Retrotechtacular: Films Used To Be Recorded On Film


We’re sure that this title makes some readers itch because there are still a number of well-respected directors who insist on shooting with film rather than digital, but the subject of this week’s Retrotechtacular shows a portion of the movie industry that has surely been relegated to life-support in the past few decades. Photo finishing, once the stronghold of chemical processes used by all to develop their photographs, has become virtually non-existent. This is the story of how film and photo finishing drove cinema for much of its life.

The reels seen above are negative and positive film. The negative film goes in the camera and captures the images. After developing and fixing the negative film, the process is repeated. Light shines through the fixed negative in order to expose a fresh reel of film. That film is finished and fixed to create the reel which can be used in a projector. This simple process is covered near the beginning of the clip found below. The 1940 presentation moves on to discuss the in-depth chemistry techniques used in the process. But you’re really in for a treat starting about half-way through when the old manual methods are shown, which have been replaced by the “modern laboratory”. We love those huge analog dials! The video concludes by showing the true industrialization of the film developing process.

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28 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Films Used To Be Recorded On Film

    1. Yeah, then we could look at the cancer rates around microprocessor manufacturing facilities on the West Coast and the so-called “green” computer recycling facilites that ship toxic waste to impoverished countries so digital enthusiasts don’t have to see the unsightly damage it causes and then we can discuss any other number of ecological horrors the so called “digital revolution” has foisted on a clueless society of babbling “greenies”. How many cell phones and computers have you contriubted to the toxic mess that is the World? Hmmmm…?

  1. Ok, I haven’t watched the video yet but I thought I’d comment anyway. My local cinema complex is equipped with all 3D digital projectors. However, a friend and I were watching Cowboys Vs Aliens and I noticed something that I haven’t seen in years, the yellow ringed black oval in the top right corner every now and again. The manufactures put it there to signal the projectionist when to load the next cannister of film. I asked the staff later about this and they mentioned that the digital projector had broken down. So they keep some film copies as a backup.

  2. This topic is awesome.
    I worked as a cinema projectionist back in 1980’s and in a photographic minilab processing after that.
    It is now an absolutely dying art that is so arcane only a handful of people still capable of doing.

  3. I would love to see an in depth coverage of the early Gemini and Apollo electronics. any details on the computers used in SkyLab? How about a technical detail series on what is running voyager I and II

  4. Only a true dinosaur like myself could be astonished that people exist who have never been ‘exposed’ to real film. I spent most of my life in the photo-chemical era and know pretty near everything there is to know about it. I have had several darkrooms, shot 35mm still, 16mm and 8mm motion, did my own processing, and was even a pro processor in my youth. I still have my enlargers and projectors and own a collection of 16mm films that I often show outdoors in the summer here in the Lab parking lot. Yea, a real living dinosaur.

  5. How do you roughly guess the age of a person working in the media? By the terminology they use for light image recording technology. If they say “caught on video” they were likely born in the 1980’s to early 1990’s. If they say “caught on film” that places them in the 70’s or earlier.

    If you never want to be called out for using an incorrect term on this, always use “caught on camera” or “a video recording” because whether it uses film, magnetic tape, memory cards or other solid state storage, a hard drive or optical disc, it *is* a camera and these days it’s exceedingly rare that anyone is going to be packing around an old film camera and catch some sudden event.

    Same goes for audio recording. Just say it’s an audio recording. If a student uses her cellphone to record an abusive teacher, do not use the phrase “caught on tape” or “she taped the teacher insulting students”. Someone should hack a Micro Cassette recorder into a cellphone, controlled via an app on the operating system, just so one can accurately say they taped some audio with their phone.

    Another way the old fogies out themselves is calling any non-tape kind of data storage a “tape”. You know the type, probably your parents who called your Atari or Sega or Nintendo cartridges “tapes”. See also the Dabney Coleman movie “Cloak and Dagger” where everyone kept calling the game cartridge with the hidden data a “tape”. Makes me want to retroactively slap the screenwriters every time I see that one.

    1. I’m 24.

      When I record a video, I “film” it. When I record sound, I “tape” it. When I want to record a show coming in from the satellite dish into my PVR then I also “tape” it.

      We cannot just change commonly used phrases because the underlying technology changed. Otherwise we had to stop using the word “car” a long time ago.

      But yes, these phrases will probably fade away before the arrival of the next generation, because there will be no reference to explain the use of the term “tape” and so on. “Film” might stick because a lot of people still refer to a movie in the cinema as a “film” and the Cannes Film Festival got this whacko requirement that if you want your movie to eligible for an award it must be submitted in actual film stock.

