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Film: The History of Celluloid in Filmmaking

  • January 27, 2020
  • Shane Hurlbut, ASC
Film: The History of Celluloid in Filmmaking

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

As filmmakers, we owe our passion to the pioneers of film and photography, and then the filmmakers who followed. I believe in looking back in order to innovate and move forward, to be inspired and TO inspire. I take my inspiration with me wherever I go, wherever I work, and I pass on my inspiration to those around me on set and on my HA Team.

In today’s post, I’d like to introduce you all to a budding filmmaker in his own right who has been part of our HA Team and has been making a name for himself as a filmmaker for the past few years, Brendan Sweeney. He hails from Pittsburgh, but I won’t hold that against him! Ha ha! He came to Los Angeles to pursue his dream and he brings his creativity and passion for film – especially old school film – to our HQ every day, and we thank him for it! His latest movie “Impossibility:Possibility” And now he is going to share his passion with all of you and where film began. He loves talking about and sharing the history of film and it’s so important to remember where we have been so we can forge new paths of where to go.

Take it away Sweeney!

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Photographic Film is a strip or sheet of transparent plastic film base coated on one side with a gelatin emulsion containing microscopically small light-sensitive silver halide crystals. The sizes and other characteristics of the crystals determine the sensitivity, contrast and resolution of the film. (Karlheinz Keller et al. “Photography” in Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 2005, Wiley-VCH, Weinheim.)

So wait, where is a sensor? What about 1’s and 0’s? How do I see what I’m shooting? Can I check my exposure with false color?

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Most of you probably remember the days of film at least in a photographic sense. At one point in our industry, utilizing celluloid film was the only option for our projects. It wasn’t a selection of the type of image sensor, it was a selection of the type of film. Film was that “image sensor,” the chemical process which held your images. The choice was in what film stock you wanted to use to tell your stories and what lenses you wanted to pair with it. Things weren’t immediately in front of you like they are today in the digital world. There were no monitors to check focus or to check IRE levels. It was a world of looking through the lens using an optical viewfinder and seeing the scene in it’s unaltered perspective.

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lightsCinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

These were the days of filmmaking… A world where the cinematographer could be one with the camera and no producer could ever question what he or she was doing. It was a mental game, a time of true previsualization, and putting your skills to the test.

So why do I speak so highly about film? Well before I get into my personal love for film–let’s discuss its history and its importance to the industry that we work in today.


Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

The first publicly available photographic film was called, Daguerreotype. This film was first introduced in 1839 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre and held the market for about 20 years until newer/cheaper methods of photography were developed. In the 1850s, glass plate photography became the standard for most cameras in the field. With better optical quality than early transparent plastics and Daguerreotype, this became the best method for photographers until George Eastman stepped onto the scene. In 1885, George introduced the first “flexible photographic roll film”, but this film was actually paper with coating on it. The first transparent plastic roll entered the market on 1889 and was made from highly flammable nitrocellulose “celluloid” or now known as “nitrate film.” This is the stuff everyone’s heard about in film history and how it would combust!

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

This is where Eastman Kodak Company became the institution that lead the movement in photographic film and how it was to be done in photography. Everyone has at least heard of Kodak and their long history in motion picture films. To me, they are one of the greatest American companies to have ever existed!


Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Alright, let’s start discussing how photographic film got picked up and placed into the setting of motion picture film. The oldest recorded short film dates back to 1888 called, Roundhay Garden Scene.

“Roundhay Garden Scene”

This short scene was recorded by inventor Louis Le Prince. The film was shot on location at Oakwood Grange in Roundhay, Leeds, and is believed to be the oldest surviving film in existence. With its black & white, rough around the edges look – it’s amazing to see how far we have come, from our humble beginnings in the craft to our now multi-million dollar productions. Viewing works like this can only make you imagine where we will be in another hundred years, where this medium will transcend to, and how it will define us.

