Preserving Reversal Film

As the midterm paper for MIAS 220: Archeology of Media, I chose to write about the preservation of reversal film as a way of discovering more about a format that I had spent a lot of time working with, from my days as a volunteer at the Nebraska State Historical Society. I had originally planned to expand upon this topic for my final in MIAS 220 but I eventually chose to examine a different subject.

Reversal film is an amazing medium: it helped to make filmmaking more affordable and increased the amount of home movies and amateur films that were being produced. Coming from a critical studies background, I was previously unfamiliar with many of the aspects of film technology. From writing and researching this paper, I really began to understand and to admire the science behind film stocks and how they work to capture images and turn them into movies.

Preserving Reversal Film

Kodachrome Home Movies

Due to the low cost of processing, reversal film was used widely in home movies and was also a preferred film stock for many avant-garde and amateur filmmakers. As reversal film involved processing of the film that was exposed in the camera into a print, reversal films were rarely duplicated. The preservation of reversal film presents many issues that do not exist, or exist to a lesser extent when preserving a camera negative. Besides the obvious concern of wear and tear from being projected, reversal film can be a difficult type of film to preserve due to its generally low latitude and also due to the inaccessibility of reversal print film stock.

Film and Its Techniques
Photo from

In his book Film and Its Techniques, which was published in 1970, Raymond Spottiswoode acknowledged that reversal film was not used in a way that would ensure the longevity of the original past a few short years. Filmmakers who shot on reversal film in that time used step printers to create release prints of their films. However, the life of a reversal original being subjected to a step printer is only about 50 prints.1 He also recognized the need for a “protection print” although he saw this problematic as any prints made from intermediate prints, rather than the original, would be of lower quality and would be considered an inferior print and, therefore, be harder to sell. The most important aspect of Spottiswoode’s book, I believe, is that he acknowledged the need to preserve these films made on reversal stock. He anticipated the growth of interest in them as time went on and offered up suggestions and alternate options to reproducing prints until the original wore out.

While not everyone using reversal film had the interest, or the money, to make copies of the film they were creating on reversal stock, there are still technical issues due to the nature of reversal that make it more difficult to replicate than negative film. When reversal film was first being developed by J.G. Capstaff at the Kodak Research Laboratories he found one of the downfalls to the technology was that reversal film has a limited exposure latitude.2 When making a print from a negative processors are able to change the density levels while printing, however, with reversal film the exposure must be more precise when initially filmed as the film is processed directly into a projection print. The over- or under-exposure of reversal film can be a major issue during processing, as over-exposed print will have little density when projected and an under-exposed print will have too much density. Capstaff solved this problem by instigating a “controlled second exposure” in which the processors would test a few frames to adjust the exposure before printing the rest of the film.3 This also solved the problem of density variations in reversal film and helped to prevent flickering when the film was projected. This issue that came about due to the direct processing of reversal film into a print is similar to the issues involved in creating an internegative when preserving reversal film.

Kodachrome Chart
Photo from Flickr user 12th St David


When preserving film from a negative, ideally the original camera negative, a preservationist would make an answer print, and from that print they would do color corrections until the answer print best resembled how the film was supposed to look. They would then create an internegative using the color corrected lighting during printing.4 In reversal film, and in other preservation situations where it is necessary to begin from a print rather than a negative, this process is more difficult. An internegative must be made directly from the print, and color corrections are done from that internegative. As a negative is essentially the opposite of what the print will look like, the process of color correcting a negative is much harder than color correcting a print.

Reversal preservation in a for-profit institution, such as the company Pro8mm, involves a different process than used in most film archives. Pro8mm in particular focuses more on the digitization of small gauge, reversal film in order to prevent the film from having to be projected, thus protecting the original. With a machine such as a flying-spot scanner, like the one Pro8mm uses, the film is scanned at 1080 HD and the light is refracted through the scanner so as to naturally minimize the imperfections in the film rather than having to fix them digitally.5 With reversal film having such low latitude, the dirt and hairs and scratches that can happen to the film over time can look very large when projected and Pro8mm’s flying-spot scanner is one way to eliminate the imperfections by creating a digital copy. Pro8mm’s flying-spot scanner is also notable, as it is sprocketless, which allows them to scan shrunken film without damaging it. Digital scanners are also useful in transferring reversal film as they can be used to color correct a film while scanning, thus making it more simple than creating answer prints and internegatives during film to film preservation.

