“Becky Sharp” (1935) was the first full color studio motion picture

The origins of 35mm film can be attributed to George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak Company, and his development of flexible celluloid film in 1889. This innovation, combined with Thomas Edison’s invention of the Kinetoscope, a device for individual viewing of moving images, spurred further exploration into the realm of motion pictures. Edison and his assistant, William Dickson, initially employed 35mm film with four perforations per frame for the Kinetoscope.

In 1895, Auguste and Louis Lumière unveiled the Cinématographe, a portable device capable of capturing, processing, and projecting moving images. The Lumière brothers utilized 35mm film with a single, central perforation per frame, which would later be replaced by the now-standardized format of four perforations per frame on each side.

In the early 20th century, 35mm film became the established standard for motion picture production and exhibition. The format’s advantages, such as its capacity for high-quality image reproduction, portability, and ease of duplication, contributed to its widespread adoption. As the motion picture industry expanded, further advancements were made to the 35mm format, including the development of color film and the introduction of sound.

Technicolor, a pioneering color process, was introduced in the 1920s and employed a complex system of dye transfer that enabled the reproduction of a wide range of colors on 35mm film. The advent of sound in motion pictures, with the release of “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, necessitated an alteration to the 35mm film format to accommodate the inclusion of an optical soundtrack, which was typically placed along the edge of the film strip.

Throughout the 20th century, 35mm film remained the dominant format for motion picture production and distribution, despite the emergence of alternative formats such as 16mm, 8mm, 65mm, and 70mm film. The advent of digital technology in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, however, has had a significant impact on the motion picture industry, leading to a gradual decline in the use of 35mm film.

While digital technology has largely supplanted 35mm film in contemporary motion picture production and exhibition, the format’s historical significance and artistic merits cannot be understated. The development and refinement of 35mm film played an integral role in shaping the motion picture industry and, by extension, the broader landscape of visual storytelling.


In the early years of motion picture history, black and white film dominated the medium, largely due to the technical limitations of the time. The first attempts at color in motion pictures involved the use of manual techniques, such as hand-coloring individual frames of a film or using colored filters during projection. Although these methods produced rudimentary color effects, they were labor-intensive and impractical for widespread use.

The quest for a more efficient and effective means of capturing color images on film led to the development of several early color processes. One notable example was Kinemacolor, invented by George Albert Smith and Charles Urban in 1906. This process employed a two-color additive system, in which alternating frames were filmed through red and green filters and then projected using a similar method. While Kinemacolor demonstrated the potential for color in motion pictures, it suffered from color fringing and registration issues, limiting its commercial success.

Technicolor, a more sophisticated and successful color process, was introduced in the 1920s. The initial two-color Technicolor process (Technicolor Process 2) used a beam-splitting prism to simultaneously expose two strips of black and white film, each one capturing either red or green light. These two film strips were then processed, dyed with complementary colors, and cemented together back-to-back for projection. This method produced more vibrant and accurate colors compared to Kinemacolor, but it was still limited to a two-color spectrum.

The true breakthrough in the evolution from black and white to color 35mm motion picture film came with the development of the three-color Technicolor process (Technicolor Process 4) in the early 1930s. This process used a beam-splitter to simultaneously expose three separate black and white film strips, each capturing red, green, or blue light. The resulting film strips were then processed, dyed with their respective complementary colors, and combined onto a single strip of film using a dye-transfer process. This method allowed for a full spectrum of colors to be reproduced with remarkable accuracy and vibrancy.

The first feature film to use the three-color Technicolor process was “Becky Sharp” (1935), which marked the beginning of the widespread adoption of color film in the motion picture industry. As the technology advanced and became more cost-effective, color films gradually gained prominence over black and white productions. By the 1960s, color had become the standard for mainstream motion pictures, signifying the successful progression from black and white to color 35mm motion picture film.

It is worth noting that while Technicolor was the most prominent and successful color process of its time, other methods, such as Cinecolor and Eastmancolor, also contributed to the progression of color film technology.