Film really got its footing during the push from Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope and the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematograph. These two inventions propelled what at the time was just a novelty and helped create the foundation for our industry today. The Kinetoscope was first invented and was a single person exhibition device for moving images – it was not a movie projector, but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter.

The Lumiere family was already a giant in the industry of photography and caught wind of what Edison and his team were doing in the United States. Due to their European location, they decided to take his concept, but wanted to able to present a moving image to multiple people at once. They crafted a machine that could not only capture a moving image, but would be able to print and project it for wider audiences. The amazing thing is that their invention would be about ¼ the size of Edison’s and would establish a commercial need for their product.

The early films of the Lumiere Brothers

Due to the compact nature of their camera, it opened up new ways for people to compose shots–as well as ways to move the camera. Filmmakers brought this camera all over the world and transported audiences to places at the time people have never seen before. It was electrifying and the amount of films produced over the years by the Lumiere Brothers was in the thousands! They drafted the early blueprints for how a story should be told using this new medium. For a period in the history of motion picture film, this became the standard instrument to get the job done.

If you want to learn more about the Lumiere Brothers, check out these two podcasts by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey over at Things You Missed In History Class:

The Lumiere Brothers, Part 1:

The Lumiere Brothers, Part 2:


As the years progressed into the 1900s, filmmaking became the 20th century art form to beat! Production companies sprung from the ground, new filmmakers entered the scene, and celebrities were born. 1910 – 1927 were the years of structured silent narrative films – called “Multiple-Reel Films” (soon to be called features) – which became the norm for audiences around the world. The medium soon was equivalent to theatre shows and was an outlet to adapt novels to the big screen. By 1916 there were more than 21,000 movie theaters in the United States alone.

For about two decades, silent movies traversed the ups and downs of World War 1 propaganda, blossomed in European countries, and then a new evolution of film ushered in…


With cinema’s almost instant commercial and cultural popularity with audiences spanning the world, it became evident that we needed something new after almost two decades of success with silent motion pictures. In 1900, the first known public exhibition of projected synchronized sound films took place in Paris. This was the early groundwork for what we would become accustomed to in the 21st century.

Cinematography filmmaker film movies tv shooting DP lights

Edge of a 35mm film print showing the soundtracks. The outermost strip (left of picture) contains the SDDS track as an image of a digital signal; the next contains the perforations used to drive the film through the projector, with the Dolby Digital track, the grey areas with the Dolby Double-D logo, between them. The two tracks of the analog soundtrack on the next strip are bilateral variable-area, where amplitude is represented as a waveform. These are generally encoded using Dolby Stereo matrixing to simulate four tracks. Finally, to the far right, the timecode used to synchronize with a DTS soundtrack CD-ROM is visible.

In 1919, American inventor Lee Dee Forest filed for several patents that would pave the path to the first optical sound-on-film technology. These new advancements would be applied to a commercial setting.

With further development by 1923, audiences were introduced to the first commercial screening of a short motion picture using “sound-on-film.” When sound films with synchronized dialogue was introduced, it immediately was coined as “talking pictures” or “talkies.” At first they were exclusively utilized in the short film setting and it took a while for feature films to latch on to this technology.

It took until October 1927 for the first feature utilizing this technology to hit the market. This was the Warner Bros. Pictures production, The Jazz Singer. It was a major hit with audiences nationwide and was made with Vitaphone, which was at the time the leading brand for sound-on-disc technology.

As audiences’ demands for “talkies” grew, it became apparent by the studio system that this was here to stay and they needed to follow suit. By the 1930s, talkies were a global phenomenon and helped secure Hollywood’s position as one of the world’s most important cultural/commercial centers of influence.


Color in motion picture film was always the direction that the industry was trying to get to. The first color cinematography was by additive color systems as the one patented by Edward Raymour Turner in 1899 and tested in 1902. The first commercially successful additive color system was Kinemacolor. It was a simplified system that used black-and-white film for photography and then projected two or more component images through different color filters. The process flourished between 1908 and 1913.

