Behind the Kodak Moment

Bonnie Johnson
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Like other industries at the turn of the millennium, moviemaking and photography shifted from analog to digital technology. Fujifilm, a leader in the digital field, stopped making motion picture film stock (or “celluloid”) in 2013. Rather than keep pace with a growing digital market, industry giant Kodak tried to survive through litigation and mass worker layoffs. After a federal bailout in 2013, the company prepared to shutter its celluloid operation until it found an aggressive champion in Hollywood’s Quentin Tarantino. Together with fellow blockbuster directors Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins), J. J. Abrams (Star Trek into Darkness), and Judd Apatow (Knocked Up), he pressured the five major studios to bail out Kodak again by buying up millions of feet of its film stock, regardless of whether or not the studios would use it. Eventually joined by Martin Scorsese, the group finalized the deal in 2015 and renewed it in early 2020, pursuing indie productions and TV shoots in order to prolong the use of the material. In the meantime, Kodak has focused on hosting dinners, vacations, and parties for those in the industry who are pushing its product. In January 2020 the company gave Tarantino a “lifetime achievement” award. This marketing strategy is working: last year, Kodak’s film stock sales rose, even as its overall revenue declined yet again, and it opened a celluloid processing lab in New York. With 3M, Dupont, and other companies long since out of the film stock game, Kodak now has a monopoly on it. 

Kodak’s efforts have paid cultural as well as financial dividends. Celluloid has become a cause célèbre of the film industry, with digital playing the villain. At a press junket in 2014, Tarantino seethed: “Digital projection… is the death of cinema as I know it…. that’s just television in public…. why an established filmmaker would shoot on digital, I have no fucking idea at all.” Five years later, his and Kodak’s crusade bore fruit. Of the nine 2020 Oscar nominees for Best Picture, four were shot mostly on film. One was Little Women, for which Greta Gerwig had insisted on using celluloid. In the 2012 documentary Side by Side, she says of her experiences appearing both on film and in digital formats, “They process digital now to look like film, as if film is inherently better. Just—we like the way it looks better, which seems kind of arbitrary. It’s just what we’re used to.” But when she appeared at Kodak’s gala last year alongside celluloid loyalist Noah Baumbach, she rhapsodized that the first time she appeared on film stock, she “felt like [her] soul rose closer to the surface.” Sean Baker, who famously shot his breakthrough indie hit Tangerine on a setting-appropriate iPhone, now appears in Kodak ad copy decrying digital as “a real threat to celluloid.” He shot his last picture, The Florida Project, on 35 mm film, despite the film’s underclass-vérité mise-en-scène being virtually identical to Tangerine’s. The message is that once you’ve made it, you use film stock—specifically, Kodak’s.

If we examine the overheated rhetoric around the new Kodak moment—the idea that an environmentally damaging product is worth protecting from economic pressures, that directors are entitled to demand a luxury material, that aspiring to elite status means complying with an antiquated system, and that democratic filmmaking means mediocrity—it sounds eerily like an exhortation to make movies great again. The fact that none of these stories around movies were great, and that Kodak itself often hasn’t been great either, tends to fall by the wayside when industry heavyweights glorify celluloid film as if it had talismanic powers. Today, the film world’s visionaries aren’t dwelling in nostalgia for a supposed golden era. They’re exploiting digital filmmaking’s technological benefits to innovative effect, taking care of the people on their sets, finding ways around old limitations, and telling us new stories—the sorts of stories we’ve missed all along.

The prestige of Kodak’s film stock is ironic, considering its origin. The Eastman Kodak story begins almost 150 years ago. According to common film history, Eadweard Muybridge captured a horse’s motion as a series of images on glass with light-sensitive silver salts in 1878, and in 1889 Thomas Edison’s lab developed the kinetoscope, with which one person at a time could view a moving series of images. At first, Edison’s invention used cellulose strips wrapped around a cylinder; he then adapted ideas from French inventors to use a flexible filmstrip. Entrepreneur George Eastman became key to the development of motion pictures when his new company, Kodak, started marketing a gelatin-coated nitrate film roll in 1889 and became one of Edison’s suppliers. His Rochester, New York–based company established market dominance in film stock in the decades that followed. In 1930 he bought a glue factory in Peabody, Massachusetts—the kind horses get sent to. He used it to make Kodak’s gelatin out of pig skins and cow bones, and the practice continues to the present day. (Fuji still manufactures regular photographic film with gelatin from Welsh company PB Leiner, whose motto is the literal “Gelatin, it grows on you.”) With the wealth that Kodak generated, Eastman became a philanthropist. Among other causes, he supported institutions in his home state of New York—including the American Eugenics Society, which he donated to annually until his 1932 suicide. 

