George Eastman Museum Makes 35mm Motion Picture Film from Early Cinema Period

Rochester, N.Y., May 19, 2016—Carrying on its record of innovation in preserving and re-creating historical photographic processes, the George Eastman Museum today announced that its conservation department has reverse-engineered and replicated the making of early motion picture film—creating the first sensitized, processed strip of black-and-white 35mm motion picture film outside of a commercial manufacturing environment.

Although numerous types of historic photographic techniques, such as daguerreotypes, have been re-created and well documented, a certain mystery and secrecy has remained around the production of motion picture film. Process Historian Mark Osterman and Historic Process Specialist Nick Brandreth—both members of the Eastman Museum conservation department—devised a method that reflects the processes used by Eastman Kodak Company and other makers of motion picture film stock in the early years of cinema. They then used this film to create short motion pictures in a manner similar to that used by pioneers Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. 

Rediscovering 35mm Motion Picture Film

“Digital technologies have revolutionized the motion picture industry, but we have profound concerns that vital elements of cultural and technological history will be lost,” said Dr. Bruce Barnes, Ron and Donna Fielding Director of the George Eastman Museum. “By making motion picture film in a way similar to when it was first invented, we are improving our understanding of cinematic history and laying the foundation to ensure the survival of filmmaking with 35mm stock for artists of this and future generations.”

The Eastman Museum is uniquely qualified to lead the charge of film conservation and preservation because it brings together expertise in the history of photochemical technology and the world’s leading collection of cinematographic and photographic equipment.

“We don’t have the ability to produce film on a large scale or in color like Eastman Kodak and other film manufacturers, and that is not our goal,” continued Barnes. “Our objective is to help preserve the history, technology, and art of film. We are a museum and educational institution that fundamentally believes in photochemical film as an essential part of both the history and future of moving images.”

Preserving the Art of Film

During the George Eastman Museum’s annual Nitrate Picture Show film festival earlier this month, Osterman and Brandreth created black-and-white 35mm perforated motion picture film stock during a public workshop. The group concocted a gelatin silver bromide emulsion, coated polyester film base, and then slit and perforated it. Using a hand-cranked Bell & Howell Eyemo 35mm motion picture camera, participants shot the film in the same historic gardens filmed by George Eastman and Thomas Edison nearly a century ago. These films were nearly identical in look to early silent movies made by Edison in New Jersey and the Lumière brothers in France before the turn of the century.

“We know that it’s important to conserve not only objects, but also expertise. What Osterman and Brandreth have achieved is a milestone in the practical application of our knowledge of early motion picture technology,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department, George Eastman Museum. “This has the potential to attract a whole new generation of filmmakers looking for authenticity and originality.

“Just as a vinyl record has a different depth of sound than a digital recording, the moving image on 35mm motion picture film has a different character than a digital image. People thought vinyl records were doomed, but instead they are experiencing a resurgence and are a booming niche industry. Our goal is to ensure that, in the dreaded event that motion picture film becomes commercially unavailable, there will be an ability to re-create photochemical film for historic and artistic purposes."

George Eastman Museum Workshops

The George Eastman Museum offers photography workshops throughout the year to enable artists, educators, and enthusiasts to develop new skills. Participants get hands-on instruction from experts in historic and alternative processes, make their own photographs, and see prime examples from the museum’s incomparable collections.

With the rapidly growing interest in historic and alternative photographic processes, the museum seeks to contribute to the expanding movement of handmade photography by teaching how to make the same type of gelatin emulsions introduced by George Eastman in the 1880s.

“We teach all of the 19th-century photographic processes in workshops at the museum,” said Osterman. “We were already making gelatin emulsion to coat glass plates, so it was a natural progression to apply the emulsion to a flexible base—in essence coming upon the technique of making film as an evolutionary progression the same way it was invented in the late 1880s.”

The June session of 35mm Motion Picture Film Making workshop is already sold out. Two group sessions will be offered next year, one in conjunction with the 2017 Nitrate Picture Show scheduled for May 5–7, 2017. The museum also offers private tutorials and special private workshops for three or more people. For more information on workshops, visit eastman.org/events/workshops or call (585) 271-3361.

About the George Eastman Museum

Founded in 1947, the George Eastman Museum is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the largest film archives in the United States, located on the historic Rochester estate of entrepreneur and philanthropist George Eastman, a pioneer of popular photography and motion picture film. Its holdings comprise more than 400,000 photographs, 28,000 motion picture films, the world’s preeminent collection of photographic and cinematographic technology, one of the leading libraries of books related to photography and cinema, and extensive holdings of documents and other objects related to George Eastman. The museum’s conservation department is supported by an endowment established primarily with funds from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As a research and teaching institution, the Eastman Museum has an active publishing program and, through its two joint master’s degree programs with the University of Rochester, makes critical contributions to the fields of film preservation and of photographic preservation and collection management. For more information, visit eastman.org.

###