Around 1920, the first practical subtractive color processes were developed and introduced to the industry. Like Kinemacolor, it also utilized black-and-white film to photograph multiple color-filtered source images and the final product was a multicolor print that did not require special projection equipment.

In 1932, the biggest advancement in color film was the introduction of the three-strip Technicolor process. Technicolor first dated back to 1916 and was improved over several decades. It became the second biggest color process behind Kinemacolor and was mostly used in Hollywood production from 1922 to 1952. Technicolor was known for its beautiful, unique look. Its highly saturated color became our now nostalgic look that audiences wanted to see. Technicolor was commonly used in movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and in animated motions such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

In 1932, the biggest advancement in color film was the introduction of the three-strip Technicolor process. Technicolor first dated back to 1916 and was improved over several decades. It became the second biggest color process behind Kinemacolor and was mostly used in Hollywood production from 1922 to 1952. Technicolor was known for its beautiful, unique look. Its highly saturated color became our now nostalgic look that audiences wanted to see. Technicolor was commonly used in movies like The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone with the Wind (1939), and in animated motions such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937).

Color in motion picture film continued to grow in popularity until it was the norm for feature films. In the 21st century, it’s rare that we get a complete black-and-white film. Color has carved its place into our minds as audience members and it’s here to stay.


So why am I going through the history of this? You’ve probably heard some of it, so how does this translate into the importance of film? Well let’s put it this way… film is the original medium. It’s what the greats utilized for over 100+ years and for whatever reasons–it’s been relegated due to digital.

Digital is now the king of the hill, but is it a good thing? This is neither good nor bad! We’ve opened up the floodgates for a new generation of filmmakers that would have never been able to obtain film. We’ve given people a voice that potentially wouldn’t have ever been able to express themselves before. The digital medium is the tool that we need to open up the industry for those that want to participate. It’s helped us understand a different way to make movies and it’s always great to have “options” when making films.

Well, let’s take a second to talk about those “options”…

In 2014, we had one of the long time color negative film companies shut down its production of film. That was Fujifilm, the manufacturer of ETERNA, and what some consider to be a beautiful looking competitor to Kodak. Now we are left with a discontinued stock that we’ll potentially never have the chance to shoot with again.

So why is this an issue? The issue is that we lost an “option” for filmmaking. The only remaining color-negative left is the Kodak Vision3 line and Wittner Agfachrome 200D for color reversal. Minus some small boutique, experimental stocks, these are ALL we have left for color film. Oh, did I forget to mention that Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 and we almost lost that as well…


My issue with digital is that it has allowed the masses to easily forget what “film” is, it’s role in how filmmaking came to be up to now, and what is has stood for. In less than a decade, film almost got kicked to its death. If it wasn’t for a group of Hollywood elites banding together–we potentially would have lost a medium, an art form, and a way of thinking.

Here are what some filmmakers have to say about film:

Hoyte van Hoytema (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Interstellar, Her)

The debate itself is just stupid, you know? One of the worst things has been the debate, because it assumes there is a “better” and a “worse,” that there is a “winner” and a “loser.” That’s not the way I look at it at all. That polarization and presentation that there is something better and something worse is just ridiculous. Anybody can give a reason why something is good or bad in a technical sense. But the reason filmmakers like Christopher Nolan are shooting on film, it has nothing to do with “better” or “worse.” It just has to do with very personal taste. Everybody wants a different kind of canvas. Some people like painting with oil paint and other people like painting with acrylic paint and other people like painting with cow shit, you know? [Laughs.] That whole discussion is useless, and the only thing that discussion has provoked is that people who don’t know anything about it start lobbying for a format. One format is just slowly becoming obsolete and keeping a lot of people from that choice in the future, which is very sad, because I think that choice should be available for people like Chris or Quentin Tarantino or Scorsese or Spielberg, whoever, or Paul Thomas Anderson. Their choices in why they take film is not always a technical choice.