When preparing for bankruptcy proceedings in 2011, Kodak sold its Peabody plant to gelatin-maker Rousselot, but the factory continues to supply Kodak with gelatin for its film. In January 2020, while Kodak was feting its vanguard, scores of Peabody residents filed a class-action lawsuit over years of fumes from the factory, which they describe as smelling like “burning skin, or a morgue” and “rotting or decaying flesh.” They cited nausea, vomiting, and headaches that had them running out to their cars, keeping their dogs inside, and even missing work. The city has logged hundreds of complaints and issued a cease and desist order to no avail. The suit comes on the heels of health department fines and violations for the plant dumping “tens of thousands of pounds” of carcass matter into the public wastewater system. 

In other words, there’s nothing transcendent about film as a material. It’s an object bound up in the historical, environmental, and political dynamics of our world. Yet in touting their choice of the medium, celluloid partisans tend to invoke the mystical. At a 2014 Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences event, Christopher Nolan praised film labs’ “alchemists… [who turned] silver and plastic into dreams.” Most recently, Apatow has said that “there’s a magic to film that makes a production stand out from the crowd… With The King of Staten Island, we wanted the production to be naturalistic, to connect to the performances with a real and gritty feeling.” The movie’s cinematographer, Robert Elswit, saw Apatow’s choice the opposite way, saying of the penchant for celluloid, “People get nostalgic about the soft and romantic look.” This exemplifies another paradox of the trend: film stock’s cheerleaders are as apt to describe it as grainy and realistic as satiny and flattering. It seems the product is anything its proponents want it to be, however contradictory.

Another dissonance: often the use of celluloid couldn’t be more gratuitous. Rodrigo Prieto, who shot Scorsese’s most recent mob saga, The Irishman, has discussed in detail how he used heavily treated film stock to make the movie “authentic”—except, of course, for the scenes where they used a synchronized three-camera digital rig to “de-age” actors’ faces. What’s more, nearly all films now go through digital editing, requiring the scanning of film stock. When it comes to distribution, some digital productions (like Roma and Birdman) have celluloid prints made, despite the fact that even many small-town cinemas have invested in digital. Unlike digital data, celluloid prints are copies of copies, meaning the image degrades on its way to the screen. Yet Kodak and its courtiers have made the prints a prestige product, one available to theaters that can afford trained projectionists despite their would-be audiences streaming the same films at home. This is another irony: many of the movies and shows shot on film stock are only ever available online—that is, to digital viewers. 

Of course, the choice to use celluloid affects the filmmaking process on set. Without a digital monitor, only the director of photography (DP) can see the image they’re capturing until the film stock has been through a lab. This is a reason some cinematographers resist digital technology: it invites collaboration. The DP of the 3-D animated movie Pokémon Detective Pikachu, for instance, has proclaimed in favor of celluloid, “No mediocrity by committee as other people slip in over your shoulder.… film provides a great way for DPs to regain control.” Yet control is a privilege that more accomplished artists have gladly given up. Roger Deakins, who won Oscars for both the historical film 1917 and the future-set Blade Runner 2049 (both digital), commented in the 2016 documentary Keepers of the Magic, “It’s all right saying ‘the mystique is gone and cinematography is losing its power,’ but I think it’s a fake power in the first place, and it’s not a power I felt particularly comfortable having.” Vittorio Storaro, the legendary DP of Apocalypse Now and The Last Emperor, shared that once he brought a monitor on set, “I was not any longer the keeper of the image; the magic already happened, it was in front of everybody… And I said, ‘My god, how fantastic!’” 