Film Stocks

  • Technicolor Process 4: The three-strip Technicolor process, introduced in the early 1930s, marked a significant leap in color film technology. As previously discussed, this process involved the use of a beam-splitter to simultaneously expose three black and white film strips, each capturing one of the primary colors (red, green, or blue). The film strips were then dyed with their respective complementary colors and combined onto a single strip using a dye-transfer process. This method enabled a full spectrum of colors to be reproduced with remarkable accuracy and vibrancy, setting a new standard for color film production.
  • Eastmancolor: Developed by Eastman Kodak in the early 1950s, Eastmancolor was a single-strip color film stock that utilized a subtractive color process. Unlike the Technicolor process, Eastmancolor incorporated all three color-sensitive emulsion layers (red, green, and blue) onto a single strip of film. This streamlined method reduced production costs, simplified processing, and made color film more accessible to filmmakers. Although Eastmancolor’s color quality was initially considered inferior to Technicolor, ongoing improvements to the process eventually led to its widespread adoption and the decline of the three-strip Technicolor process.
  • Safety Film: Prior to the development of safety film, most 35mm motion picture film stock was composed of cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable and chemically unstable material. In the 1940s, cellulose triacetate, commonly known as “safety film,” emerged as a more stable and safer alternative to nitrate film. Safety film was far less flammable and more resistant to decomposition, making it the preferred film stock for both production and archival purposes.
  • Pre-Exposure Techniques: The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the introduction of pre-exposure techniques, such as bipacking and the use of pre-fogged film, to achieve creative visual effects. Bipacking involved running two strips of film, one with a high-contrast emulsion and the other with a low-contrast emulsion, through the camera simultaneously. This process yielded images with a unique tonal quality and enhanced contrast. Pre-fogging involved exposing film stock to a controlled amount of light before shooting, resulting in a “glow” or halo effect around light sources in the final image. These techniques enabled filmmakers to experiment with the aesthetic qualities of 35mm film stock and push the boundaries of visual storytelling.
  • Wide-Screen Formats: In response to the growing popularity of television, the film industry sought to differentiate the cinematic experience by introducing wide-screen formats during the early 1950s. Although not a specific type of film stock, wide-screen formats utilized modified 35mm film stock, often with an anamorphic lens, to achieve a wider aspect ratio. Formats such as CinemaScope and VistaVision increased the visual impact of films.
  • Improved Eastmancolor: As Eastmancolor continued to dominate the market, Eastman Kodak made ongoing improvements to its film stock during the late 1950s and early 1960s. These enhancements resulted in better color reproduction, increased stability, and reduced grain, leading to a higher-quality image. The improvements in Eastmancolor contributed to the decline of the Technicolor dye-transfer process, as more filmmakers opted for the cost-effective and streamlined single-strip color film stock.
  • Faster Film Stock: During the 1950s and early 1960s, advancements in film emulsion technology led to the creation of faster film stocks with higher ISO ratings. These high-speed film stocks allowed filmmakers to shoot in lower light conditions with greater ease, providing more flexibility in terms of lighting setups and location choices. This development further expanded the creative possibilities of 35mm motion picture film and enabled more naturalistic cinematography.
  • Reversal Film Stock: In the late 1950s and early 1960s, 35mm reversal film stock became more widely available for motion picture production. Unlike negative film stock, which produced a positive image only after processing and printing, reversal film produced a positive image directly on the original film strip. Reversal film was primarily used for documentary and newsreel production, as it enabled rapid processing and projection. The high contrast and vivid colors of reversal film lent a distinctive look to films shot on this stock.
  • Polyester Film Base: The 1960s saw the introduction of polyester film base as an alternative to cellulose triacetate (safety film). Polyester film base, also known as polyethylene terephthalate (PET), offered several advantages over cellulose triacetate, including increased dimensional stability, greater strength, and resistance to shrinkage. This new film base further improved the safety and durability of 35mm motion picture film stock.
  • Panavision Anamorphic Lenses: Although not a specific type of film stock, the development of Panavision anamorphic lenses in the late 1950s had a significant impact on 35mm motion picture film production. These lenses compressed a wide image onto a standard 35mm film frame and then expanded it back to the original aspect ratio during projection. The Panavision anamorphic process, known as Panavision 35 or CinemaScope 55, allowed filmmakers to achieve a wide-screen format with high-quality image resolution and minimal distortion, further enhancing the cinematic experience.
  • High-Speed Color Negative Film: Building on previous improvements in film emulsion technology, the late 1960s and early 1970s saw the introduction of high-speed color negative film stocks. These film stocks offered increased sensitivity to light, enabling filmmakers to shoot in low-light conditions and capture images with greater depth of field. This development provided cinematographers with greater creative flexibility and facilitated the emergence of new styles and techniques in filmmaking.
  • Improved Color Reproduction and Image Stability: Throughout this period, film manufacturers continued to refine their color film stocks, resulting in improved color reproduction, saturation, and image stability. These enhancements allowed filmmakers to capture more accurate and vibrant colors on 35mm motion picture film, contributing to the visual richness and impact of the films produced during this time.
  • Versatile Film Stocks: The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the introduction of versatile film stocks that performed well under a range of lighting conditions and provided a consistent look across different shooting scenarios. These film stocks enabled filmmakers to achieve a more uniform visual style, simplifying the production process and ensuring greater continuity in the final images.
  • Fine-Grain Film Stocks: During this period, film manufacturers developed fine-grain film stocks that offered increased image resolution and reduced visible grain. These high-quality film stocks allowed filmmakers to capture more intricate details and produce images with a greater sense of clarity and realism. This development further elevated the visual quality of 35mm motion picture film and expanded the scope of its potential applications.
  • Development of Positive-Print Stocks: In the late 1960s and early 1970s, advancements were made in the production of positive-print stocks, which were used to create the final release prints for projection in theaters. These improved print stocks offered enhanced color reproduction and image stability, ensuring that audiences would experience the highest possible image quality when viewing films on the big screen.
  • T-grain Emulsion Technology: Introduced in the early 1980s, T-grain emulsion by Eastman Kodak featured a more uniform, tabular-shaped grain structure that resulted in higher image resolution, reduced graininess, and improved color reproduction. This innovation allowed filmmakers to capture images with greater clarity and detail, further enhancing the visual quality of 35mm motion picture film.
  • Low-Light Film Stocks: The 1970s and 1980s saw the introduction of low-light film stocks that were specifically designed for use in challenging lighting conditions. These film stocks offered increased sensitivity to light, enabling cinematographers to shoot in dimly lit environments and capture more naturalistic images without the need for extensive artificial lighting setups. This development provided filmmakers with greater creative freedom and flexibility in terms of lighting and location choices.
  • Wide Latitude Film Stocks: During the 70’s and 80’s, film manufacturers developed wide latitude film stocks that could capture a broader range of tonal values and maintain detail in both highlights and shadows. These film stocks provided cinematographers with increased control over exposure and facilitated the creation of more visually dynamic and nuanced images. This advancement in film stock technology contributed to the emergence of new aesthetic styles and approaches to cinematography.
  • Polyester Film Base Improvements: Building on earlier developments in polyester film base technology, the late 1970s and early 1980s saw further improvements in the stability, strength, and archival properties of polyester-based 35mm motion picture film stocks. These enhancements ensured that films could be preserved and stored for extended periods without significant degradation.
  • Specialized Film Stocks: As the demand for specialized film stocks grew, manufacturers began to produce film stocks tailored to specific applications and requirements. For example, high-contrast black and white film stocks were developed for use in titles and optical effects, while ultra-low-speed film stocks were designed for use in special effects photography and high-resolution cinematography. These specialized film stocks allowed filmmakers to achieve a greater degree of control and precision in their work, further expanding the creative potential of 35mm motion picture film.
  • Advanced T-grain Emulsion Technology: Building on the earlier breakthrough of T-grain emulsion, film manufacturers continued to refine and improve this technology throughout the late 1980s and 1990s. These advancements resulted in film stocks with even finer grain structure, higher image resolution, and improved color reproduction. This ongoing innovation allowed filmmakers to capture images with greater clarity, detail, and vibrancy, further elevating the visual quality of 35mm motion picture film.
  • High-Speed Daylight-Balanced Film Stocks: The late 1980s and 1990s saw the introduction of high-speed daylight-balanced film stocks that provided increased sensitivity to light while maintaining accurate color reproduction under daylight conditions. These film stocks enabled cinematographers to shoot in a wider range of lighting situations with minimal color correction, offering greater creative flexibility and simplifying the production process.
  • Enhanced Low-Light Film Stocks: During the late 1980s and 1990s, further improvements were made to low-light film stocks, with increased sensitivity and reduced graininess. These advancements allowed cinematographers to capture more detailed images in challenging lighting conditions and further expanded the creative potential of 35mm motion picture film.
  • Special Effects Film Stocks: As the demand for visually stunning special effects grew, film manufacturers responded by developing film stocks optimized for use in special effects photography and compositing. These film stocks featured high resolution, fine grain structure, and a wide exposure latitude, allowing filmmakers to create seamless, visually impressive effects that enhanced the storytelling potential of their films.