(“‘Interstellar’ cinematographer on grounding Nolan’s movie and shooting Bond on film”)

Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed)

We have many names for what we do – cinema, movies, motion pictures. And…film. We’re called directors, but more often we’re called filmmakers. Filmmakers. I’m not suggesting that we ignore the obvious: HD isn’t coming, it’s here. The advantages are numerous: the cameras are lighter, it’s much easier to shoot at night, we have many more means at our disposal for altering and perfecting our images. And, the cameras are more affordable: films really can be made now for very little money. Even those of us still shooting on film finish in HD, and our movies are projected in HD. So, we could easily agree that the future is here, that film is cumbersome and imperfect and difficult to transport and prone to wear and decay, and that it’s time to forget the past and say goodbye – really, that could be easily done. Too easily.

It seems like we’re always being reminded that film is, after all, a business. But film is also an art form, and young people who are driven to make films should have access to the tools and materials that were the building blocks of that art form. Would anyone dream of telling young artists to throw away their paints and canvases because iPads are so much easier to carry? Of course not. In the history of motion pictures, only a minuscule percentage of the works comprising our art form was not shot on film. Everything we do in HD is an effort to recreate the look of film. Film, even now, offers a richer visual palette than HD. And, we have to remember that film is still the best and only time-proven way to preserve movies. We have no assurance that digital information will last, but we know that film will, if properly stored and cared for.

Our industry – our filmmakers – rallied behind Kodak because we knew that we couldn’t afford to lose them, the way we’ve lost so many other film stocks. This news is a positive step towards preserving film, the art form we love.

(“Martin Scorsese Writes Letter Supporting Kodak and Film Stock”)

A lot of the filmmakers we look up to today have their opinion on the matter. The war rages on with the “film vs. digital” debate, but that’s not the point in which I’m getting at. It’s the importance of maintaining as many options as possible. The fewer options we have, the less ways we are going to have to expresses ourselves. As a filmmaker, I know that I don’t want to be creatively bound due to discontinued products.


As we further progress down the path of digitizing the rest of the world, I see a bright future for film. Within the last two years we’ve seen a resurgence of “film” in the industry and interest from a younger demographic. Kodak escaped the grips of almost certain death and is no longer in bankruptcy. More and more features are opting to shoot completely on film or a hybrid approach with digital. Indie productions are craving a vintage, nostalgic look and are looking for crews who know how to work with the medium. We are seeing more and more movies adding film projected screenings and audience coming out to enjoy them!

We are creating a world where BOTH mediums can live and work together. This is the future that I see and it’s just arriving. With Kodak opening new processing labs in the U.S and U.K., as well as reviving Ektachrome, I’m hoping these lead to an opportunity for Arri and Panavision to announce a new film camera. As directors and cinematographers continue to push themselves, it’s only an upward trend for film and it’s sustainability.

Even Blackmagic Design, one of the biggest digital cinema camera manufacturers, is also making headlines in the “film” realm of the industry. Within the last couple of years they acquired long-time film scanner company, Cintel, and introduced their first 4K film scanner. The sleek and elegant Blackmagic Design Cintel Scanner can hang beautifully on a wall and connects effortlessly via Davinci Resolve. This creates an avenue for cost-effective scans for filmmakers looking to to get in the door.


I guess my whole point here is to study what has come before us and try the tools that the greats used. Whether you stick with film or decide to remain completely digital, at least you’ve tried the medium and understand its importance. I could ramble on all day about how there is no better feeling than hearing the film roll through the camera, that there is nothing more satisfying than seeing your image come to life when it arrives back from the lab. It’s a magical experience, but me expressing that will never make you understand, until you go out and try it.

We need to continue to craft ways to capture a moving image. If new ways are utilizing VR 360 degree video, well let’s add it to the toolbox. We need a future without limitations and that starts with us preserving, not disregarding.

One last thing… digital cameras are looking to replicate “film.” Why not just shoot on film instead of pretending? Go out there and make a movie!


Brendan Sweeney





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