy of Kodak

In the 1920s, Kodak began to sell a panchromatic stock that was sensitized to red, green and blue light with three different negatives through three lenses simultaneously. Kodak also introduced an interesting 16-mm reversal, used to shoot The Headless Horseman in 1922; and, six years later, an infrared sensitive film that saw blue skies as black and green foliage as white.

The Roaring Twenties also saw the ascendancy of another emulsion maker who came to parallel Kodak’s domination. Technicolor co-founder H.T. Kalmus was an M.I.T. student and instructor when he came up with the monopack, two simultaneous exposures (red/green) from the same point of view. It was a major step forward that did away with fringing because the dual strips were geometrically identical.

Fielding’s anthology, states that “when The Toll of the Sea, shot by Joseph M. Schenck, was screened at the Rialto in Hollywood in 1922, Rex Ingram was so taken with the imagery that he wanted to scrap his Prisoner of Zenda and do it all in the new process called Technicolor.” Ever the marketer, Kalmus went on to say that his new Technicolor cameras “were being sent to Rome for Ben Hur, while Douglas Fairbanks was demanding Technicolor test prints for The Black Pirate.” Newcomers like Warner Studios also jumped on board, ordering productions like On With the Show and Golddiggers to be shot with the new two-color process.

In 1934, Technicolor introduced a new three-strip camera that allowed for green light to pass through a green filter on panchromatic film, while the other half of the light was passed through a magenta filter and recorded on bipack film stock with two strips. The front film was sensitized to blue light only, and the back to magenta. The process proved so popular, it became a favorite of Depression-era Hollywood studios, which produced films like Becky Sharp (1935), and four years later, the majestic Gone With the Wind.

As the 1940s dawned, Kodak was also hitting new high notes. Historians insist the company’s landmark color negative stock of that era, Kodachrome, was originally developed for atom-bomb tests. It became in demand in the entertainment world, as shooters saw details – like when a woman would stand with the sun behind her, and details in the face and dress as well as sunspots on the sun read clearly. The new Kodak emulsion also inspired interesting hybrid approaches. Cinematographer Leonard Smith couldn’t take the bulky Technicolor cameras on location for Lassie Come Home (1943), so he shot with regular cameras and Kodachrome, processed at Eastman, with the reversal master printed with red, green and blue light at Technicolor.

Technicolor cameras rolling for Becky Sharp, 1935 / Courtesy of Technicolor and the Bison Archive

In the 1950s, emulsions changed – and sped up. Kodak won an Oscar® in 1952 for making film safe for professional use, and then soon after released its Color Negative (5247) into mass production. They also began to release stocks that were more sensitive to tungsten light, and although Technicolor continued to improve their stocks, Kodak’s lead in faster, more versatile emulsions, signaled the beginning of the end for three-strip productions (and those massive cameras), leaving Technicolor’s star to rise in the laboratory and printing ends of the industry.

The 1950s also saw Kodak introduce the first two-stage color intermediate film, which could be used to make master positives to duplicate negatives. This saved time and money for labs and optical houses. More importantly, it made feasible the achievement of optical effects that otherwise would have been impossible or impractical.

The Rochester, N.Y. firm continued to dominate throughout the 1960s. Its Ektachrome emulsion, designed to be processed in developing systems running much faster and at higher temperatures, was created to accommodate a new phenomenon – television – and the need to get news footage on the air as quickly as possible. The process allowed cinematographers to manipulate their stocks, under-exposing and force-developing, as Andrew Laszlo, ASC did on Francis Ford Coppola’s You’re a Big Boy Now.  It also allowed Freddie Young, BSC to increase speed and de-saturate color in Sidney Lumet’s The Deadly Affair, and Conrad Hall, ASC to over-expose for Hell in the Pacific, a technique he later emphasized in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In the 1970s, when cinematic storytelling collided with a popular culture in transition, cinematographers made their own individual voices heard in the emulsion evolution. Many embraced foreign-made stocks that were faster and produced warmer tones. Using Agfa’s process of anchoring the dye formers, Fujifilm’s products became popular within the U.S. In fact, in the early 1980s, Fujifilm introduced a 250 ASA (8518) stock that was faster than anything Kodak or Agfa had to offer. The result was the Japanese firm’s capturing a large chunk of primetime television.

