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Conservators Reverse-Engineer the First Noncommercial 35mm Film Strip

Using salvaged machines and a hand-cranked camera, conservators at the George Eastman Museum created the first strip of 35mm motion-picture film not produced by a commercial company.

Movie shot on the 35mm motion picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)
Movie shot on the 35mm motion-picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)

Using salvaged machines and a hand-cranked camera, conservators at the George Eastman Museum created the first strip of 35mm motion-picture film not produced by a commercial company. In the process, they captured the world of 2016 in the same shaky black and white as early cinema.

Developing the 35mm film (courtesy Mark Osterman)
Developing the 35mm film (courtesy Mark Osterman) (click to enlarge)

“By the time we shot it and developed the film under a red light, the results were remarkably just like the silent movies — the look of them, the tonality, the range of tones,” Process Historian Mark Osterman told Hyperallergic. Along with Historic Process Specialist Nick Brandreth, who also works in the Eastman Museum’s conservation department, Osterman led a 35mm filmmaking workshop at this past May’s Nitrate Picture Show festival. The Rochester, New York, museum has long explored the re-creation of historic photography techniques, and learning how to hand-make 35mm film was a continuation of this work.

Osterman said that, in terms of his photography knowledge, it’s “as if I was born back then”; he’s worked on reproducing processes developed through the 1880s, such as daguerreotype and tintype. Film, however, was different. Whereas 19th-century photographers often made their own photosensitive materials from scratch, film became a commercial industry after only a brief era of exploration in the 1890s, and its combination processes were closely guarded.

“Once you turn the page to the industrialization of photosensitive materials, it becomes very secretive. You’re talking about industrial espionage when things get out,” Osterman said. “When we went to reverse-engineer this, it all had to be reasoning. The reasoning was based on knowing what we wanted.”

The workshop participants made their own gelatin silver bromide emulsion, coating it on a polyester film base with a coating machine Osterman rescued from a local university — although, since it came with no manual, even that required a bit of trial and error. The strip was then slit and perforated with another scavenged machine. Once the film was ready, the group shot dancers in the museum’s garden — the same garden where both George Eastman and Thomas Edison worked on film — and Osterman driving his Ford Model T up its driveway. With just over six feet of film, they didn’t have enough to create a whole new flick, but at eight frames a second, they demonstrated that the process accurately replicated a 19th-century motion picture.

The 35mm motion picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)
The 35mm motion picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)

“The making of the motion picture was really secondary to just the proof of concept,” Osterman said. He pointed out that, commercially, Kodak and Fuji are still making 35mm film, but that doesn’t guarantee that amateurs in the coming decades will be able to replicate the industrialized and compartmentalized process if digital completely takes over. The advantage of figuring this out at an institution like the Eastman Museum — which has both extensive collections of historic film and a conservation department devoted to protecting the processes behind them — is that a DIY version of the technique can be retrieved.

The Eastman Museum plans to hosts two more public 35mm filmmaking workshops next year, including another in conjunction with the 2017 Nitrate Picture Show.

“It’s the difference between a photograph museum and a photography museum,” Osterman explained. “If you’re a photograph museum, you just hang photographs on the wall, but if we’re a photography museum, that means something more. We’re the more physical part, we’re the research part, and we’re the part that brings it alive again, A lot of people might think chemical photography is dead, and the lid on the coffin may be in place, but it’s not bolted down yet. And the most fragile of all photographic materials, as far as being around in the future, is the motion picture.”

The 35mm motion picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)
The 35mm motion picture film created at the George Eastman Museum (courtesy the George Eastman Museum)
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