The expansion of digital has had a democratizing influence not only on sets but also in the wider world by opening film to new stories, storytellers, and storytelling techniques. The small, early digital cameras of the mid-1990s lowered the barriers to filmmaking and gave filmmakers new freedoms, kicking off an indie renaissance that began with Thomas Vinterberg’s film The Celebration. The film’s DP, Anthony Dod Mantle, went on to shoot Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, and for which Mantle and Boyle also both won Oscars. The camera tore through crowded street markets and followed urban motion in a way that would be impossible with celluloid filmmaking gear. In the film’s memorable opening chase scene, we get a kinetic, child’s-eye perspective of the frantic race through narrow alleyways in Mumbai’s real-life Juhu shantytown, as a pack of young children flees vindictive policemen. The neighborhood’s precarious informal housing is a direct consequence of India’s rapid urbanization, making the scene feel like a twenty-first-century response to Satyajit Ray’s 1955 film Pather Panchali. The scene is a neo-neorealist set piece of which Ray could be proud. In Film Comment magazine, Mantle said of his tiny digital camera, “It helped me to get down in the area of children, not looking down at them but being with them… we didn’t really know what was going on, we were just running around, sweating.” The method let the Juhu children become spontaneous coauthors. 

It’s true that shooting digitally can potentially cost just as much as shooting on film, and it can take just as long. However, using celluloid amounts to pouring money through the camera and into Kodak’s coffers. A 35 mm reel lasts just ten minutes, requiring constant stops and starts. Digital provides the creative luxuries of longer shots, extra takes, and on-set experimentation—time spent working with actors rather than loading the camera. Barry Jenkins’s DP James Laxton has spoken about how digital helped take pressure off child actors and first-time performers in Moonlight. He’s also shared how using digital tools like the Interrotron, which he used for If Beale Street Could Talk—for instance, in the scenes when mother-to-be Tish visits her incarcerated fiancé, Fonny—helped the film tell a story that’s nearly fifty years old in visual terms that would resonate with the present moment, when the racial injustices of the 1970s are still very much alive. Leading cinematographer Natasha Braier, who’s most recently worked with Alma Har’el and Sebastián Lelio, has talked about how digital lets her minimize technical intrusion when shooting tense, emotional scenes. Ava DuVernay’s regular DP Bradford Young, who was nominated for an Oscar for Arrival, loves the subversive darkness he can explore with dim lighting on digital, as in Andrew Dosunmu’s stunning Mother of George. For a true study in contrasts, watch that film alongside Apatow’s Knocked Up, then return to the question of what makes a film stand out or gives it a sense of realness.  

The campaign for celluloid seems to be on a crash course with a growing public awareness of the harms wrought by factory farming and its secondary markets. In keeping with shifts in demand toward other plant-based products, perhaps forward-thinking celluloid lovers will revisit emulsions made from plant colloids like agar, pectin, and guar gum. Early film distributors the Lumière brothers used gum arabic to make their film stock, as did photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz, and the material has been enjoying a quiet resurgence in darkrooms. Scientists have found its emulsifying and stabilizing properties superior to those of gelatin, which requires extensive chemical treatment. Artists who use gum arabic rapturously describe its delicate, painterly look, in language similar to that of celluloid fans. Or maybe we’ll see a new, more woke generation of film-stock enthusiasts pushing Kodak toward a switch to the lab-synthesized colloids that are replacing gelatin in pharmaceutical, food, and cosmetic uses, like hypromellose and gellan. A third possibility: Bay Area company Geltor is growing halal, animal-free collagen (the basis for gelatin) safely and cheaply from modified bacteria fermented with yeast and enzymes, and German gelatin giant Gelita is investing in their work. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before another biotech start-up branches out into photochemical supplies, though it’s hard to know what might replace now-dominant polyester as a base for future film reels. Until then, maybe the key to using celluloid effectively and responsibly is shooting or printing on remnants, like out-of-production Kodachrome, or leftover Fujifilm stock. For the opening scene of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, cinematographer Chayse Irvin made apt use of expired Ektachrome, presenting a white supremacist propaganda film as an artifact every bit as necrotic as the decaying roll of celluloid. 

Otherwise, it may be time to retire celluloid—and the pretensions around it—as a product that’s run its course, and a toxic bit of revisionism. A sustainable future for film’s next generation might depend on it. 

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