The Transition To Digital

The transition from 35mm motion picture film to digital formats began during the late 1990s and early 2000s, as advancements in digital camera technology made it possible to capture high-quality images without the use of traditional film. This period saw the emergence of the first major motion pictures filmed with digital cameras, which marked a significant shift in the way filmmakers approached the production process and paved the way for the widespread adoption of digital cinema.

One of the early milestones in this transition was the 1999 film “The Phantom Menace,” directed by George Lucas. While it was still primarily shot on 35mm film, Lucas used a prototype digital camera to shoot certain scenes, foreshadowing his subsequent embrace of digital cinematography.

The 2002 film “Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones” was a groundbreaking motion picture in this regard, as it was the first major Hollywood production to be filmed entirely using digital cameras. Lucas chose to shoot the film with the Sony HDW-F900, a high-definition digital camera that captured images at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels. The use of digital cameras allowed for a more efficient and streamlined production process, with advantages such as instant review of footage, easier manipulation of images in post-production, and reduced costs associated with film stock and processing.

As digital camera technology continued to evolve and improve, more and more filmmakers began to adopt digital formats for their productions. The RED ONE digital camera, introduced in 2007, was a particularly significant development in this regard, as it offered 4K resolution (4096 x 2160 pixels) and greater dynamic range, rivaling the image quality of 35mm film. Notable films shot with the RED ONE include “Che” (2008), directed by Steven Soderbergh, and “The Social Network” (2010), directed by David Fincher.

The transition from 35mm motion picture film to digital formats was not without its challenges and debates, with some filmmakers and cinephiles expressing concerns about the loss of the unique visual qualities associated with film. However, the advantages of digital cinematography, including cost savings, creative flexibility, and the ability to achieve previously unattainable visual effects, ultimately led to its widespread adoption within the industry.

Today, the majority of major motion pictures are shot using digital cameras, and even though some filmmakers still choose to shoot on film for aesthetic or nostalgic reasons, digital cinema has undeniably become the dominant format in contemporary filmmaking.

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