Admittedly, the title of this article is a smidgen extreme but I really love film and I am going to tell you why. Now, when I was a wee whippersnapper, I could not make head nor tail of chemisty lessons at school. As such, I would like to deliver my sincerest apologies for referring to in-depth and complex scientific processes as simply science magic.
What is celluloid?
Celluloid, at its heart, is a class of chemical compounds made from nitrocellulose and camphor. Nitrocellulose is a compound (a mixture) itself. It’s highly flammable and the main ingredient in modern gun powder! However, in the late 19th and early 20th century – the same time as the birth of film – nitrocellulose became a base for synthetic fibres and plastics. Despite its popularity as an explosive substance, nitrocellulose could be used as a photographic carrier.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica
“Schönbein […] described the dissolution of moderately nitrated cellulose in ether and ethyl alcohol to produce a syrupy fluid that dried to a transparent film; mixtures of this composition eventually found use as collodion, employed through the 19th century as a photographic carrier and antiseptic wound sealant.”
The other main ingredient of celluloid is camphor, another chemical compound, which is a clear and waxy substance. It has a varied number of uses, including as an insect repellent and for medicines. In the case of celluloid, camphor acts as a plasticizier, an additive that changes the properties of a material in relation to its viscosity.
Nitrocellulose and camphor are then mixed with dyes and other materials to produce celluloid. Before celluloid, the compound was also known as a thermoplastic in the mid-19th century, however, the its inventor is a much contested issue. I’m neither a scientist nor a historian so I’ll keep my tuppence out of it, but I am interested in how the first synthetic plastic material become a cornerstone for our beloved art of film.
Celluloid and early film
In 19th-century USA, an inventor named John Wesley Hyatt was tinkering away the celluloid compound by mixing nitrocellulose, camphor, and alcohol and pressurising it into a solid, doughy mass. At this stage, Hyatt could add dyes and pigments to colour the blob, and through the magic of science, it was then rolled and sliced and press into a futuristic concoction of a mystical, variable form. Registered in 1873, Hyatt’s celluloid would become used for a whole host of items such as combs, spectacle frames, and a substitute to linen.
When celluloid was diluted with amyl acetate, it became clear and flexible – it had finally became film! Many researchers, including the Eastman Kodak Company, began to discover how the material could be processed further to make it suitable for photography and moving image.
Celluloid remained popular in photographical use until about the 1920s when it was replaced with cellulose acetate. The need for a replacement arose because (1) celluloid is extremely flammable and caused projections to set fire, and (2) it didn’t age particularly well, instead becoming discoloured and cracked. As a result, cellulose acetate became much more commonplace. Cellulose occurs naturally and can be found in plants such as cotton. This was then acetylated and thus modern film was born, and is still in use to this very day.
Film vs. digital
Now we know exactly what film is, we can think about its role in filmmaking. Lots of people will say that they hardly notice the difference, and even less would have a preference. The benefits of digital shooting is that it is easier and cheaper, it looks cleaner, and theoretically lasts forever so long as the files remain uncorrupted.
The reason I love film is because it’s so much more livelier than digital projection and shooting. First of all, film is responsive. It changes overtime, to take on new personalities and physical attributions. There might be imperfections, like scratches or crackles because the filmstrip has had a life. It’s impressionable too – from the person who developed it to the person who controlled it attached onto the camera – everything in its environment has had an effect on the final outcome. What’s created on film, cannot be recreated in exactly the same way. Working digitally however, you could potentially recreate the same thing a million times so long as you maintained the mis en scène.
Of course there are different types of film and it comes in different measures too, for example imagery shot on 35mm film will look more defined than that on 16mm, and Hollywood blockbusters shot on super-wide 70mm IMAX film will look otherworldly. Regardless of the size, film is a real, tangible thing that you can hold in your hands and its character will intertwine itself within the very essence of a film. The duo have been working on their relationship together for a hundred years, and I hope we won’t see them depart any time soon.
How do you feel about the digital/film debate? Do you have a preference? Let me know in the comments!