Engineer and educator Destin Sandlin, from the YouTube channel ‘Smarter Every Day,‘ loves analog film photography. ‘There’s something to me about being able to capture a memory in a physical object with light and physics and chemistry. It’s just beautiful.’ In a video last summer, Sandlin investigated how film photography works and visited Indie Film Lab in Montgomery, Alabama. Understandably, Sandlin hasn’t had his fill of film and has kicked off a new three-part series featuring a Kodak factory tour. Just how does Kodak make its film?
It’s a three-part series because there are ‘three primary manufacturing things that have to happen to make this 35mm can of film happen,’ says Sandlin. The first is support, which is the film base you’re used to seeing. The second part is creating the light sensitivity of the film. This requires putting an emulsion on the top of the support. The third main part of manufacturing is the packaging of the film. While the packaging may not seem too complicated, remember that at this point, the film is now sensitive to light so it must be packaged in the dark.
Without further ado, let’s join Sandlin at the Kodak factory in Rochester, New York. Sandlin’s host is Matt Stoffel, a third-generation ‘Kodaker.’ Stoffel’s father, grandfather, grandmother and ‘plenty of aunts and uncles’ have all worked for Kodak. It’s a familiar story in the Rochester area. Kodak is an old company. It started in 1888 when George Eastman created the first Kodak camera. The Kodak building has been in use since 1891. As a bit of history, the original Kodak camera came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film and cost $25, which as you can imagine, was a large sum of money. When you were done with the roll of film, you had to send the entire camera back to Kodak and developing/printing was $10. Additional rolls of film could be purchased for $2 each. Back to the video, Stoffel led Sandlin and his friend Trent to the building where Kodak makes its film support.
Many Kodak photographic films are made using its ESTAR base. This is a polyester film base. The polyester base is stretched in two directions to give the base its toughness. The strength of the base is the primary reason why it’s used. It’s also recyclable. The strength of the ESTAR film base is why Kodak motion picture film still uses an acetate base, as it tears easier and places less mechanical strain on the motion picture cameras.
The ESTAR film support manufacturing process involves many steps, including grinding, drying and melting the polyester base. Kodak purchases small polyester pellets from its supplier and then converts them into a fine polyethylene powder at the factory. The pellets come in by train, as the Kodak campus includes its own railroad tracks. One train car worth of pellets lasts about two days.
The next step is what Kodak calls the ‘reactors.’ The powder must be dried down to five parts per million of moisture. Kodak takes a sample from every batch to ensure that it’s dry enough. The finished powder then moves to the next stage to be melted. A giant screw is being rotated to generate frictional heat that then melts the powder that’s being gravity-fed into a large screw housing. After the initial melt screw, there’s a screening process, and then Kodak uses a smaller fine melt screw to control the thickness of the resin. The initial screw does the heavy lifting, and the fine melt screw makes precise adjustments to the melted material.
There are many more steps before what started as a polyester-based pellet becomes the main film support, so be sure to watch the full, nearly-hour-long video above. It’s the first of three parts, and we intend to share the next part with you as soon as it’s published.
If you’re interested in film photography, be sure to watch Sandlin’s video on how film works, where he tours Indie Film Lab in Alabama. To see more of his videos, head to the Smarter Every Day YouTube channel.