Kodak 16mm Kodacolor circa 1928

On Thursday, September 19, 2013, I gave a talk on Kodacolor  to The Photographic Historical Society. Here is the speech along with  some of the media from the presentation.

Before he died, George Eastman fulfilled a dream he kept mostly to himself.

While it is well known he wanted to make photography as easy to use as the pencil, I was first introduced to Kodacolor in 2003 when GEH decided to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the “Kodacolor Party” thrown by George Eastman which resulted in (among other things) this famous iconic image of Eastman and Edison.

It was quite a party-certainly a who’s who of wealth and industry. And it was the quintessential market genius of Eastman: the announcement of a new, full color motion picture process that used existing cameras and was easy to use.

This was made to re-introduce the Kodacolor film to the attendees and press at the 75th anniversary. It was also made because the process was difficult to show to a large audience-certainly one in the Dryden Theatre.

So I put together the video and it included footage from the Motion Picture department that had some of the original Kodacolor films that were shown in 1928. It had been transferred by a company in California. It was a very specialized field of transfer-and I was intrigued.

It is a fascinating additive color process:

This summary by Roderick T. Ryan in his book: A History of Motion Picture Color Technology (1977):

The Keller-Dorian system of color cinematography was a three-color additive system based on the 1909 invention of Rudolph Berthon. This process used a banded three-color filter to expose black and white film through an embossed lenticular base. The first commercial use of the Keller-Dorian system was the Kodacolor process introduced in 1928. The Eastman 16 mm Kodacolor lenticular film was manufactured under the Keller-Dorian patents through a license agreement between Eastman Kodak and the Keller-Dorian Company.

George Eastman believed photography should be accessible to anyone. He believed it should be as easy to use as a pencil. George Eastman had another passion, possibly equaled to his love for music which was color. It was everywhere in his gardens, his décor. He would make a special effort to complement anyone who would wear a bold color. Especially the ladies. And more often than not, they obliged.

So Eastman had a passion for color, why wasn’t it more evident?

Where was it? If he could simplify photography from the wet plate to the Brownie in less than 20 years, why not a color process for stills? Because Eastman didn’t just want a color process, he wanted a system that worked every time, that was as easy to use as a pencil, and reproduced color naturally.

But how did these seemingly different developments combine to achieve Eastman’s requirements for a successful color process:

  • It had to be easy
  • It had to make use of existing equipment the customer already had-no special cameras or extra lenses.
  • The recording media had to fit and run in the existing cameras too.
  • The color reproduction had to be TRUE color (RGB).

So what’s under the hood of this process which was only around from 1928 to about 1932?

A 3 banded filter that went on the end of the camera lens. It ONLY fit when the aperture was fully open at f1.9. While the ads suggested shooting things like flowers, bright colors and children playing outside, the truth was the filter-especially the blue, needed a ton of light. The only way to control exposure was neutral density and an exposure ratio diaphragm that came with each roll of film.

The film was panchromatic and probably the biggest rule-breaker of this process-it had to be exposed through the base. The base was engraved with three faceted lenticles-22 per millimeter. Each facet registered a different color record from the filter-red green and blue.

The lenticles are a detractor-they can be seen and to some degree pull you out of the natural image. They also reduce the resolution of the image the more you magnify tit. But they are necessary for the process to work. There are no color dyes in the film-only the filters the film is captured or projected through.

The presence of the lenticles and the absence of color dyes made preproducing Kodacolor all but impossible. So everything being shown today are camera originals.

And this is why the process didn’t last long.

And because these originals, look like black and white-even when the can says color, they are many times discarded and lost forever.

What I find most fascinating about Kodacolor is how vibrant the colors are-because there are no dyes that fade. And that’s what makes my pursuit of helping this color process into the 21st century so important. But it is the process itself that presents the greatest challenge toward being preserved and restored.

Currently I only know of two companies that restore color to Kodacolor: Film Technologies in Los Angeles and mine, DeBergerac Productions here in Rochester. Film Technologies strikes a color negative using an optical printer. The process is very expensive for most individuals. We have developed a projection system using a mirror and rear projection screen and captured the images with an HD camera. To remove shutter flicker, we use a digital shutter. This process, while not a precise, is less expensive and good for reviewing material.

I like the camera projection process as it simulates a pretty accurate viewing experience. But if  you want to use the material in a documentary, I think you have to make excuses for the quality.

So another process we are working on combines telecine and camera projection. The two are combined using after effects, creating an image that has the color of projection and the detail of telecine.

This is still being perfected, for one thing there is a lot of hand adjusting of the camera image to match the telecine. Also, the lenticles are more pronounced. But using line doubling, this can be minimized.

In addition to this process, I have learned, mostly from Martin Scott, that there was a 35mm process that was used to capture color television images.

They are embossed into the base of the film-that means all Kodacolor is shot through the base.

Another drawback is that it can’t be reproduced.

One positive about this process is that the colors don’t fade like dyes. So long as the colors are correct in the reproducing projector filter, the colors reproduce just as they did in 1928.

— Mike Champlin

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One comment on “Kodak 16mm Kodacolor circa 1928
  1. Great stuff. Love the archival footage. Check out Eggwork’s work at George Eastman: http://eggwork.com/eastman-documentaries/ New series coming this Spring!

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