“We had a viable [i.e., cheaper] choice in film stocks,” recalls cinematographer Richard Rawlings Jr., ASC. “When I started with Stephen J. Cannell Productions, the film stock of choice was Fujifilm. The dramatic, colder look was perfect for my first series for him, Stingray, and [the stock] continued to bring a different look to all the projects I did for his company.”

Magnified image of Kodak T-Grain emulsion crystals

Fujifilm’s fast emulsion notwithstanding, the true groundbreaker during this era was Kodak’s T-Grain technology, which changed the traditional configuration of the silver halide crystal. While conventional grains of silver halide crystals looked like cubes or irregular-shaped pebbles, the T-Grain crystal was flat and tubular shaped, providing more surface area to allow for more efficient collection of light. The result was a much faster film emulsion than ever before for shooting in low light levels, without having to compromise grain, sharpness or other image characteristics.

Cinematographers like Haskell Wexler ASC (Blaze), Jon DeBont ASC (The Hunt for Red October) and Vilmos Zsigmond ASC (Two Jakes) were among the first to use this new stock (EXR 5245, 5296, 5248) to create startling images. In 1990, Kodak received an Oscar® for the development of T-Grain Technology and the introduction of EXR Color Negative Films. A few years later, Fujifilm also released its double structure grains, the Super-F Series, in an attempt to reshape the silver halide crystal.

Which brings us to the present day – or at least the last 30 years. In this period, Kodak, and to a lesser extent, Fujifilm, have taken control of the production market. Emulsions from both firms have gotten faster, more sensitive, and easier to manipulate. What could once only be exposed in sunlight can now be exposed in almost complete darkness. Contemporary DPs talk about Kodak’s Vision 3 5219 in the same glowing terms once reserved for three-strip Technicolor.

“It has more latitude, so you can push it a stop or two with very little appreciable increase in grain,” describes James Chressanthis, ASC (Hide, Ghost Whisperer). Cinematographer Roberto Schaefer, ASC (The Paperboy, Machine Gun Preacher, The Kite Runer) adds that “it holds more details in both the highlight and shadow areas without looking flatter.” Kodak’s 5219 is being used in all formats from Super 8-mm to 65-mm. Kodak Vision 3, 5207 and Vision 3, 5213 are also in demand around the world.

In fact, descendants of emulsions created a century ago are still going strong – and still being recognized for their achievements. Fujifilm remains popular with many cinematographers, with recent feature credits that include The King’s Speech, Hereafter, Black Swan, Precious, Hoover, The Hurt Locker, and Man on a Ledge.

“I chose Fujifilm for Man on a Ledge for primarily the reason I have chosen it before,” says cinematographer Paul Cameron, ASC. “Flesh tones. Also, I like the overall color rendition and grain structure. A fair amount of [Man on a Ledge] was shot on stage with a very limited Translight. I needed to have a little inherent grain to smooth out the edges photographically.”

In early 2011, Fujifilm was recognized with the Academy’s Sci Tech Award for its ETERNA-RDS Film. ETERNA-RDS makes a three-color separation of color images and stores them as stable black and white images for long-term motion picture information preservation, a key consideration given the industry’s concerns over digital archiving.

Kodak, winner of nine Academy Awards®, released its newest daylight stock in December 2011, Vision 3 5203 – and it doesn’t stop there. This year’s Oscar®-nominated films shot on film included The Artist, The Help, Tree of Life, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Midnight in Paris, and The Descendants, among others, all from cinematographers who are still in love with what a physical, chemical emulsion can do for an image. “We couldn’t have made the same feature without Kodak,” insists 2012 ASC Award-winning cinematographer for Tree of Life, Emmanuel Lubezki, ASC. “We used 5219 and 5217 35-millimeter film smoothly combined with a little 65-millimeter.”

Pinpointing the dawn of film emulsion may not be an exact science, but, contrary to popular thinking, neither is marking its end. As two recent AMPAS-sponsored preservation reports determined, celluloid is the best medium to archive the images that have fired the imaginative journeys of audiences the world over for the last 100 years.

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