It is very easy to make a little yellow box. It is not so easy to put a roll of high quality film inside it.
Photographic film is remarkable. It records an image of a scene that strikes its surface for a fraction of a second, and then simulates how the human visual system would perceive the scene. It remains light sensitive for many decades, uses no external power, and the developed the image remains unchanged for at least many decades. In addition miles and miles of film are made that has identical performance.
This is accomplished by starting with hundreds of chemicals made to purity higher than pharmaceutical standards and sensitive to countless contaminants at a PPM and PPB level, then mixing them and controlling them at an atomic and molecular level, coating them in 20 different layers totally less than half the thickness of a human hair on a flying web going a 1000 feet per minute in total darkness. The resulting product is in a form that an everyday person can use by inserting into a camera and taking pictures in any possible situation and then giving the film to a teenager who processes it in a processor totally outside the film manufacturer’s control and prints it onto a variety of competitive products and yet the pictures come out perfect. Now that’s product design and control!!
Eastman Kodak employees have worked since 1880 improving silver halide technology that is used in photographic film. Through the years, thousands of Kodak scientists, engineers, technicians and operators have spent their intellect, energy, and working lives improving and operating the processes that produce this simple-to-use but complex-to-make product. The resulting film is ubiquitous— but the entire process for making it was unknown to all but a very few.
I wanted to write a book to document the accomplishments of these many people by explaining the state-of-the-art standard that their efforts created. Until recently Kodak’s film manufacturing process has been hidden behind a “Silver Curtain” of secrecy. My purpose is to simply yet thoroughly explain how film works and is manufactured. Seeing how film is made enables a better understanding of an amazing technology. Even people who have spent their lives in photography—perhaps even those who scorn a medium they believe made obsolete by digital imaging processes—can understand what a remarkable thing a single picture is, how such pictures transformed the 20th century, and how useful this apparently outdated technology remains for those who recognize its power.
Editor’s note: To see more images, read reviews, and purchase Mr. Shanebrook’s groundbreaking book, click here.
Robert Shanebrook is the author of Making Kodak Film: The Illustrated Story of State-of-the-Art Photographic Film Manufacturing. He was trained as a photographer and photographic engineer, and involved in nearly all aspects of the film business during his more than thirty-five-year Kodak career. He retired in 2003.