Although it is possible to “correct” reversal film while preserving, and to remove imperfections such as dirt and scratches, it also can be ethically questionable. What extent to alter the original look of the film, and in fact, whether or not to alter it at all is a big question in film preservation of all kinds, not just reversal. An issue that comes about in preserving reversal film specifically, and especially Kodachrome reversal film, is image quality. Kodachrome film is most notable for its highly saturated color, which was also revolutionary at a time when Several frames of film from a home movie, taken while inventorying films at the Academy Film Archivethree-strip Technicolor was the predominate color technology in most major motion picture studios.6 The high color saturation makes Kodachrome difficult to duplicate in preservation, as duplication increases the already high contrast of the film.7 In order to preserve the film exactly as is was meant to be seen, the preservationist must tone down the contrast of the reproduction in order to keep it the same. However, in the case of some filmmakers, the original look was supposed to be as saturated as possible in which case it may not be necessary to alter the film when duplicating at all. Again, this touches on the ethical issues faced by many film archivists on how closely to the original film should the preservation copy be.

With all of these other issues in mind, one of the biggest problems with preserving reversal film presently is the lack of reversal stocks being manufactured. Due to the fact that reversal film is expensive to make, and that the need for it has declined in recent years, Kodak recently discontinued its Kodachrome and Ektachrome reversal stock, making it now impossible to create reversal prints on reversal print stock.8 In earlier years, the process of color correcting reversal film was simplified by creating a reversal print of the film and doing color corrections from that print for the internegative. However, with the disappearance of reversal print film stock, color corrections must be done from a negative which, as I pointed out earlier, is not a simple thing to do. A particular problem regarding the preservation of 8mm and super 8mm film is that places like the Academy Film Archive do not have the 8mm film stock to replicate it exactly.9 Thus, all the 8mm and super 8mm preservation done there is blown up to 16mm.

As a compromise, after discontinuing their reversal film stock Kodak began producing their 50-speed color camera negative stock on a polyester base to use as an internegative stock for reversal film.10 As the speed of the film is incredibly high for a negative film it is very difficult to process, and it must be processed in complete darkness. Some film labs found that they were not able to adapt to this and therefore, there are only a small amount of labs that will process this type of negative film. Despite this dilemma, this stock does have its good side. For instance, its increased latitude gives it more flexibility for color corrections. It is also a better film stock for duplicating black and white film on color stock, which is especially helpful for those preservationists working on avant-garde and experimental films where the filmmakers would often use both color and black and white in the same film.11

Even despite Kodak discontinuing many of its film stocks, there are still specialist companies out there who are finding new ways to provide their clients with more varieties of film stocks. Some companies, such as Pro8mm have developed a system to create their own film for 8mm and super 8mm film from cutting down 35mm film stock.12 They are still able to produce color reversal film stock in this way by cutting down reversal 35mm film they have gotten from a company other than Kodak. However, the owners of Pro8mm are skeptical about the future of reversal film.

Kodachrome Notice
Photo from Flickr user John Banbury


The strategies for the preservation of reversal film that I have detailed in this paper have been preservation techniques for certain archives, namely, the Academy Film Archive and Pro8mm. Different archives may have different techniques for dealing with reversal film, or just small gauges in general. For example, when preserving The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, the UCLA Film and Television Archive blew up the original 16mm to 35mm due to the fact that the filmmaker would have shot it on 35mm had he been able to afford to.13 With differing methods of small gauge preservation, I feel that it is safe to say there are also differing methods of reversal preservation.

Works Cited
  1.  Spottiswoode, Raymond. Film and Its Techniques. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1951. Print, 255
  2. Mees, C. E. Kenneth. From Dry Plates to Ektachrome Film; a Story of Photographic Research. New York: Ziff-Davis Pub. Co, 1961. Print, 172
  3. Mees, 173
  4. Toscano, Mark. Personal interview. 24 Oct. 2013.
  5. Vigeant, Rhonda. Personal interview. 25 Oct. 2013.
  6. Kattelle, Alan. Home Movies: a History of the American Industry, 1897-1979. 1st ed. Nashua, N.H: Transition Publishing, 2000. Print, 183
  7. Toscano.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Vigeant
  13. Horak, Jan-Christopher. “Archiving, Preserving, Screening 16mm.” Cinema Journal 45.3 (2006): 112–118. Print.