      1. I’m not so sure. Save buttons still regularly have a floppy disk icon, even though there are people alive today who use computers every day who’ve never even seen a floppy in person. Inside of an icon that refers to real life it’s become a standard, abstract glyph associated with saving. “Film” as a verb may well die out, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it persists long after anyone knows what film is.

  6. The tone of this post makes it sound like only a handful of movies are still shot on film. Anyone familiar with the industry at all knows this is blatantly false. Of last year’s Academy Award best picture nominees, Argo (the winner), Beats of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Lincoln, and Silver Linings Playbook were shot on film. Only three — Life of Pi, Zero Dark Thirty, and Amour — were shot digitally. Heck, even big-budget action flicks, like the new Batman trilogy, was shot on film. It’s not going away anytime soon.

    The main area that’s changing is distribution — tons of new theatres are digital-only.

    1. Most Hollywood cinematographers prefer to shoot on film. One reason is the additional dynamic range that can be pulled out of a color negative, compared to a CMOS/CCD sensor.

      The film also has additional resolution, which allows for a certain degree of future-proofing. You can go back to the Apollo 13 camera negative, scan it at high resolution, and blow it up to IMAX. You can’t do that with a movie that was captured on 2K video — the resolution was thrown away forever.

      A final, less technical reason is that directors tend to interfere more with the cinematographer when shooting on HD video. Shooting on film gives the cinematographer a greater degree of creative freedom, because the director is likely to give them greater latitude in making decisions.

      However, film has been removed from the editing process. Once the film has been developed, it is immediately scanned into a digital intermediate. This is now the master copy of the footage. The film serves as a backup, but it’s never looked at again unless something went wrong during the scanning.

  7. The two little rings or dots (or squiggles or smudges or…) that appear in the top-right are to cue switching on the projector drive so it comes up to speed, and the second one a few seconds later to signal the actual changeover of vision and sound to the newly running projector, the new and old reels having a small overlap.

    If you don’t have the new reel “laced up” and the arc set up (there’s a clue to my age) by the time the first cue goes through you are going to be everlastingly popular with the audience and management.

    I will also mention “reversal” film that produced a direct positive after processing, popular in 16mm with student film makers in the 70’s and 80’s.

    Sound film only has sprocket holes on one side, the other side being taken up by an optical soundtrack.

  8. Yay, film!
    I learned to develop and print my own film in my High School darkroom, many, many years ago. It’s extremely encouraging to me that the daughter of a coworker is doing the same thing .

    I’ll just mention that good, really good, film cameras are available at silly low prices now.
    Negatives can be stuffed in a shoebox for your grandkids, not so with digital files…

  9. the “films” in the photo are not positive and negative films, they are film leader, that is white plastic film that s used on the start and end of films to avoid damage to the film whilst threading it into the projector.

    you can still buy film,a reasonable amount of people shoot super8, mainly because the cameras are easy to find. either in your parents loft or at a car boot sale.

    1. ewan is correct. Negative films generally have a black backing made of carbon and a pH sensitive binder. This backing absorbs light that passes through the emulsion and prevents it from exposing the emulsion from the back side. The backing is conductive, and prevents static electrical discharges from marking the film. When the film is processed, the binder is softened and the carbon is washed off.

      Print films had the same backing up until about 20 years ago. At that time, a clear antistatic backing was developed, and the plastic base for the print film was changed from cellulose triacetate(still used on negative films) to polyester.

      The “film at 11” process used until the advent of video was very interesting. It was a reversal film (positive right out of the camera) that was processed in a desktop processor with dry-to-dry times of less than 10 minutes. Those films have been gone for a long time.

    2. Sorry, but the film stock show is correctly represented; it is B&W , unprocessed, positive and negative laboratory film stocks. Black carbon anti-halation backings were used in color work, with B&W lab stocks having only colored dyes to repress light scattering during exposure. Look again; the neg stock appears light grey and the positive a darker grey, representing lavender and yellow-orange dyes respectively.

      Also, 35mm “sound film” is dual sprocketed, only the sub-35mm stocks omit a row of perforations to accommodate a sound track.

      There are a lot of misapplied film specs in many of these responses here. It’s not hard to find the actual facts with a bit of research.

      1. I concur with your description of lab films. I was writing in the context of the comment at the beginning “well-respected directors who insist on shooting with film” where they would use the films I described, as opposed to lab films.

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