As we toured the finishing department, Nancy DiBella, Rochester Film Finishing Operations Manager for Kodak, pointed out the role of each machine and person we passed. She wore a white lab coat and protective glasses, speaking with a quiet modesty that the other workers shared. I asked DiBella if she gets the chance to see movies shot on the film that goes through her hands. “If I know it’s on print, I’ll go see the movie,” she said. “Even if it’s bad.”
The Eastman Kodak factory in Rochester, New York was the first visit in my month-long journey. I wanted to document how Kodak film, which starts as an acetate or polyester base and chemicals, reaches the movie theater screen in a digital era. That process today is quite different from 50 years ago when technicians developed camera negatives by hand and editors cut film with scissors. It’s one that blends the physical and the digital mediums. I interviewed Kodak factory workers, filmmakers, negative processing technicians and colorists, toured labs and offices, all the while witnessing firsthand film’s entire course. Even though the process does integrate digital technology today, I found there’s something special about shooting a movie on film, and part of my journey was to discover why that is.
George Eastman didn’t invent photography. He figured out a way, just like Ford did, to make a product efficiently for the masses.
Kodak is the only company producing motion picture film today, and it seemed appropriate to start in Rochester. George Eastman, the company’s founder and chief innovator, helped define the city by providing countless jobs and contributing to local universities. In 1889, Eastman perfected the first commercial transparent roll film, which allowed for Thomas Edison’s motion picture camera two years later. George Eastman didn’t invent photography; he figured out a way, just like Ford did, to make a product efficiently for the masses. Over the following century, Kodak continued to develop its film and imaging technology, becoming a global powerhouse in the process. Amateur photographers and Hollywood studios alike used Kodak film for decades to document their world and create new ones.
Kelly Mandarano, communications director for Kodak, drove me through Kodak’s 11,000-acre industrial campus. The giant headquarters houses a power plant, water-processing facility, train tracks, its own fire department and brick buildings numbering in the hundreds. Multiple generations have worked in the same buildings and drove along the same roads for over a century. “This is my sixteenth year at Kodak, which seems like a lot, but most people have been here for thirty or forty years so they still consider me a newbie,” she said.
In the mid-20th century, Kodak employed over 30,000 people on its Rochester campus. Employees organized softball leagues, photography clubs and put on plays at the theater. Today the number is closer to 6,000, most of which work for other companies on site renting the buildings. During the late 1990s and 2000s, digital technology in cameras, software and projectors reached a quality and cost that rivaled film and its accompanying technologies.
Photographers’ and filmmakers’ switch to digital hurt Kodak’s still and motion film division, one of its stalwart departments. For example, Kodak manufactured 11.4 billion linear feet of print film for movies in 2007, compared to about 417 million linear feet in 2014. Although their demand will never again reach those 11-digit numbers, Kodak will continue to produce motion picture film, unlike Fujifilm, which bowed out last year. Last month, Andrew Evenski, President of Motion Picture and Commercial Films at Kodak, helped finalize new film supply agreements with all six major Hollywood studios. When asked about the length of the deals, Evenski couldn’t specify, but pointed out Kodak will make film for the artists who want it for many years to come.
I slipped on a full-body jumpsuit that looked like the ones hospitals give to single-day patients. I zipped it up my chest and pulled my sneakers through with two quick tugs. I added plastic glasses that reminded me of high school wood shop. Rick Platner and Debby Smith, two operations managers, wore similar outfits for safety and cleanliness on the factory floor. I followed them through the expansive factory. Long fluorescent lights hung above huge, monochromatic machines. Buttons and switches on the machines and signs on the wall provided the rare bits of color. Hundreds of buildings like this one were scattered across the grounds, each with their own machines and technicians to operate them.
The process for making Kodak’s different films is split into three stages and among three buildings: base manufacture, sensitizing and finishing. The factory Platner and Smith guided me through houses the polyester base manufacturing department. Polyester is the base used for archive films, while acetate is used in their color negative film designed for motion film cameras and print films for projectors. (They import the acetate base, but the polyester process on location is similar.) Acetate, which is more like a transparent glass than a plastic, starts out as a “dope,” or clear goo. When the acetate is in that hot liquid form, it is extruded through small openings onto a huge, polished wheel. As the wheel slowly rotates, the acetate is cooled and dried precisely by time and temperature. The cooler and more solidified acetate is peeled off the wheel like a spatula slipping under a pancake. It’s then dried more and rolled out thousands of feet long to the proper thickness of a few microns, or a few thousandths of a millimeter. Before going to the next building, an anti-static layer is added so the film does not cling to itself, along with a backing layer for a sturdier base.
The second stage is sensitizing, where light-sensitive emulsions are added to the base in complete darkness. A photographic emulsion is a suspension of silver halide particles in a gelatin; colored dyes are added to color negative film. “[Sensitizing] takes our base and they lay down cyan, magenta and yellow, multiple layers of film that then are sensitized to different wavelengths of light,” Smith said. “So it’s lots of layers of different chemical solutions that have specific functionality to reproduce an image.” In short, the different layers are designed to work together and react to light when run through the camera later. There can be 15 to 20 layers in a color film negative on a huge roll that’s microns thick and 12,000 feet long.
At finishing, that film roll is cut to the width and length needed and then packaged for shipping in a film canister, or can. Again in the dark, workers load it onto a shining steel slitter to cut the correct width — 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, 65mm, or 70mm. Then, another machine perforates and cuts the rolls to the appropriate length. For instance, a grad student filmmaker might want a roll 50 or 100 feet long while a Hollywood production will call for a roll 1,000 feet long. Quentin Tarantino wanted an even longer roll for The Hateful Eight, according to Wayne Martin, General Manager of Commercial Film for Kodak. “He wanted to shoot 2,000s, but the camera couldn’t handle it so we made him 1,800s,” she said. “He doesn’t want to take time to switch film camera to camera so he wants long rolls.”
Just as Kodak cut longer rolls for Tarantino, they’ll modify other parts of their normal process when a special project calls for it. For the upcoming documentary Everest: Conquering Thin Air, the filmmakers needed a stronger base for the shooting conditions on the mountain. Martin suggested polyester, usually reserved for archival film because of its toughness and higher propensity to cause a camera jam. “When they were shooting in Everest, they wanted something that was going to hold up to the elements so we made them polyester film with our emulsion set from our 500 tungsten camera negative film,” Martin said.
Before shipping out any roll, technicians check the quality of a part of raw film from each slitter. In the testing department, a magnet board displayed machines in need of repair and others that were out of commission. “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by The Police played on a stereo in the corner. What look liked 1990s-era computers, film strips and comparison charts filled the long white room. Nick, a testing technician, slid a 35mm strip below a microscope hooked up to a boxy television to look for scratches. He turned 180 degrees to another machine and slid the same strip into the slot. “We’ll put it through what we call an optical comparitor, and this tells us if the product’s shaking up and down or not,” he said. “You don’t want it shaking when it’s going through a movie film camera.” If it does shake, the movie will appear jittery and you will see frames’ borders. After he approves the film, it can be shipped off to the filmmakers.